Having just finished my intensive immersion in “The Sopranos”, I don’t have an explanation for the enigmatic and (some would say) unsatisfying final cut-to-black scene of Tony in the diner. To quote Wednesday Addams, Are they dead? Does it matter? What I do notice is a psychological resemblance to the endings of two other shows that made a deep impression on me, “Mad Men” and “BoJack Horseman”. The central character of all three shows is a charming and destructively narcissistic man whose antisocial behavior at first seems clever and entertaining, then tragic, then dull and predictable.
I binged “BoJack” during 2020 quarantine (how fucked-up is it that we have to specify which year of COVID quarantine we’re in?) and something about its combination of bleakness and surreal frivolity spoke to the sudden bizarre shift in our lives. I was late to the “Mad Men” trend, but caught up in time to watch the last season in real time. Back in 2015 I thought Peggy Olson had finally shown me the kind of woman I was, which I’d never seen on TV before. Isaac Fellman’s essay “Peggy Olson Is a Gay Trans Man” tells you how that worked out.
As viewers, we crave a conventional narrative arc. Someone changes, or is shattered by the consequences of refusing to change. The endings of these three series frustrate that desire, because a wearying stasis is truer to life with a person trapped in his own narcissism.
Don Draper seems to have a breakdown and breakthough in the finale, shedding the status symbols of his ad-man life to wind up sobbing in an encounter group at Esalen. But the final minutes strongly suggest he’s going to spin his moment of enlightenment into a Coca-Cola commercial as soon as he catches a ride home to New York.
A “Hollywoo” treatment of “BoJack” would have ended one episode earlier, with him drowning in the swimming pool of his former luxury apartment like Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard”. Instead, a subdued BoJack is directing amateur theater productions in jail while his friends’ lives move on without him. “Life’s a bitch, then you die, right?” he says to Diane, who replies, “Sometimes, life’s a bitch, then you keep living.”
In my opinion, that’s the punishment to which Tony Soprano is sentenced. He’s dead inside, whether or not his physical body is alive. Like the Flying Dutchman, he’s going to go on eating onion rings in that diner forever, after almost all his old friends and close family have died (many by his hand).
Sometimes the redemption arc is that other people get away from the one guy who’s been soaking up all the energy in the room because of his resistance to growth. The guy who thinks he’s the main character in everyone’s life, not just his own.