The Sopranos: The Final Season
After more than eight years and six seasons, the saga of the New Jersey crime family will come to a close after nine more episodes.
David Chase doesn't look like a mastermind of organized crime. But for millions of devoted television viewers around the world, over the last eight years, that's just what he has been. Chase is the creator, the godfather, of "The Sopranos," the most popular program in the history of cable TV, the winner of multiple Emmy awards, the show that has changed forever the nature of the small screen and made massive fortunes for its producers, its stars and its network. Yet despite Chase's intimate knowledge of all things mob related, when he was asked why his series and other Mafia movies are so popular, he immediately cited a cinema expert of another era: the legendary film director John Ford.
Ford "said that we live in a very complicated technological age," Chase recalled during a free, public question-and-answer session last fall at the McGraw-Hill Building in Manhattan. "Everything's fractured. We work for corporations. The government is beyond you. It's all depersonalized. But a mob movie is you and your tribe. It's you and your clan against the clan over the hill."
After a 10-month hiatus, the final nine episodes of the sixth and last season in the epic saga of Tony Soprano and his crime clan will begin on HBO on April 8. And, to discover the ultimate fate of Tony, one of television's most beloved, evil, influential and iconic creations, what is expected to be the largest audience in the history of cable television will tune in on a Sunday night in June, for the very last chapter of the landmark series.
In recent months, as "The Sopranos" was filming its farewell episodes, three of the show's key figures—Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher Moltisanti, Tony's conflicted nephew; Lorraine Bracco, who portrays Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony's truth-telling psychotherapist; and Frank Vincent, who plays Phil Leotardo, Tony's vicious and cunning archenemy—took time out to talk about the series, its origins, what it has meant to them, and their expectations about life after "The Sopranos."
Little has been revealed about this ultimate season. We know that it begins a year after last June's finale; that Christopher is at last getting a chance to make his Saw meets The Godfather II horror film, with Daniel Baldwin as the star. And that Leotardo has recovered from his heart attack, and that his battle with Tony takes on new dimensions.
But whatever happens, one thing is certain: to paraphrase Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar—a notable mob tale of a different era—Mother of mercy, this is indeed the end of "The Sopranos."
It will not, of course, be the end of the cash flow to HBO, which, since the series premiered in January 1999, has made hundreds of millions of dollars cashing in on the popularity of Tony and the gang. It's an unprecedented amount of money for a cable network, especially one that sells no advertising.
First, there's the income from the untold number of subscribers who signed up just to watch Tony battle his evil mother, his scheming Uncle Junior and an assortment of Mafioso Machiavellis. Then there's the millions upon millions in revenue from the release of each season's DVD set. And finally there's the sale, two years ago, of syndication rights on basic cable to the A&E Network, which reportedly paid HBO at least $2.5 million per episode—for a total of about $215 million.
Not a bad haul—a lot more than the cash Tony has stashed away behind the walls of his lavish suburban New Jersey home, gained from multiple criminal schemes: from hauling garbage, from the construction business and, of course, from the nude dancers at his Bada Bing! Club. And it's all a part—an unpleasant part, perhaps, but an undeniable one—of the American Dream.
Many questions remain to be answered. Will Tony end his TV days sleeping with the fishes? Entombed in concrete? Or simply blown away? Will he join the witness protection program? Will he ascend to the role of godfather of godfathers, moving beyond his New Jersey fiefdom to control New York as well? Or will he stay just the way he is, walking down the driveway each morning in his bathrobe to pick up the daily newspaper, spending his life fucking anything that comes his way and fucking up anyone who gets in his way?
Will Carmela Soprano, Tony's willing wife, stick with her philandering husband and her deal with the devil, or will she give up the financially comfortable life of a mob wife for safer, if less green, pastures? Will Tony and Carmela's son, Anthony Jr., be true to his heritage and follow in his father's violent footsteps, or will he remain devoted to his new nuclear family: his Dominican girlfriend and her young son? Will Tony's daughter, Meadow, stay 3,000 miles away from her dad, out of harm's way in the bosom of Los Angeles, or will she be lured back to her father's den, and who knows what fate?
