In his Final Cut column, Mark Harris wonders what David Chase and J.K. Rowling have in store for their immensely popular characters
Thoughts on the end of Tony Soprano and Harry Potter
Spring is here, the sun is shining, I saw the season’s first robin yesterday, and that can mean only one thing: Death is approaching. Together, we have just rolled onto the short, dark, and scary runway labeled the Beginning of the End for arguably the two most talked-about fictional characters of the last 10 years: Harry Potter and Tony Soprano. Soon, we’re going to learn if they live or die — and, more importantly, if David Chase (after 86 hours) and J.K. Rowling (after 4,125 pages) have kept their end of the deal we made years ago when we told them, ”We’ll follow you all the way, as long as you know where you’re going.”
Harry’s and Tony’s creators/terminators face an awesome responsibility. At a New York screening of the first two episodes of the final season of The Sopranos, David Chase introduced his cast — not just the regulars, but three dozen actors, major and minor players in the grand scheme, including some killed off years ago. The rising cheers were an acknowledgment of talent, but also of the sheer scope of the enterprise: We’re about to say goodbye not just to Tony and Carmela but to an entire universe of crime, compromise, and soul-sickness. After the screening, you could sense the questions hanging in the collective unconscious: How’s it going to end? Is he going to pull it off?
That’s impossible to answer, mainly because nobody can agree on what ”pulling it off” means. There are viewers who won’t be satisfied unless Tony and his family somehow break free of Mob life; there are others who think that he has to die — or, worse, that he has to lose whomever (or whatever) he loves most. I fall somewhere between the death-penalty group and the redemption camp. I believe that Tony’s line from the pilot — ”Things are trending downward” — describes the entire dramatic spiral of his life, and that the ending of The Sopranos has to fulfill that: What other conclusion can there be for a show that began with Tony’s trip to a shrink but for him to come face-to-face with both the man and the monster that he is? It won’t be a happy moment.
Wherever Chase takes him, I hope it feels like a finish line. When we invest in a show like The Sopranos (although there has never been a show like The Sopranos), we want closure: not a perfect, tidy resolution, but not the kind of life-goes-on nonending that leaves room for a Sopranos movie either. If I sound nervous, you know why: We’ve all been burned so often. We’ve invested years in shows only to see them blow the game at the buzzer, and final episodes that break faith with the audience can splash their mediocrity backward onto our memories of an entire series. We’ve endured the dragged-out-so-long-that-we-stopped-caring collapse (The X-Files), the they-never-really-knew-where-they-were-headed derailment (Alias), the contempt-for-their-own-characters middle finger (Seinfeld), and the who-knows-who-cares-gotta-go fake-out (wow, so all of St. Elsewhere was an autistic child’s daydream? Deep!). It’s hard to watch Lost (sorry, but I’m off the island) or Heroes (I’m still hooked) without gritting your teeth and thinking, These guys better know what they’re doing. ”Jumping the shark” has become a catchall dismissal for a reason: That sinking feeling when you suddenly realize that the driver doesn’t have a map is all too common. (Maybe American Idol is so addictive, and sometimes so stupid, because we’re driving.) Get burned a few times, and it’s hard to summon up trust: I’m a huge fan of The Shield, now beginning its final two seasons, but it’s been 65 episodes since day one, when we learned that LAPD cop Vic Mackey is a cold-blooded murderer. If that tale isn’t fully told by the finale, an implicit promise will have been broken.
Drama isn’t drama if nothing’s at stake, something J.K. Rowling has always understood. I don’t know what’s about to befall Harry Potter, but I’m impressed that she stuck to her guns and didn’t decide to hold Harry back a year or two at Hogwarts to extend the franchise. Rowling, in interviews, always sounds kind but utterly unsentimental, a great combination for a writer: ”My books are largely about death,” she said last year, adding that when she told her husband she’d killed a character in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (we’ll know who on July 21), ”He shuddered, ‘Oh, don’t do that’…but of course I did.” Why? Because that’s her job. Google ”Will Harry Potter die?” and you get 2.7 million hits. Google ”Will Harry Potter survive?” and you get 1.1 million. I don’t know if that represents a wish, a consensus, or a popular vote, but I do know that most readers are more than willing to shed some tears this summer if the final volume merits them. I suspect it will, since Rowling and David Chase never seem to forget what writers have to know: If you’ve done your job well, saying goodbye should really hurt.