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How To End A Hit TV Series

I don’t know anything about ending a TV series, actually, but I like what I see. The way “The Sopranos” ended last night seemed perfect, both from a writer’s perspective and as a member of the audience.

One way that good literature works is by serving as a platform for further discussion and social interaction. It does this by being enthymematic, as I’ve discussed before here. The basics of the dynamic are this:

In a similar way, narratives operate by a series of structured incompletions. (The enthymeme is the most basic form of this structured incompletion.) One set of incompletions are necessary for plot. Another set is necessary for any linear arrangement of language. In these, the completion is postponed and often made available by the text or narrative. There’s also the completion that’s offered by the audience, which (if you could get inside their heads) is the thing that makes the narrative complete and meaningful.

So what is a writer trying to do when they draw attention to the basic engine of the narrative itself by ending with a structured incompletion, as “The Sopranos” did last night? (They didn’t even let the Journey refrain finish.) In other narratives, this has been used to sharpen and focus the audience’s desire for completion, then force the audience to question that desire. I’m thinking here of “Limbo,” but also “Lost in Translation,” which are two great examples of artful endings via structured incompletion.

However, in “The Sopranos,” I think it’s a basic act of care for the audience. It says, I know you’ve been talking about how all this is going to end, so keep talking. That community you built, those conversations you had: keep having them. I know, because we were doing it: over at S and J’s house with M and K, eating Italian cold cut sandwiches, drinking wine, and going around the table saying what we thought would happen and what would disappoint us.

I also can’t help but see this ending as protective. It was almost as if David Chase was saying, narrative closure is a part of your world, not of this imaginary world. It’s the way the audience’s world works, but not the Soprano world. And what has been so fascinating about the show (and as many commentators have said) is how it provoked, and questioned, and undermined, the audience’s fascinated voyeurism. We needed to peer into this world in order to be able to see our own more clearly. So ending the show this way keeps the line between the two worlds drawn tight. Inviolate. It preserves the fiction-ness of the fictional universe. And while it may not be what we wanted, it’s what we needed.