(Cross-posted from Vox Nova).
A while back in Commonweal, Cathleen Kaveny penned a thought-provoking essay entitled "Salvation & ‘The Sopranos’", where she explored themes of sin and redemption through the lens of this gritty mafia drama. Kaveny explores the role of fate, concluding that a main moral of the story is that "we are trapped in a world ruled by an inexorable fate that seizes upon our moral failings in order to bring about our ruin." Moreover, "the world of The Sopranos ... seems infused with a cosmic retributive justice, which even Tony himself dimly perceives, although his own time of reckoning has not yet arrived." A dark message.
Kaveny proved highly perceptive, as this theme wove through the entire final season. At the beginning of the penultimate season, the show explored Tony's experience while in a coma after being shot, a kind of "purgatory", where his ultimate fate was clear. There was no way out. He was being guided towards his destiny, and it was not a joyous one. Led by his cousin (whom Tony had murdered), he was beckoned into a warmly-lit room where he could clearly see the contours of his mother, the selfish and narcissistic Livia (who herself had conspired to have Tony killed for the indignity of placing her in a retirement home). Tony did not want to enter, as something seemed wrong, very wrong. Luckily, he came out of the coma right at that moment.
The following two seasons deal with how Tony responds to this existential experience. Knowing what lies in store for him, will be change? Can he change? The world of David Chase is a very different world from Dickens's A Christmas Carol. There is no redemption brought on by a vision of the future. Even though Tony is fully aware of his destiny, he does not change, will not change, cannot change. This is a dark and pessimistic vision, especially from a Christian perspective. Chase conjures up a world in which nature is suffused not by grace, but by anti-grace. There is no possibility of redemption, even for those who come to grips with the meaning of damnation. Throughout the Sopranos, Tony's therapy sessions always offered the possibility of a breakthough, that an increasing self-awareness would foster change. But no, we learn that not only has therapy been utterly useless, but that it may even be counterproductive, bolstering the ego of a sociopath.
And not only is individual redemption impossible, but the "anti-grace" projected by somebody like Tony destroys and corrupts all around him. When his sister Janice tries to manage her anger, Tony goads her into losing her temper, and takes pleasure in the outcome. Christopher's attempts to steer clear of drugs and alcohol are teased mercilessly, with predictable results. When Tony realizes that Bobby has never killed a person, he forces him to do so, for no other reason than to destroy his soul. Carmela's conscience is bought by a house, and piles of hidden cash. AJ's depression and intense focus on evil in the world connote some semblance of moral self-awareness, but in the end, he too is bought off by an offer to work in the move industry for another mobster. And Meadow, who previously had the greatest chance of escape, of redemption, will now end up as a debased mafia lawyer.
Throughout the final season, Tony's mind became ever more intently focused on his fate, his destiny. He knew his downfall could come from any number of corners. Something as unlikely as a dropped gun in the snow a few years back could lead to his indictment. For Tony, there were only a limited number of options. He could be killed, jailed, or grow old and fade, turning into a shadow of your former self.. None of these options appeals. At one point, Tony gets irritated with the constant reminiscing about the past, as he sees clearly the limitations of a bankrupt lifestyle. Johnney Sac dies horribly from lung cancer. Uncle Junior is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's. And then there is Pauley, a pathetic washed-up joke; Tony is so disgusted that he even ponders killing him at one point. And he is constantly on edge over the FBI, wondering who the next informer will be. And, towards the end of the season, Phil Leotardo provokes a full-scale war, and Tony's name is foremost on the hitlist. Any number of paths, all leading to the same ultimate destiny: damnation.
And yet, with this knowledge, Tony cannot reform. Given the limitations of this moral universe, the best he can hope for is to avoid his fate, postpone the inevitable. People become mere obstacles to be removed. Tired of Christopher's problems, and nervous he will turn informer, Tony takes advantage of a car crash to kill Christopher, by suffocating him as he lies slumped over the wheel, blood dripping from his mouth. It is not mere coincidence that there was a certain amount of ambiguity over this murder-- did Tony engage in "mercy killing", or did he callously remove an obstacle? In the end, the motive hardly matters, as the act was an evil one. After Christopher's murder, Tony's mood changes. His luck at gambling turns around remarkably, and, in one of the defining moments of the entire show, he stands in the middle of the Nevada desert, high on drugs, and exclaims: "I get it!". And what does Tony "get" exactly? A realization that he can control his own universe, his own fate? Here lie shades of original sin, as Tony wants to be like God, and subverting the order of creation and the "moral norms that govern the use of freedom" (CCC 396). Is he similarly deluded?
"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" This line from Yeats underpins the final season, and is repeated almost like a mantra by AJ. In the wake of grave evil, what follows? In such a world devoid of the redemptive power of Christianity, the message is obvious. Evil wins. Like the darkness that Tolkien envisioned coming from Morder to envelop the whole world, everybody in the Sopranos has been corrupted by evil. In fact, the Tolkien analogy is apt. The fate of people like Johnny, Pauley, and Junior is similar to the fate of Smeagol who becomes Gollum. Evil traps them. And the world of the Sopranos is also akin to the world portrayed in Eliot's The Waste Land, but with no cry for renewal at the end.
It is fitting that the final scene has the nuclear family sitting in a diner together, the embodiment of old-style clean cut "family values". It is also fitting, and brilliant, for Chase to cut to blackness, and silence, to end it. Sure, people were disappointed by the ambiguity of the ending. But think about it. We know there are many different paths to Tony's ultimate destiny. He could have been shot that night. He could have been indicted that week. He could have lived for many more years. But in the end, there is only one certainty: blackness. A void. The second death. And that is how Chase chose to end the series. In reality, there is no ambiguity at all.