Emily Nussbaum’s weeks old New York Magazine retrospective on The Sopranos is the best thing I’ve seen written about the show post-finale. It’s also the definitive text on what I think is the most plausible emerging narrative of support for the show’s ambiguous ending. And, indeed, this literature has convinced me that my initial harsh reaction to the end was misplaced and that the show’s final scene is going to go down as a creative risk that paid off in a big way.
What Nussbaum makes me realize, however, is that my anger at the ending was a form of displaced upset at the actual problem with the show. The difficulty is that if you read her brilliant reconstruction of what the show is about and then step back to think about your own recollection of the show, you’ll see that an enormous amount of the screen time was dedicated to things that are utterly tangential to Nussbaum’s reconstruction. What you have, in essence, is a brilliant overarching story, a great team of writers, a fantastic cast, and . . . a lot of padding.
Characters with multi-episodes arcs (Furio, that one priest, Richie Aprile) don’t really play a role and any number of dominant threads in individual episodes are reduced to the status of one-offs and character sketches. In this regard, The Sopranos winds up having quite a bit in common with some of the better-regarded network dramas of the 1990s. The X-Files drew a sharp distinction between episodes that advanced “the mythology” and those that were just episodes. Buffy wasn’t quite as hard and fast, but it’s still clear if you go back and watch it on DVD that some episodes (including some of the best beloved ones like Hush) don’t really have anything to do with “the story” of the show.
The Sopranos is even more graceful about not walling off its tangential threads, but it’s still full of them. The most relevant contrast, in this regard, is to The Wire which, through four seasons, has been the very model of narrative economy with nary a wasted gesture. This characteristic isn’t identical to show quality (Rome has it to a greater extent than The Sopranos, but the latter is still the better work all thins considered) but to me it does count as an important desiderata. Sadly, in the case of The Sopranos we’re also aware, extra-textually, that this padded out quality isn’t even a flawed artistic choice but pretty clearly the result of the huge amount of money on the table persuading the creative team to make more episodes than their instincts suggested should be made.