The short answer to the question "How should The Sopranos end?" is "As soon as possible". I've been a devoted fan since the pilot was first broadcast in America on January 10, 1999, but it's already long past its sell-by date. To my mind, the series peaked in its third and fourth seasons, when Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) was pitted against Ralph Cifaretto, a rival mobster played by Joe Pantoliano. After Ralph was beaten to death by Tony in episode nine of season four, the series lost a good deal of oxygen -- and the introduction of Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi) in season five did little to fill the vacum.
The great strength of The Sopranos is that its creator, David Chase, refuses to be bound by the conventions of television drama. He cut his teeth as a writer on The Rockford Files and, in keeping with the commercial demands of network television, was obliged to begin and end each story in the course of a single episode. No such obligation exists on The Sopranos, which is made by HBO. Stories don't merely unfold
over entire, 13-episode seasons, they occasionally stretch over two or three seasons -- and, in some cases, over the entire series. The Rockford Files was a good show, but watching an episode was a bit like reading a short story in Black Mask. Watching The Sopranos, by contrast, is like immersing yourself in a novel by Charles Dickens.
Occasionally, Chase throws the baby out with the bathwater. One of the rules on a network television show is that everything you see on screen must be story-related; anything extraneous to the plot -- or one of the subplots -- doesn't get past the show-runner. Chase has flagrantly ignored this convention, allowing his writers to include numerous scenes that don't have any bearing on the action. In particular, there are the famous dream sequences in which we're taken inside Tony's unconscious. To my mind, these have always been the weakest aspect of The Sopranos -- proof, if any were needed, that this particular rule should apply to all drama, from the lowliest television series to the most demanding stage plays. It was good enough for Chekhov, so why not Chase?
The sixth and final season -- which consists of 21 episodes, rather than the usual 13 -- started promisingly enough. Everyone expects Tony to be shot in the final episode of the show -- that would be the obvious way to end the series -- so, once again, Chase thumbed his nose at convention and had Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) shoot Tony in episode one. However, the series then launched into its most sustained dream sequence to date, stretching over three episodes, as Tony languished in hospital. The other nine episodes that have been broadcast so far have been patchy, with few compelling storylines to knit them together.
Chase being the maverick he is, it's hard to predict how he's going to bow out. Will Tony turn rat and wind up in the Witness Protection Programme? Will he flip his lid and see out the rest of his days on a psych ward? If his long-suffering wife (Edie Falco) kills him, that will "rhyme" with the the theory of Tony's psychiatrist (Lorraine Bracco) that Tony's father was killed by his mother (Nancy Marchand). But I rule out any of the above on the grounds that Chase -- always so counter-intuitive -- will want to go out with a wimper rather than a bang.
How would I really like it to end? With a return to form. At its best, The Sopranos is a completely absorbing, Shakespearean drama that boasts the finest writing -- and performances -- in the history of television. Let's hope that David Chase can rise to the occasion.