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Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Robert Moore.

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by the birds
july 1, 2007

It rained throughout June this year, rain as we fell asleep, rain as we woke, rain as we ran across parking lots under an umbrella (that umbrella, we employed it.) On average, the Dallas area gets ten inches of rain in June. This year, we got thirty inches.

For some reason, the rain brought out the spiders.

Because we have a lot of trees and bushes in our backyard garden, we keep a walking stick propped near our back door. The stick is the thin, yard-long trunk of a rose tree from years ago, the burl of roots at its bottom what we use now as a handle.

When we first go out in the garden in the morning, one or the other of us waves the stick in front of us, to tear down any webs across the paths. Normally, this time of year, there wouldn't be many (most weavers in our area come out in Fall.)

I hadn't been using the stick the first week of the rains because, again, it seemed too early in the season for spiders to be a problem. But after a couple of times, early morning, walking my face into the elasticity of one large web or another, that stick seemed like a good idea.

Our garage is even worse.

No spiders in the garage proper, but each dark morning when we roll up the garage door so I can walk down to collect yesterday's mail, we have a row of small spiders hanging off the upraised bottom of the door, have to wait patiently while they climb up their threads, arm over arm over arm over arm. It's like watching a silk stage curtain slowly rise, revealing the wet world.

Mary lost her Xalathan eye drops.

She has borderline glaucoma. The drops keep her condition from getting any worse.

They come in a tiny plastic bottle. She stores the bottle in the refrigerator, on one of the door shelves. Always in the same spot.

About a week ago, after taking her other pills at five in the evening (we set the alarm clock to go off at five as a reminder), she swung open the refrigerator. No tiny plastic bottle.

It's like car keys. You handle them so often, it's hard to backtrack where you put them last, especially if you're thinking of something else at the time.

We looked through the refrigerator together, then the shelves of the black bookcases in our breakfast nook, where she keeps her other pills, then the table on her side of the bed.

No tiny plastic bottle.

It was maddening, because we knew that little bottle was somewhere. Odd how that happens, something goes missing, turns up a day later, in an obvious spot. Reminds me of the Manson family, who used to break into homes just to rearrange the furniture while people were sleeping, so the home owners would come out in the morning, stretching, yawning, seeing the sofa on the opposite wall, no explanation ever.

Like a book I bought years ago from the Loomponics catalog (the Loomponics catalog featured handbooks on mostly illegal activities: How to make a bomb, how to create a false identity, how to forge signatures, etc.) The book I bought was on how to make someone believe they're losing their mind (I wasn't planning on trying to get anyone to believe they were losing their mind, that would be extraordinarily cruel, I was just curious what suggestions the writer had.)

My favorite suggestion was, Don't drain your victim's gas tank, because that's such an obvious thing to do the victim would know right away someone was messing with him (or her). Instead, keep pouring gas into their gas tank, so the tank is always full. Think about it. You use your car as you normally do, and around the middle of the week normally fill it up, but your fuel gauge shows you still have a full tank. Great! Maybe you just didn't burn as much fuel as you thought. Three weeks later, your tank is still full. Hmmm. You must have filled it, I mean it still reads full, you even stop at a gas station to try to put more gas in it, in case the gauge is broken, but the tank is full. How could that be? You write down your total miles, and five hundred miles later, that tank is still full. You must be filling it each week, but why don't you remember? What else are you doing you don't remember? And then the dreadful thought: Am I losing my mind?

It was a fun book.

So Mary and I had to go out again, to buy more Xalathan.

It was that type of on-again, off-again drizzly day where the sun keeps shining.

As long as we were out anyway, we decided to just drive around town. Go where the wheels take us.

Our little town was small when we first moved here in 1991 (pop. 19,000), but in the past fifteen years it's doubled in size, all the new arrivals as friendly as the natives. We used to have virtually no stores at all in town, but now they've built several huge strip malls, but all of them actually, surprisingly, quite tasteful. Most of the town is still field, forest and creeks, so now when we step out we have a choice of buying an orange zester, where you see micro mists of orange oil rise from your grating efforts, or seeing huge hawks slowly flap down, settling on the bending boughs of tall trees, as if being weighed.