Will Christopher achieve his much-dreamed-of success in Hollywood, or will he instead succeed his uncle as top mob gun? Or will Tony, furious at Christopher's fling last year with a real estate agent played by Julianna Margulies, severely punish his straying kin? Will Christopher's fiancée, Adriana, long missing and presumed dead, return from the shadows? Or is she really dead and buried? And will Carmela finally discover the truth about Adriana's fate?
Will Dr. Melfi wind up getting to know Tony even better, on the couch or in bed? Or will the strong-willed shrink maintain her professional distance? What will become of Silvio Dante and Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri, Tony's henchmen sidekicks? Will Silvio lose his hair? Will Paulie's walnuts finally get cracked? Will the legendary ducks of Season One return to Tony's swimming pool?
Chase, 61, rarely makes public appearances. But he showed up for the question-and-answer session, which was sponsored by the Center for Communication, an independent, nonprofit media forum, and moderated by David Schwartz, the chief curator of film and television at the Museum of the Moving Image. In front of an international audience of several hundred "Sopranos" fans, Chase, soft-spoken and at times even sounding a little shy, spent nearly an hour and a half telling his admirers about Tony's life, and about his own.
He talked about how "The Sopranos" came to be; the crucial nature of James Gandolfini's contribution to the character of Tony; the origins of Tony's abominable mother; why Tony is in therapy; what really happened to Adriana; what Chase thinks of Italian-American groups' criticism of the show; Chase's own future; and one crucial and unchangeable decision about Tony and his therapist that was made right from the start.
Chase refused, however, to offer even one word about The End, though he has often said that he made up his mind four years ago about what would happen in the final minutes. He did, however, intentionally or not, offer up what might be a clue.
Toward the end of the session, when asked how he managed to find a balance between the show's entertainment factor and the moral issues it engages, he said that for him, that really wasn't the issue. "The only thing I should tell you," he declared, is that "I don't want to do a morality show. I don't really want to say that crime does not pay. It would be very easy to say that. It's said all the time." Might this have been a hint about the show's denouement? We'll see. But he did repeat the same sentiment to Entertainment Weekly several months later, adding that his goal is "to show that there are certain ways that we all spend our lives, and that as adults, we decide our fate, we make our own bed, and we lie in it. [That] free will exists."
Chase admitted to his audience that he is sometimes troubled by the intensity of the violence in the series. "There's way more murder on our show" than in real life, he said. "How many gangland slayings have you read about in New York recently? None. It troubles me, but not on a moral level—on an artistic level. But then I think to myself, we're not doing a documentary. Mob movies, let's face it, have always been about machine guns."
And besides, he said, there has been less of that lately. At first, he was somewhat interested in the aesthetics of violence. But these days, fans are more likely to say things like, "What's going on with that show? Nobody got whacked." And that's just fine with Chase.
Many people, he said, think the show became popular because of all the violence, as well as the cursing and the naked dancers at the Bada Bing! Club. But that's a mistake, Chase said.
"One of the reasons the show was successful early on," he said, "is that you were being shown a look into something you had never seen: the domestic life of Northeast Italian-American organized crime. The Godfather was very operatic, and it was in the past. Goodfellas was the story of a crew, not the story of a guy's family. It was fantastic, but it was also in the past. When 'The Sopranos' first started, we were saying, 'This is what's happening now. This is the present. It's not a period piece.' People felt they were looking into the life of a secret society, which they had never seen before."
How, Chase was asked, are he and his writers able to create characters for whom we root so strongly, but who are at their cores so intensely brutal? Well, he said, it's not necessarily the writers who make it so. The real reason audiences have such affection for Tony, Chase said, "is because of the actor who plays that role." Had it been anyone else but James Gandolfini, "I don't think we would have had to worry about a second season."
