Holsten's is a local institution on Broad Street in Bloomfield, N.J. It's the kind of place with a ceramic tile facade, and where they still make their own candy and ice cream. When my father worked in Bloomfield, my mother and I used to meet him occasionally after work there. It's filled with regular customers who know the menu, and the place, by heart. It's a classic, family-style throwback. It is as good as any other place for it all to end.
Those who want Tony to live will get their wish. So will those who want to see him dead. David Chase's decision to leave the ending to us will be hotly debated in this space and in other quarters for a long time to come. Knowing he was leading us to an ambiguous end, he nonetheless made us work for every last bit: a positively cruel mix of wide and tight shots as Meadow struggled to park her Lexus ES 250. The man in the Members Only jacket seemed to enter stride for stride with A.J. At the table awaiting a happy quorum, Tony briefly flipped through the soundtrack of our lives with this family. He was one child short of the nucleus that gives him peace—the one thing he's built, the place in life that gives him the most satisfaction. He was just waiting for Meadow. They say she could pull in $170K at some fancy law firm, so Tony's feeling better about a career in law for his little girl, even if he now knows her motivation was seeing her own father repeatedly led away in handcuffs. If they can do that to our people ...
Back to David Chase for a moment, and the elevation of the hit as art form. It's one thing to construct a fiberglass Leotardo and tell the special-effects guys you want an SUV to roll over his head. It's quite another to depict it by the gentle rocking motion of two
grandchildren snuggled in their car seats.
The details are worth savoring: Paulie, knowing how hot women get when men undo their belts and show a little zipper after a big meal, works his magic on Bobby's grieving niece. Carm, appearing to wear Mom Jeans for the first time, complains about an odor in the safe house, where the last remaining powder-blue AT&T rotary phone graces the kitchen wall. Our favorite FBI agent (who we now know has been hiding a set of insanely furry nipples under his dress shirts for all these years) apparently fed up with domestic discord, has gone outside his marriage—but not his trade—for both information and stimulation. He misses the old beat—and beats his fist to the news of Phil's demise. Sil sweats a halo into his pillow, looking for all the world like a young Frank Serpico as his conflicted visitor watches the incongruous Little Miss Sunshine on the hospital TV. Tony laments the lost business opportunity of a combo strip club/Virgin Mary shrine (who among us could pass up such an attraction?) but still knows the way to Paulie's heart. The tanning reflector in front of the pork store was a nice touch, while I could have done without the cat. In all the scenes where the cat appeared.
Poor Phil. He got sloppy. Remember Tony's dictum that going to ground means changing routines? Phil developed a new routine of using the Raceway gas-station pay phone. There he was—dismounted, jogging-suited, and exposed, barking orders about Dr. Iaconis and Plavix—when the gun entered the frame and Phil exited this world, with the tacit approval of his own crew.
A.J. learned an important life lesson: A BMW M3 handles better than a Blackhawk. He's dropping Arabic (and presumably no longer quoting "Yeets") in favor of Anti-Virus, from the good folks who brought us Cleaver. He may be searching for a while, but he's richer as well for the lesson in catalyctic converters and underbrush. The kind that ignite. When A.J. gave Dylan his stamp of approval, I felt like recommending the Scorsese documentary to him.
Tony threw out some chestnuts for us to savor for all time: his complaint that A.J. was "making a molehill" out of the terrorist threat, and being a "little miffled" that Paulie didn't accept his new job right away. Actually, when you consider it as a perfect marriage of "miffed" and "baffled," I think he's performed a service to the lexicon. It was good to see David Gregory and NBC News Capitol Hill producer Ken Strickland dancing at the correspondent's dinner with Karl Rove. Somewhere, Brian Lamb is kvelling.
And a Full Disclosure Moment: The day we visited The Sopranos set in Queens for the Nightly News piece on the series, I witnessed the shooting of the final kitchen scene. After it, I interviewed Carm at the kitchen island and A.J. at the kitchen table. So, I've known about A.J.'s plans to enter the Army for months—and yet didn't know if the scene would survive or how it would be integrated into the larger plot. I actually said on the air that we witnessed "the final scene in the family kitchen from the final episode"—an inadvertent slip on my part, caught afterward by my producer but by few if any of our 10 million viewers: It revealed Chase's plans to keep A.J., Carm, and Tony alive at least until something close to the bitter end. During the interview with A.J., I happened to sit where Tony had been sitting. His coffee was still warm, and his half-eaten toast was still on the plate.
Later, I passed his trailer on the lot. He was inside reading through the next scene, listening to Stevie Wonder. We made eye contact, and he came bounding down the steps to the sidewalk for a chat, while someone took still photos. Tony had already gone away, and I was talking to Jim Gandolfini. As I left that day, I knew I had to start getting used to that idea.
Back to Holsten's. In the final seconds of the episode, Chase needed us to know he was in the game until the very end. He made us work for it. The poster on the wall behind Tony was a tribute to a fictional baseball player, "Super Dave" Phillip—who just happens to share a name with the parking coordinator for The Sopranos production crew. The man in the Members Only jacket? In a restaurant full of regulars, he was tentative—he wasn't sure where the men's room was. Alongside Meadow's entrance, it was the last cruel detail in the closing seconds, as the music of Journey started to swell. We were reminded, right at that moment, that in this case: The journey is the reward. It will have to be.