Monday, June 11, 2007

The Mafia: The End. Please.

I thought the only television reviewer who really got the final episode of "The Sopranos" last night was Heather Havrilesky in Salon.

"In what may go down as the most heart-stopping final scene of a drama series in the history of television, Tony walked into a restaurant, sat down at a booth, ate a few dozen onion rings and ... that was it. Roll credits," she wrote. "As the screen went blank in the middle of a line from the song "Don't Stop Believing," by Journey, it was hard not to wonder: Is [writer-creator David] Chase brilliant for so thoroughly subverting our expectations or ... is he just an asshole?"

People complained about a lack of resolution. To me, the characters were resolved and it -- like the long-faded Mafia water-slide that "The Sopranos" took the long last giddy ride on -- was over.

There were two characters in this show that I wanted to whack myself: Dr. Melfi, the smug psychiatrist who spoke like Rosie O'Donnell on Quaaludes (honestly, I thought she had to have been given two pages of script for everyone else's 10). And A.J., the supremely annoying teenager who distressingly failed in a cinderblock-tied-to-the-neck backyard swimming pool suicide attempt a few episodes back.

Meadow had already shown she was hopeless, as deluded as her mother. We knew where she was headed, chiseling out of med school and opting instead for "the law" because, she told Tony earnestly, she had seen how authorities oppressed people like himself. After all, she had seen him dragged away on several occasions by the FBI. Italians, immigrants, the poor and oppressed were routinely crushed by "the state," she said.

"New Jersey?" he asked, bewildered.

Besides, he had to be thinking, "This girl seems not to acknowledge to herself that I am the head of a violent criminal organization? I thought she, at least, unlike her mother and brother, had some brains."

A.J., meanwhile, prattled on about joining the Army -- we knew this phony creep would do no such thing -- after informing his family: "You people are fucked. You're living in a fucking dream!"

That is an apt description of every mob family and Family since "The Godfather" first came out. I mean the novel. Did you know that its author, Mario Puzo, never met an actual Mafioso until after the book was published? All of that ritual and steeped-in-misty-Sicilian lore, he picked up in a library or from relatives.

Francis Ford Coppola brightly illuminated the myth with the first two "Godfather" films which, in effect, showed the various organized mob gangs how to play their roles. In a very real way, the Mafia in its cultural heyday of the 1970s through 1995 was playing a part -- from the overriding narrative to the physical tics like flashing those cuffs -- that it had learned at the movies. (Though, of course, the blood and bullets were real).

"Goodfellas," the greatest Mafia movie ever made, was the one that successfully blended both the mythology and the reality. As a newspaper columnist who wrote some true-crime books, I got to know a fair number of actual mob figures in both New York and Philadelphia. The two Godfather movies they said, taught them how to act "the life," as they referred to it. ("Godfather III" they always dismissed as asinine, and they cheered as other movie audiences did when Sofia Coppola -- a horrible actress who later redeemed herself as a director -- was shot to death on the church steps, in what was supposed to be a tear-wrenching finale).

But "Goodfellas" showed them the life as it was, at least for a while.

That life was almost entirely history by the mid 90s, after all of the New York mob families, and the vicious Philadelphia mob, had been decimated. One of the things that amazed me most about "The Sopranos" was that it managed to seem contemporary, in a world in which the Mafia simply no longer existed, except in the imaginations of retired mobsters and prosecutors and young reporters eager to get in on the game. To this day, I chuckle when I read of some poor gavone in Newark or Elizabeth or Brooklyn being arrested and referred to as a "capo" in some Mafia family that hasn't actually existed in 12 years.

In the final Sopranos scene last night, as Tony, Carmella and A.J. sat in a booth at a Holsten's, an actual ice cream parlor/candy store/luncheonette in Bloomfield, the curtain slowly came down. Carmella opened the menu and asked, deluded airhead to the end: "So, what looks good tonight?"

Meadow is outside, having a hard time parallel-parking her car (lucky for her, we can only assume in a few minutes). Inside Holsten's, a sinister stranger disappears into the men's room, and another sinister figure on a stool at the soda fountain furtively watches Tony at his booth. I though it was brilliant that Chase left it at that. The screen went dark. At first, we thought out cable had suddenly gone out. Then, roll credits.

As I said before, people who live in the Montclair, N.J., Bloomfield area -- lots of them transplants from Manhattan --know Holsten's for its terrific home-made ice cream and its wonderful candy counter. The food? Not so hot. Certainly not up the standards of a "diner," which several clueless reviewers called it today.

A neighbor of mine, a Manhattan transplant, said she'd taken her young son there once for lunch "and they couldn't even make a decent grilled cheese."

So what's good?

Leave the grilled cheese. Take the butter creams.

And goodbye, at long, long last, to the Mafia, the whole damn lot of yez. It's been a blast but please, enough already.


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