We couldn't ask for a better place to live. I'd like to say we carefully surveyed all sorts of urban projections before we had our home built here back in 1991, but in fact it was just sheer luck.

After several small adventures that day, we decided to go to a local nursery, Petal Pushers, formerly King Creeks Gardens, to see what plants they had. (Mary and I could very comfortably spend an entire afternoon wandering around a good nursery, quietly talking between ourselves, deciding what new plants to add to our garden.)

Petal Pushers is a great place to just wander around, since rather than a Calloway's, for example, where you enter a large airplane hanger and everything is set up on long tables, this nursery is set at the edge of the woods, most of the plants and flowers outside, as they should be. You make your way down different dirt paths, under trees, across small fields, deciding what you'd like. Very peaceful. Mary and I kissed by one of the large bird cages.

As we got ready to leave, the drizzle started up again, sunlight peeping through, like a sixties pop song.

In the small parking lot, a TV crew from Channel 5 was set up, the weather anchor interviewing the nursery's owner on camera.

We made our way around the dripping periphery, to get back to our car, careful how we opened the car doors, and left, so we wouldn't interfere with a TV broadcast.

It was a great afternoon, even greater because it was unexpected.

If Mary's Xalathan hadn't been misplaced, we never would have experienced that happy kiss in the drizzle, by the birds.

The Sopranos has come to an end.

There won't be any more episodes.

We'll never again, other than in repeats, see them seated around the dining room table on a Sunday afternoon to enjoy a meal; we'll never hear a new malapropism in the back room of the pork store; we'll never learn how A.J. turned out.

For the purposes of this discussion, even though Season Six was extended over two years, twelve episodes in 2006, nine in 2007, I'll refer to the episodes in 2006 as Season Six, and the episodes in 2007 as the Bonus Episodes.

Now that the series is over, it's clear that the remaining season, Season Six and the Bonus Episodes, are really about Life After Johnny Sacks.

At the end of Season Five, Tony and Johnny have reached an accord, and put their differences behind them. Friends for years, before their falling out, they become friends again. Season Five ends with the Feds storming across Johnny Sacks' backyard, ready to arrest him. Tony, panicked, takes off, running through the snow, all the way home.

Season Six and the Bonus Episodes show the ramifications of what happens after Johnny is put in jail.

At first, it appears everything is going to work out. Phil Leotardo, heir apparent to Johnny Sacks' Brooklyn family, much more powerful than Tony's New Jersey mob, was at first feared to be vindictive towards Tony, since Tony's cousin had killed Phil's beloved kid brother, but it turns out Phil is "old school" mafia, and is willing to do what Johnny, in prison, wants.

But Johnny's status changes drastically over the course of the Sixth Season.

First, Johnny cries at his daughter's wedding, when the Feds escorting him humiliate him and his daughter by dragging him away just before the newlyweds leave. Phil finds Johnny's tears a sign of weakness.

Even worse, a few episodes later, Johnny, making a deal with the Feds, admits in open court he's a member of the mafia. This admission is the final straw for Phil, who served years in prison without giving anything to the Feds.

Phil turns away from Johnny, and seizes control of the Brooklyn mob for himself.

However, the immense responsibilities of taking over the Brooklyn mob prove too much for him, and he suffers a heart attack (much like Sylvio, Tony's consigliore, taking over the New Jersey mob after Tony is shot by his uncle, Junior, suffers a severe asthmatic attack and has to be hospitalized.) "Heavy is the head that wears a crown."

In the final episode of Season Six, Tony visits Phil in the hospital, sharing with him the insights about life he learned while he himself was on a deathbed, after being shot by Junior in the first episode of Season Six. It appears both rivals have reached an understanding. The season ends with the Soprano family celebrating an idealized Christmas. Tony, for the evening at least, has swapped his crown (his responsibilities), for a French beret, a symbol of carefree life. Everything seems right with the world.

The Bonus Episodes are about Tony's world crashing down around him.

As Season Five ended, we saw Tony running across the snow, fleeing the Feds.

The first of the Bonus Episodes opens, surprisingly, with a flashback to that show.

We see Tony running through the snow, reaching into his coat, throwing out a gun.

