‘The Sopranos’ ends its run with a challenging finale Sunday night

By Frazier Moore

NEW YORK – Tony Soprano carries on.

The much-awaited conclusion of HBO’s “The Sopranos” arrived Sunday night in a frenzy of audience speculation. Would New Jersey mob boss Soprano live or be killed? Would his family die before his eyes? Would he go to jail? Be forced to enter witness protection? Would Brooklyn boss Phil Leotardo, who had ordered a hit on Tony, prevail?

In the end, the only ending that mattered was the one masterminded by “Sopranos” creator David Chase. And playing against viewer expectations, as always, Chase refused to stage a mass extermination, put the characters through any changes, or provide his viewers with comfortable closure. Or catharsis. After all, he declined to pass moral judgment on Tony _ he reminded viewers all season what a thug Tony is, then gave him a pass.

But Chase was true to himself, and that’s what made “The Sopranos” brilliant on Sunday night, and the 85 episodes that went before. The product of an artist with a bleak but illuminating vision, “The Sopranos” has always existed on its own terms. And it was seldom tidy.

The only neat development in the finale was that Leotardo was crushed. Otherwise it was perversely non-earthshaking – just one last visit with the characters we have followed so devoutly since 1999.

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Here was the funeral for Bobby Bacala, Tony’s soldier and brother-in-law, who was shot dead on Leotardo’s orders last week. Here was Tony (series star James Gandolfini) paying a hospital visit to his gravely injured consigliere, Silvio Dante, also targeted by Leotardo.

Tony’s ne’er-do-well son A.J. (Robert Iler) continued to wail about the misery in the world, and voiced a fleeting urge to join the Army and go fight in Afghanistan (Tony persuaded him to get involved in filmmaking, instead). Daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) harped on her plans to be a lawyer.

Tony visits his senile Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) at the nursing home. “You and my dad, you two ran North Jersey,” Tony prompts him.

“We did?” said Uncle Junior with no sign of recognition. “That’s nice.”

Despite suspicions to the contrary, neither Paulie Walnuts nor Patsy Parisi sold out Tony. And neither was whacked. Dr. Melfi, who kicked Tony out of therapy last week, made no last-minute appearance.

Sure, headaches lie ahead for Tony. The Feds are still after him. And Meadow’s fiance, Patsy Jr., is a lawyer who may well be pursuing cases that intrude on Tony’s business interests.

So what else is new?

The finale displayed the characters continuing, for better and worse, unaffected by the fact that the series is done. The implication was, they will go on as usual. We just won’t be able to watch.

Of course, Leotardo (Frank Vincent) hit a dead end after Tony located him with the help of his favorite federal agent. The execution was a quick but classic “Sopranos” scene: Pulling up at a gas station with his wife, Leotardo made a grand show of telling his two young grandchildren in the back seat to “wave bye-bye” as he emerged from his SUV. The next moment he was on the pavement, shot in the head.

Then you heard the car roll over his head. Carunnnchh! Quick, clinical, even comical, this was the only violence during the hour.

Not that Chase (who wrote and directed this episode) didn’t tease viewers with the threat of death in almost every scene.

This was never more true than in the final sequence. On the surface, it was nothing more momentous than Tony, his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), Meadow and A.J. meeting for dinner at a cozy family restaurant.

When he arrived, Tony dropped a coin in the jukebox and played the classic Journey power ballad “Don’t Stop Believing.” Meanwhile, every moment seemed to foreshadow disaster: Suspicious-looking people coming in the door or seated at a table nearby. Meadow on the street having trouble parallel parking her car, the tires squealing against the curb. With every passing second, the audience was primed for tragedy. It was a scene both warm and fuzzy yet full of dread, setting every viewer’s heart racing for no clear reason.

But nothing would happen. It was just a family gathering for dinner at a restaurant.

Then, with a jingle of the bell on the front door, Tony looked up, apparently seeing Meadow make her delayed entrance. Or could he have seen something awful – something he certainly deserved – about to come down?

Probably not. Almost certainly a false alarm. But we’ll never know. With that, “The Sopranos” cut to black, leaving us enriched after eight years. And flustered. And fated to always wonder what happened next.