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Comparing Finales

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I wish Adam Sternbergh wouldn’t project his philistinism on me: “For everyone who felt cheated by the stubbornly ambivalent series finale of The Sopranos — which is to say, everyone.” Watching the finale of The Sopranos again before yesterday’s finale for kicks, I remain more convinced than ever that the brilliant final sequence will 1)be remembered as a great moment in television history, with cavils from people who prefer neat bows (perhaps Meadow racing to meet Finn at the airport cross-cut with Tony’s and Philly’s crews involved in a 20 minute shootout?) only adding to its aura, and 2)it’s the major thing that doesn’t make a comparison to The Wire finale look embarrassing. It had other moments — Meadow’s justification for not becoming a doctor being especially satisfying. But while the conclusion looks better on multiple viewings, the slack parts stick out even more: the stuff with Paulie and the cat, especially, would be pretty lame time-filler in an early setup episode, let alone the finale. (The inability to use Paulie effectively was a crucial element of the post-Season 5 dropoff; the silly soap opera plot with his mother wasn’t as bad as the dream sequence, but that’s only true in the sense that National Treasure is probably better than The Hottie and the Nottie.) And Chase, while a great writer and conceptmeister, isn’t always a great director: Philly’s vlugar death scene might have been OK without the sitcommy, poorly edited reaction shots.

If The Wire‘s conclusion didn’t have a formal tour de force like the diner sequence, it was a great deal more consistent. I’d like to be contrarian enough to defend the newspaper stuff, but I can’t; not only is the “chasing Pulitzer” theme not terribly interesting or conducive to good characters, the arc was too predictable. But everything else was gripping and intelligent, as always, and it looks like Clark Johnson (whose presence was often the only reason the newspaper scenes were even watchable) has the ability to be a very fine director. The various intersections of corruption were perfect, and the return of Presbo with Duquan heartbreaking in a way that Simon properly didn’t spoil with an implausible happy ending. I also liked the way-are-they-now montage focused on the persistence institutional destruction in particular. Not everybody is ruined by the system — some have options — but nobody can act with any integrity within it. If Season 5 was the weakest, and I think most of us agree that it was, that was one hell of a great show, and it wrapped up about as well as could be hoped for.

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