It turns out a teenage boy, looking out his bedroom window, spotted the gun getting tossed, went down from his bedroom to retrieve it, and used it with his friends. When the police finally confiscate the gun from the teenager, he recounts how he saw Tony Soprano throw it away.

The gun has hollow point bullets, which are illegal.

Tony is arrested by the local police, put in jail.

He's bailed out a few hours later, the local charges dropped, but the Feds take over the case.

This first episode of the Bonus Episodes is masterful.

After Tony gets out of jail, he and Carmella drive up to northern New Jersey, where Janice, Tony's sister, and her husband, Bobby, Tony's brother-in-law and one of his captains, have a lakeside retreat.

The tension slowly builds as the four get drunker and drunker, playing Monopoly. Tony gets more and more insulting towards Janice, to the point where her husband, Bobby, objects. Bobby and Tony get in a fistfight, Bobby winning.

In an episode of Season Six, Tony, recovering from his gunshot wound, looked around his crew to decide who to pick a fight with, to re-establish his physical dominance. He won that fight, but it's clear now, in the fight with Bobby, he isn't as strong as he used to be. He wanders into Janice and Bobby's bedroom in the middle of the night, face swollen and bruised. "You won fair and square," he tells Bobby, in the immediate truth of the moment, but then the morning after, he backs away from that truth, coming up with excuses as to why he lost.

The first four Bonus Episodes deal with the different significant men in Tony's life, Bobby in episode one, Christopher in two, Paulie in three, Hesch in four. In each case, Tony finds them wanting.

He has no heir apparent.

As the episodes advance, Tony's future seems bleaker and bleaker. Phil, becoming stronger and stronger, refuses to accept asbestos materials from Tony, without a significant kickback Tony is unwilling to pay. At the end of one such failed negotiation, as Tony and Christopher drive home late at night, Christopher, under the influence of drugs again, causes their car to go off-road, rolling down a hill. Tony kills Christopher, then dials 911, blaming Christopher's death on the accident.

Once Christopher, who Tony sees as an albatross, is dead, Tony feels a great release. He tries to justify his action, asking his wife Carmella, for example, if she didn't feel some relief when she found out Christopher had died, and lets a stranger at the wake know that a tree branch had gone into the back seat of the car following the crash, so that if Christopher's infant was in the seat, the child would be dead.

Following Christopher's death, Tony briefly "tries on" Christopher's life, attempting to understand him. He looks down from his second floor landing when Christopher's young widow, Kelly, comes over, watching as Kelly undoes her blouse to expose her breast, so the infant can suckle (previously telling Kelly to give him a call anytime she needs him to come over), then immediately retreats to his bedroom, orders a flight to Las Vegas, where he looks up, and fucks, Christopher's girlfriend, then takes drugs with her, much like Christopher did.

One of the drugs Tony takes with Christopher's girlfriend is peyote. He and the girlfriend wind up out in the Nevada desert, watching the sun come up. Tony stands up in the rising rays. "I get it!" he screams. But in fact, he doesn't. Tony has been given a number of revelations, including those on his deathbed near the beginning of Season Six, and in many of his sessions with Dr. Melfi, but each time, he doesn't significantly act on the epiphanies. He's never going to change. He's never going to really "get it."

As the Bonus Episodes wind down, it becomes clear Phil is planning to order a hit on Tony and his top men. The Bonus Episodes end with Bobby getting whacked, Sylvio getting severely shot up, in a coma. In the final episode ever, Made in America, which was the original name for the series, Phil gets killed by Tony's crew, and Tony himself dies in a local restaurant.

That final scene, of Tony being gunned down in a restaurant, has raised a lot of controversy.

For one thing, we don't actually see Tony get killed.

The final scene of the final episode, in a family restaurant, builds up suspense much like the scenes in the first episode of the Bonus Episodes, where Tony and Bobby play Monopoly.

We see Tony arrive at the restaurant, then Carmella, then A.J. Meadow, their daughter, pulls up outside, but has trouble parallel parking (in the previous episode, it's mentioned in passing that Tony is late for an appointment because he had to meet with Meadow, who's been rear-ended, perhaps explaining her sudden awkwardness driving.) The action cuts repeatedly between Meadow's efforts to parallel park and the different people who come into the restaurant, the quickness of the cuts creating tension out of what would otherwise be mundane actions.

