Spoilers aplenty ahead, although if you haven’t isolated yourself from all media for the past four days I can’t imagine anything here will be surprising. I think it was a great episode, and I suspect that people will be talking about it for a long time.
The episode itself is structured around two great payoffs. Everyone has been wondering about the importance of Tony’s contact with Agent Harris. Would this amount to anything, or simply be another lose end? In their first scene, Tony flips the relationship on its head. Up until now, Harris has been trying to put an obligation on him, by invoking Meadow, patriotism, and so forth. Now, Tony turns it around; he provides (what we must assume) is false or spurious information in order to create an obligation on the part of Harris. We know that Harris will have to chase this down, because he just had to chase down a pointless lead about an airplane hijacking. Then, of course, Harris provides the key intel necessary to get back at Phil. This illuminates something critical about Tony’s leadership style/survival strategy; the reliance on intuition. Way back when, in the hospital, Artie Bucco described Tony as a calculating machine, adding up the numbers and figuring the moves way in advance, such that “the worst you’re going to get out of this is a free meal”. That’s close, but not quite right. Tony never seems to make those calculations in his conscious mind. What’s working and calculating is the subconcious, such that he essentially intuits his way in the right direction.
People don’t “win” deals with Tony. He was willing to give his high school friend an open credit limit at the big game because he understood, on some level, that he was going to make money. This is what Melfi realized in the end; everything with Tony was a lie, but it was difficult to accept this because Tony himself didn’t understand the lie. He believed that he was loaning the money to Artie as a friend; he beiieved that the line at the poker game would work out badly; he believed that he cared about terrorism. Melfi suddenly became cognizant of Tony’s lies and became understandably distressed.
This also helps shed light on Christopher Moltisanti’s death. Christopher is Tony’s great failure, a failure of reason, if you will. Maybe Tony intuited that Chris would be a problem, and maybe sentimentality overrode his intuition, but either way his hope that the long patronage of Christopher would pay off never worked out. Even Christopher’s film couldn’t find a distributor. Tony’s decision to smother Chris is his final realization that this was never going to work out. Chris was never going to give up the drugs, never going to become an adult, and never going to become someone that Tony could rely on.
Paulie’s survival pays off the earlier “Tony and Paulie go to Florida for some reason” episode. Paulie’s sole redeeming characteristic is and has always been his ability to survive, and of course he manages to escape the fates of Bobby, Chris, Sil, and all the others. Whatever reservations he had along the way, he always understood that loyalty to Tony was his best chance at survival. I think that his reluctance to take up Ralphie’s old crew was genuine; the cat served as an (unnecessary) reminder of how superstitious Paulie is and how seriously he takes his fears.
And about the end… I’m glad that there seems to be a growing consensus that it was not only appropriate, but in fact an inspired way to end the series. I don’t see what purpose would have been served in putting a bullet in Tony at the end, and that’s really the only thing that could have supplied closure. If Carmela had gone down in a hail of bullets, or if they had just faded away as the family had dinner, we wouldn’t really have known anything more than we know now. As a lot of people have pointed out, the Sopranos is not a moral tale, and Tony doesn’t deserve a Michael Corleone style send off in which he gets to pay a price for his thuggery. The only real options for the end were Tony dead or Tony alive, a point we should remember while listening to calls for closure.
I’m also reminded of the finale to Angel, which lacked the artistry (the last five minutes of the Sopranos will go down as some of the most compelling television of all time) but concluded in more or less the same way and faced the same type of critique. At the end some of the crew were dead and some dying, with the rest facing what seemed to be insurmountable odds. I can’t find the exact quote, but when challenged on the ending Joss Whedon denied that it represented a cliffhanger. He argued, rather, that the series had ended just as it had begun. Angel and his allies were holding on for dear life against insurmountable odds from the beginning of the very first episode, and the ending neither changed that nor portended something new. That’s how I like to think of this; we picked up Tony’s life at more or less an arbitrary point, got to watch it for a while, and then at another more or less arbitrary point we don’t get to watch it anymore. Maybe he was shot, maybe not, but there’s not much more to tell, and we’ve seen enough.