"Oh, the movie never ends
It goes on and on and on and on"
- Journey "Don't Stop Believin'"
Ok, even for David Chase, that was a strangely loose ending. Upon some reflection, I didn't mind it as much as most of America. It wasn't exactly satisfying, but it wasn't the "We Got Punk'd!" situation everyone is claiming it is. Actually, the more I think about the ending, the more I like it.
First, for any fans of the show, the ending shouldn't have been that much of a shock. David Chase has written a mob show as a character study. It was never meant to be the epic mob saga of "Godfather" or even "Goodfellas." It was more a pulling back of the curtain on mob life, without completely condemning it or glorifying it. The show has never been about pat resolutions, sorta like life. Y'know, sometimes things don't get resolved.
That's the way David Chase has written it since day one. I actually found the show rather frustrating until I realized that each episode was thematic, dealing with a particular issue. Oftentimes, the C-plot about gunrunning or Meadow's school problems actually would mirror the larger theme the other characters were dealing with. Example: Meadow complaining about the poor treatment of Arab-Americans while the Tony is arrested for a minor gun charge. Both instances, a group of people are being 'persecuted' because of their background. That's how this show operates.
This episode title was "Made in America." A.J. talks about how f'ed up everything is, where everything is a sham and you work hard but it's for nothing. The public is charmed into thinking everything is rosy with shiny new cars and a pro-America attitude. In truth, A.J. points out in a clumsy way: the America dream is B.S.
Tony's version of the "American Dream" is something he achieves in this episode... but it's actually a sham. He avoids death, eliminates Phil and makes peace with Phil's boys. His relationship with Carmella is solidified. Meadow's pursuit of law is actually a 'noble attempt' to fight persecution of Italian-Americans and others. A.J. finally comes out of his funk and gets a real job and direction. The episode ends with the happy family meal.
But all that happiness is actually a sham. A fleeting moment that can be undone in a moment. The underlining theme of the episode is dark and foreboding: "Enjoy the present, because your future is uncertain."
We have a few subplots this episode, the biggest being A.J.'s turnaround. Remember, everything on this show is thematic. A.J. condemns the "American Dream" and the war and our dependence on oil. After Tony offers him the "path of least resistance" job, he's quickly living the sham he just condemned, driving his Beemer, rationalizing it's "good on gas." Another one is Uncle Junior, once a high-level mob guy, now in a state-run facility and he can't remember his own name. In Uncle Junior, Tony sees his own possible [dark] future, which is the opposite of what he hopes for.
A.J. Introduces the issue of America’s dependence on oil. Then we get several bits with car throughout the episode. Think of the metaphor of Phil's head being crushed by the SUV. The SUV, which has become the symbol for the modern suburban American Dream. Nothing with David Chase is random. Also consider that A.J.’s epiphany occurs when Tony’s car goes up in smoke. Tony’s “dream” going up in smoke? Also, A.J.’s Beemer (more on that in a moment).
There's more 'shams' in this episode. Like the Fed who isn't all he seems, not exactly serving his country as he should. And David Chase is specific about the little things: "We are now in Little Italy. Once this neighborhood spanned 40 blocks, but is now relegated to this one strip of shops and restaurants." The mob, like Little Italy, isn't what it used to be. The Dream Tony had... it no longer exists... much like Little Italy has been reduced to one street. It’s gone up in smoke, much like his car.
Tony's happiness, his achievement of the "American Dream" (or, in his case, The “Italian-American-Mafioso Dream”)is a thin veneer. He was unable to resolve any of his issues with Dr. Melfi. At any moment, his relationship with Carmella can fall apart. A.J. can tire of his job and be back in his depression (he will forever be without direction or conviction). Meadow, who started with pre-med, could easily change her mind again about law... or about Patrick (we never even learned why she broke up with Finn, who she was engaged to). The Feds could arrest Tony and throw him in jail (a threat always over his head). Someone could put a hit on him. Or maybe some wronged gangbangers might kill him out of revenge or impulse.
That's Tony's "Dream." That's the last 5 minutes.
We actually live Tony's "Dream" with him in those last moments of this episode. For the moment, he's happy. But the threat of jail looms. The threat of a hit looms. His family can be torn apart again. The camera lingering on the mysterious bathroom-guy and the gangbangers show you how Tony views everyone around him -- with suspicion and apprehension. Even the odd choices like Meadow's parallel parking... every moment, every deed... everything is apprehension to Tony (as David Chase creates for the viewer). The black screen is Tony's uncertainty about his own life, at every waking moment. Remember what Tony said about getting whacked in the first episode this season: You never see it coming.
The message: "Some dream."
So, even with understanding the ending and Chase's intention... it was too oblique. I think Chase purposely subverted viewers expectations by letting them draw their own ending. Did the bathroom guy shoot Tony? Do the gangbangers off him? Does the family die or just Tony? Doe Meadow witness her father's execution and escape? Or does the family just enjoy a pleasant meal and a slice of happiness for once? You decide!
But the very-deliberate camera choices and blacked-out screen seem like a complete refusal to say much of anything. What was the show about? What is it trying to say? Chase is very deliberate in everything he does. But it seems like sometimes the writer keeps his secrets, not allowing the viewer to actually experience his writer intention. The last scene is an odd choice (if perhaps a brave one). But Chase’s pretensions sometimes get in the way of his themes and messages. Chase's 'message', such as it is, is as baffling as A.J.'s rant about America.