Just as the series started, so many years ago, with an opening shot of Tony in the waiting room of a psychiatrist he's been referred to, and is about to meet, a Dr. Melfi, signaling that the series will be to a large degree about Tony's mind, but always from the outside, in these final moments of the series, for the first time, we are actually taken into Tony's mind, and see how overwhelmed he is with fear and paranoia (a sequence brilliantly directed, incidentally, by Chase himself.)

One of the men who enter the restaurant is wearing a Members Only jacket, which clearly references the first episode of Season Six, titled Members Only, in which Tony gets shot for the first time, by his uncle.

In an allusion to The Godfather, the man with the Members Only jacket, after watching Tony, heads towards the restrooms.

The last images of the series are Meadow, having finally successfully parked, running across the sidewalk to enter the restaurant.

There's the sound of the restaurant's front door ting-a-linging.

Tony looks up. The music, from the tableside jukebox, is Journey's Don't Stop Believing, which Tony had selected.

As the singer sings, Don't stop, Tony looks up, seeing Meadow, and the screen goes to black (as he gets a bullet in his head from the Members Only hit man.)

How do we know Tony was killed?

We have to trust what David Chase, the show's creator, has told us during the Bonus Episodes.

In the first show of the Bonus Episodes, Tony and Bobby are out on the lake by Bobby and Janice's vacation home. They speculate about what it feels like to be killed. Bobby says, "At the end, you probably don't hear anything, everything just goes black."

In the penultimate episode, as Tony is sitting on a bed, cradling Bobby's birthday gift to him, a machine gun, Tony has a flashback to that day on the lake, and that same dialogue is repeated. "At the end, you probably don't hear anything, everything just goes black." The only reason Chase would repeat that dialogue at that point, just before the final episode, is for us to understand his ending, when we no longer hear the Journey song, and everything goes black. Chase loves playing with viewer's expectations, which I much admire, but no writer of any competence would put that flashback in there if it wasn't a key to the ending, and Chase is more than competent (the narrative of The Sopranos is unusually complex, with constant self-references. Take, for example, the case of Bobby. The last time we see him in Season Six (i.e., the penultimate Bonus Episode), he dies. What is he surrounded by? Model trains. The first time we see him in Season Six (i.e., the Members Only episode, which ends with Tony getting shot by Uncle Junior), what is he surrounded by? Model trains.)

There's no doubt in my mind Tony dies at the end, and there's no doubt in my mind Chase wants us to know he died. Some commentators have theorized that Chase wanted the finale to be "open-ended", a fill in your own blanks, or, alternatively, some kind of "post-modern" comment on the artificiality of narrative, but really, given the tightly-woven plots of the previous eighty-plus episodes, I believe that type of response is nonsense.

Having said all this, the ending itself is disappointing.

First, there's the confusion caused by the black screen at the end (which Chase reportedly wanted to remain black for much longer, thirty seconds, until he was talked out of it by HBO executives.)

Nearly everyone (including Mary and myself), initially thought there was a satellite/cable problem. Which completely distracted us from the impact of the ending. We didn't have time to absorb what was happening-we were too busy checking to see if our connection was working.

I sincerely believe Chase never anticipated this "lost connection" issue. I don't think it even occurred to him. If the episode had been shown in a movie theater, there wouldn't have been an issue. We'd realize it was a dramatic device. But shown on TV, which as we all know is sometimes subject to transmission problems, it created confusion at the worse possible moment.

Even without the confusion, though, the ending is still a letdown.

So why did Chase write the scene the way he did?

I won't pretend for a moment to know what goes on in Chase's mind, but here's what I think.

The Sopranos has always been cutting edge, so I believe Chase wanted to end on a cutting edge note. There's no question there was tremendous interest on the part of Sopranos fans to find out how the series ends (Chase himself cleverly comments on this impatience earlier in the final show, when Tony's lawyer tells Tony about the progress of the Federal investigation against him, stopping himself every other word to thump the bottom of his ketchup bottle, until Tony finally yanks the bottle away from him.)

