(Editor’s note: The Hangover swung and missed on much of our interpretation of the Soprano’s ending. Please see: http://masterofsopranos.wordpress.com/the-sopranos-definitive-explanation-of-the-end/)
The Shield’s seven year run of grit ended last night with an episode true to its stomach-wrenching nature. One could not help but draw contrast to the ending of the Sopranos, HBO’s signature crime drama. The relative merit of each can be seen through the music used to define the episodes. For The Shield, it was Vic Mackey’s opening drive through his city to X’s Los Angeles, a seminal punk cut that characterizes the chaotic undercurrent that runs like a riptide through LA. In contrast, the Sopranos ended with the Soprano family having dinner in a restaurant known for onion rings while the trite, Top 40 strains of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ dominated the scene. These musical choices alone indicate the merits of the respective finales.
The Sopranos finished in a sea of symbolism. As Tony, Carmella, and AJ order lousy food, Meadow tries to park her car (signifying how the family will never fit in to mainstream America?). A man walks in the restaurant, scopes out Tony and heads for the bathroom (Mob hit man? Innocent passerby? Or a symbol of the potential threat that will always hang over Tony’s head?). The camera pans to a young couple obviously in love enjoying their dinner (Symbolizing a young Tony and Carmella, when they believed–cue Journey–their futures were bright?) The screen turns black as Meadow runs in the restaurant, leaving millions of Americans thinking that HBO has just crashed. No, the disaster wasn’t in their set. It was in the guts of the Sopranos producers and writers, who took the “arty” way out–failing to make the definitive statement that writers most often consider critical to story-telling. Then again, maybe not. Perhaps The Sopranos team wanted to leave us believing that the Sopranos would never know what lay ahead for them, and that was the curse given Tony’s chosen occupation. But these are just The Hangover’s interpretations. Others have seen the episode quite differently. On the excellent Television Without Pity site, there are 226 pages of interpretation. That indicates a problem; after six seasons, the producers should have been able to provide a meaningful resolution. To fail to do so is to walk away from one’s responsibility as an artist.
The Shield, however, concluded with an earned, tough clarity. Desperation built. Frustrations grew. Betrayal became a way of life. Death was a choice. No major character escaped unscathed. Shane, Ronnie, Dutch, Acevada, Claudette, Julien, Corinne, Steve, and Tina all leave wounded. The filmmaking was brilliant, as letting the final minutes play out on Vic Mackey’s face showed the commitment, faith, and cajones that was clearly lacking in the Sopranos finale. The price that Mackey pays for trying to walk the wire between justice and morality is clear: There’s nothing left inside. Powerful storytelling trumps pretentious symbolism: Writers and viewers can agree on that.