Tony Soprano lives. But for how much longer?
In a provocative ending sure to be loudly debated for days, HBO's The Sopranos concluded its six-season run last night leaving viewers up in the air as to the fate of the New Jersey crime boss.
The final scene featured Tony (James Gandolfini), his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), and son, A.J. (Robert Iler), in a restaurant where they were about to be joined by the last member of their family, daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), when the screen went black and the credits started to roll.
The sequence was marked by exquisite tension: Tony told his wife of his possible indictment while nervously eyeing four different customers as possible hit men sent to end his life.
But no such resolution was offered to the scene - or, indeed, to many of the story lines that have driven the series in its final season. Viewers looking for closure did not find it on HBO last night.
Phil Leotardo, the rival crime boss who started the final war with Tony's crew, was one of the few characters whose story came to an end. He was not only shot in the head by one of Tony's men but then crushed under the wheels of his daughter's SUV in a scene of graphic violence.
A bit of symmetry was offered, with A.J. now being treated by a female psychiatrist reminiscent of Tony's former psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).
But with the noose tightening in the final hour, how come Tony suddenly was cured of his panic attacks - even though Dr. Melfi ended their relationship in last week's episode?
This was not a finale intended to stand up to such questioning.
Some viewers will see the ambiguous ending as more in keeping with the realism that the series tried to capture. But the case can be made that creator David Chase took an easy way out by leaving so many story lines unresolved - not to mention the option of making future episodes or a feature film. That is likely to leave some fans feeling ripped off.
Finales of long-running series rarely please faithful viewers. Some analysts attribute the dissatisfaction to fans' feeling separation anxiety and anger when a show they have emotionally committed to suddenly disappears from their lives.
The series that met with the most morning-after hostility in recent years was the finale of the hit NBC sitcom Seinfeld, which ended in 1998 with the four leading characters in jail for violating a local Good Samaritan ordinance.
Cheers, another hit sitcom from the era of NBC's dominance, also met with disapproval after its 1993 finale, which featured cast members sitting in the Boston tavern musing about the meaning of life before turning out the lights and making their exit.
The most celebrated finales in TV history are those of the CBS sitcoms Newhart (1990) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1977). In the former, the character played by comedian Bob Newhart awakened to find himself in bed not with his TV wife in the series, but rather with Suzanne Pleshette, the actress who played his wife in The Bob Newhart Show, which ran on CBS in the 1970s.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which was set in a Minneapolis TV newsroom, ended with the station being sold and the new owners firing everyone except the incompetent but highly photogenic anchorman.
The Sopranos' place in TV history is assured. The series dramatically changed the perception of cable TV - making the newer medium, and not the established major networks, the place that viewers would come to think of as the home of high-quality programming. Premiering in 1999, the lavishly produced crime drama became the talk of the TV world just as the networks were starting down a road of on-the-cheap reality programming.
The series benefited greatly from the fact that cable, unlike network TV, is not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. Creator Chase wisely exploited his far greater latitude to use adult language and graphic violence to create a series of operatic storytelling that resonated richly with postmodern American life in all its profanity and brutality, particularly in the post-Sept. 11 period..
Perhaps last night's ending - with Tony under fire but living to fight another day - is more like real life than the closure offered by most TV finales.
But The Sopranos deserved more than a serialized ending with a "to be continued" feel to it.
For six seasons, the crime drama seemed worthy of being considered a work of art.
But last night felt far too much like TV as usual with all its commercial compromises and unfulfilled promises.