Chase had Bobby get gunned down in typical gangland movie fashion, did Sylvio's shooting, Sylvio slumped in his car, covered with blood, so that it evoked The Godfather (Sonny's death), but couldn't decide what to do with Tony. He didn't want it to be a typical whacking, that would be too conventional, but then, How do you kill your main character in a brand new way? At some point, the ending we have must have occurred to him, and he settled on it.

But it is the worse possible ending.

For one thing, Tony is, in effect, killed offstage.

After all these years we've lived with Tony, we don't get to see his death? Doesn't that violate the most basic rule of storytelling?

I suspect that on some level Chase, as a writer, had grown so fond of his character that he couldn't bring himself to actually show him getting killed.

Much like Phil Leotardo laid low in Oyster Bay, Long Island after he ordered the hit on Tony, David Chase laid low in Paris, France, after he himself ordered the hit on Tony, so he wouldn't have to deal with the firestorm following the final episode (the HBO site was crashed by the number of fans complaining about the ending.)

(Chase has not ruled out the possibility of a Sopranos movie, but has stated on the record that if there were a Sopranos movie, it would have to take place in the past, in 2006, which reinforces the idea Tony was killed at the end.)

Just as the ending to the series is a disappointment, I found the Bonus Episodes, overall, also disappointing.

There's the recurring use of "false jeopardy", a frowned-upon literary device in which someone appears to be in danger, but really isn't.

Let's look at two early episodes of the Bonus Episodes.

In the first, there's the false jeopardy of Bobby getting whacked by Tony. After Bobby has beaten up Tony, the next morning the two men go off to meet with some Canadians. The viewer wonders, knowing Tony, if he might not be planning to kill Bobby. Indeed, as the two men drive towards the meeting, Bobby says he has to urinate, Tony drives off the main road, down a narrow road, forest on either side, evoking Adrianna's killing. But nothing happens.

In the third episode, Tony and Paulie are driving down south, to Florida. Tony tells Paulie they're going deep sea fishing. Paulie becomes apprehensive, remembering how Big Pussy was killed during a deep sea trip. The false jeopardy with Bobby was at least handled in a subtle way, nothing but a shot of the surrounding forest to remind us of the Adrianna episode, but here, in the Paulie episode, the jeopardy is handled clumsily, double-underlined, with actual flashbacks to the Big Pussy killing, and repeated shots of Tony looking at knifes in buckets, in an uncharacteristically heavy-handed manner.

The first few episodes of the Bonus Episodes also appear to be unconnected from each other. There's no sense of a narrative flowing forward. The worse example is the show in which we find out happens to Vito's son, after his gay dad's death. He's turned Goth, and has become unruly. The story feels like padding.

In addition, there are a number of what, to me, are false notes.

Tony suddenly has a gambling problem? That's news to us, and appears to have been added just to make a thematic point (he has bad luck until he kills Christopher.) And while we're at it, Tony killing Christopher? I didn't believe it for a moment. It felt false, something thought up just so people would say the next day, Wow! One of the main characters on The Sopranos died last night! Likewise Dr. Melfi abruptly dropping Tony as a patient. Would that really happen?

As I've said elsewhere, The Sopranos has always been primarily satiric, but in these final episodes I felt it got too broad. Sylvio getting shot, with a cut to strippers lined up outside like a chorus line, shrieking; Phil getting killed, which was dramatic, but then turning it into a cartoon, his car running over his head; the malapropisms, which had always been a way of showing just how stupid these people were, showing up a bit too much in the Bonus Episodes, as if the writers wanted to give people something cute to laugh about the next day at the water coolers; the sudden introduction of the cat in the final episode, whose tendency to stare at Christopher's portrait bothers Paulie so much, which seems like a half-hearted stab at creating a new conversational topic.

(Some Internet wits have suggested there should be a new series, starring Paulie and the cat. I can picture it. Paulie sits down at the end of the day to watch some Home Shopping Network, small plate of ziti on his lap, then the cat jumps up, knocking the plate onto the carpet. "You goddamn cat!" The fussy bachelor has to stoop over, rubbing at the carpet with a rug cleaner he bought earlier from HSN. Others have suggested a Saturday morning cartoon show, Sopranos Babies.)