One example of the superb nature of Gandolfini's craft, Chase said, was evident at the beginning of last season, when Tony is suddenly, and surprisingly, shot by his Uncle Junior, and is nearly killed. "People get shot all the time on television, and we never see how it hurts," Chase said. "When Jim got shot, it really felt like it hurt."
Chase said he actually learned much about the character of Tony just by watching Gandolfini during the filming of the pilot. "Tony was there on paper, but he brought a lot to it. There's something very charismatic about him, and hurting and sad. He also brings a tremendous volatility—not him personally, but as an actor. When that guy gets upset, you get out of the way."
Aspects of the other actors' personalities have also been incorporated into their roles over the years, Chase said. "The character of Paulie Walnuts is very much like Tony Sirico, in certain ways. Tony is germophobic. He had a close relationship with his mother."
Christopher Moltisanti, Tony's nephew, is one of the more violent of Chase's creations. But Michael Imperioli says that Christopher has changed over the years. "I think he's really evolved," Imperioli told Cigar Aficionado. "Which has been great for me as an actor. TV characters tend to stay the same, but not if the writer is David Chase."
In the final episodes, Christopher "is a lot more mature," Imperioli says. "He's been through a lot of experiences regarding life and love. He's risen up the ladder in the business and gained a lot more responsibility. He's had his heart broken. He's had to do things that have marked him as a man. He's kind of come full circle. He's always been pretty unstable, but he's making an attempt at stability. He has married someone not involved in the business, someone not crazy, not a party person. She's simply more of a traditional wife. He's had a kid. He wants to be a good dad. He's trying to make a go at outside success, trying to produce a movie and going about it in a way that has some potential to be a viable enterprise. He's trying to be as normal as possible, to be more even-keeled. He knows that he has a tendency to go off the rails and engage in destructive behavior, and I don't think he wants that in his life anymore."
But Imperioli admits that Christopher is still haunted by Adriana. "He still thinks about her. I think that's something that maybe dims as time goes by, but is never fully erased. It's always somewhere in his consciousness."
When it comes to all that violence—the show's, and Christopher's—Imperioli says it doesn't trouble him. "What would concern me is if we didn't show the violence," he says. "The danger is to sanitize these guys, to make them a little bit more palatable. I think if we did that, people might get the wrong idea about them. We show them for who they are, warts and all, and the public can make up their minds about them."
Imperioli, 40, grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, in a mostly Italian neighborhood near the Bronx. His dad, Dan, a bus driver, acted in community theater. At age 17, Imperioli started to study acting, a decision that led him to Off Broadway theater and a play called Aven' U Boys. And to movies, with roles in Goodfellas and five Spike Lee films, including, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Clockers and Summer of Sam. Georgianne Walken and Sheila Jaffe, the casting directors of "The Sopranos," had cast him in several previous roles, "so it was natural that they would see me, a young Italian guy, for 'The Sopranos.' "
Three years ago, Imperioli returned to his Off Broadway roots. He and his wife, Victoria, laid out more than $1 million of his hard-earned "Sopranos" loot to buy a four-story building on West 29th Street in Manhattan. On the ground floor, they built a 65-seat theater for Studio Dante, their not-for-profit theater company.
"It was my wife's idea," he says. "She said she knew that theater was something I really loved and that I would really be into it. Also, she's a designer, and she wanted to build a place. She also does sets and costumes."
She was right. They've put on seven plays; Imperioli has been involved in directing and producing, and in March, after "The Sopranos" wraps, he will be acting—in a play called Chicken, about cockfighting. "I play a guy who knows a lot about cockfighting and wants to make a big score in that world." Sort of like Christopher and Hollywood.
Imperioli has also gotten into music—he has a rock band called La Dolce Vita, and he plays guitar. "I've been doing it for a year, and I plan to keep on doing it."
Something else he plans to keep working at is writing. He co-wrote (and costarred in) Summer of Sam in 1999, and he has written five "Sopranos" episodes. "I don't know which direction I'll go in," he says, "but I'll be writing."