When Alan Ball decided to end Six Feet Under, he had the writers start with the final episode, then write backwards. In other words, he decided how the series should end, then wrote backwards to find out where they needed to start the final season to have that ending be inevitable. As a result, he produced a final season that was absolutely compelling, perfectly done, with a finale that was incredibly cathartic. I think it's the best final season, and certainly the best season finale, that's ever appeared on TV.

I can't say the same for The Sopranos. Although there were a number of stories in the Bonus Episodes where the old Sopranos magic continued (the first episode; the trip south with Paulie, except for the clumsy false jeopardy; Junior in the nursing home, trying to stay active in gaming; Johnny Sacks' death from lung cancer), overall the final episodes disappointed. And the series finale itself, except for the final moments, felt like just another episode. There was no summing-up.

Having said that, there's no question The Sopranos was one of the most innovative, satisfying TV shows ever produced. They showed what could be done with television. Although the pilot episode is uneven (the violence, for one thing, is awkwardly handled, Tony's fist, punching a character, not correctly synchronized with the sound effects), it's amazing how quickly such a large ensemble, with so many intriguing storylines, sprung from that first show.

Over the years, The Sopranos has been the truest reflection of modern day life in America. Chase hit on a brilliant formula. Keep everyone entertained with whackings, but in the meantime explore the malaise we all face, dealing with the myriad frustrations of life. Using the narrative motor of mob family, he explored to a degree never experienced before the complexities of nuclear and extended family.

For that extraordinary accomplishment, he deserves our praise.

Much has been made of what will happen to HBO now that Six Feet Under and The Sopranos are gone.

HBO's motto, after all, has been, It's Not TV, It's HBO.

That's a high standard to live up to.

In recent years, HBO has been challenged by Showtime, the Avis of premium cable stations.

But Showtime's offerings have been uneven, and the network has a reputation of dropping series rather than giving them time to grow.

One of Showtime's best recent series, for example, was Sleeper Cell. But they dropped it after the second season, saying it was too expensive to produce.

The one breakout hit Showtime has had is Dexter, starring Michael C. Hall from Six Feet Under. Dexter is as good as anything on TV, with a perfect cast, and high production values. That series alone holds out hope Showtime will emerge as a major force.

But Showtime's other offerings haven't lived up to that promise. The Tudors, which took over Sunday nights after Dexter's first season ended, has some merits, but should be much edgier than it is. Meadowlands, which picked up the Sunday slot after The Tudors finished its first season, is a disaster. Old-fashioned and low budget. Is this really the best Showtime can offer?

So I think HBO will do all right.

The returning series, Big Love, continues the exploration of a Mormon polygamist with three wives. That subject could have been handled in a number of ways, most obviously as a leering sexcapade, but instead HBO has chosen to present us with a sincere study of a man with deeply-held religious beliefs who's trying to live in an ethical manner in the world.

HBO's new series, John From Cincinnati, is a perfect example of what HBO does best. Taking an unconventional idea, and trusting in the writers to develop it. The writers in this case are David Milch, who previously created the brilliant HBO show Deadwood, and Kem Nunn, who's written a number of surfer-noir novels. Together, they've come up with a fully thought out milieu with a wide cast of excellent actors and actresses. Milch, who's always been a risk-taker, places in the center of this new drama a man, John, who is apparently experiencing this world for the first time (he cannot talk spontaneously, he can only repeat phrases others have said.) The device of the na´ve character has been done before, almost always disastrously. Milch clearly relishes the challenge of walking that tightrope, and so far, in the first three episodes, he's gotten it right. John from Cincinnati is exciting, the likes of which you can't see anywhere else, and a welcome addition to the HBO roster.

Another new HBO show, Flight of the Conchords, about a New Zealand rock duo trying to make it big in New York City, is the most original comedy since Curb Your Enthusiasm.

In the Fall, we're likely to see Alan Ball's latest HBO project, True Blood, based on the Southern Vampire novels. There's a lot of excitement about the series.

And who knows what David Chase will do next?

So I don't see HBO losing its mantle anytime soon. What I see is a company that has very smartly nurtured highly original talent, Ball, Chase, and Milch, and is constantly on the lookout for the Next Big Thing.

Is it not TV? Is it HBO?

Quite possibly.