Archive for June, 2007

The True Meaning of the Sopranos Ending

Monday, June 25th, 2007

There are two questions that you can ask about the finale of the Sopranos: What “really” happened and What does it mean? Most of the debate seems to be over what really happened, and specifically, whether the screen went blank because Tony was “whacked.” The latter theory has gained a lot of currency lately, fueled by a comment made by David Chase. Chase has said that he had a definite ending in mind. When asked about Bobby Bacala’s line from an earlier episode that “you probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right,” Chase said that this was a legitimate hint that that “anyone who wants to watch it, it’s all there.”

I’m here to tell you that “what really happened” is the wrong question to ask. In fact, it’s a rather meaningless question, the realization of which leads to understanding the meaning of the finale.

Let’s start with a few simple observations that may appear overly obvious but which seem to get ignored anyway. Because the Sopranos is a work of fiction, the entire existence of its characters (including Tony) begins and ends in the filmed episodes. If it’s not in an episode, it didn’t happen, it doesn’t exist. That, by the way, is the entire meaning of Chase’s comment that “it’s all there.” Of course it’s all there, because if it’s not there, where would be it? In other words, if it’s not there, it didn’t happen.

So the question “what really happened” is a stupid question. Anybody who watched the episode knows what happened. It’s all there. So if you want to know why the screen went blank, the real question is what does it mean, or more accurately, when idea was Chase trying to convey by making the screen go blank suddenly.

“Did the screen go blank because Tony was whacked” is a “what happened” question, and as such, it is easily answered. Tony did not get whacked. How do I know? Because I watched the episode and I didn’t see him get whacked. In fact, if you watch the ending closely, the very last frame is a direct “portrait” shot of Tony. No bullet piercing his skull, which pretty much forecloses the theory that the screen went blank because Tony was shot. After all, the bullet would first have to enter Tony’s head before he lost consciousness. Sure, from Tony’s perspective he might not realize what was happening, but the last scene was not from Tony’s perspective. Tony was bodily intact when the show ended, ergo he was not shot.

The little lawyer inside your head is probably saying “ok, O’Neill, stop splitting hairs. The question is whether the screen going blank was supposed to convey the idea of Tony getting shot” or something to that effect. The answer is that I’m not the one splitting hairs. What is the “idea” or “symbolism” of Tony getting shot, if not just another way of saying that “what really happened” is that Tony was shot and the screen went blank?

In any case, I’m not trying to win an argument, just to let you know what the real meaning of the ending was. So just bear with me, and we can re-visit that question later, if need be.

What I’m about to tell you is painfully obvious, once you get it. So obvious, in fact, that you might dismiss it as just that – too simple – to be taken seriously. Trust me, however, the more you think about it, the more you will be convinced that this is the only possible meaning to the last Sopranos episode.

You know that feeling you have when you finish a really good book, one with strong characters and an engrossing story? There’s a feeling of loss, an emptiness. One minute we’re all in the middle of the lives of those characters, and the next – gone. Nothing. It doesn’t really depend on the ending itself, just the fact that it ended.

As a writer, Chase would be deeply interested, fascinated, maybe even obsessed, with the creative process. It only stands to reason that he has thought a lot about the show ending. I don’t mean the “ending” in the sense of a particular storyline, but just in the fact that nothing lasts forever. The show would end, just like a book ends. And like a reader finishing a book, the audience would feel a loss, an emptiness when the show ended.

At some point Chase realized that a book does not “end.” A book simply exists. The reader passes through the book, from its beginning to its end, but the book remains unchanged – it is the reader who has changed. It is the reader who leaves the book behind, not vice versa. But for the writer it is different. A writer does end his work. The book ends, or in this case, the series ends, when the writer stops creating it.

So this is what Chase was trying to convey in the series finale. It was, literally, about the show ending. Except that the show, like a book, does not really end. So more accurately, it was about Chase not creating the show any longer. Thus, when Bobby Bacala said “you probably don’t even hear it when it happens,” it was a foreshadowing of how the show would end. And when Tony’s lawyer said to Tony that it was not like we didn’t see this day coming, he was talking about the ending of the show. We all know that nothing last forever, not even the Sopranos. Do we really need a lawyer to tell us this?

The “non ending” ending simply represents the fact that it’s not the show that ends. We finish passing through it, we leave the show behind, not vice versa. The show is still there, you can go back and watch it all you want, and soon enough it will be available on DVD. What did end, however, is Chase’s creation of the show. Why did the show end by going blank? Because that’s the way Chase, its creator made it. It was his way of saying “I’m done.” The show remains, he left it to us, but he’s gone. It’s as if Chase whacked himself.

P. S. There has been a lot of speculation about symbolism in the last scene in the diner. It reminds me of all the “Paul is dead” speculation of the late 60s. Despite all the compelling “evidence,” Paul was not dead. It just goes to show that you can take symbolism and interpretation a bit too far. Having said that, I am going to add what I think is an original observation. In the diner, Tony ordered onion rings for the table. Watch how Tony, Carmela and A.J. each put the onion rings in their mouths – it looks just like receiving communion at church. Why are these three receiving communion and not Meadow? We had just learned that she was picking up her new birth control prescription and thus was ineligible to receive communion. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that Chase intended this.

What did he mean by it? Oh, I don’t know, you’ll just have to ask him.

9-11 Changed Nothing — The Myth of a “Post 9-11 World”

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

Discussions of “national security” these days always include the subject of “terrorism” and usually employ phrases such as “we live in a post 9-11 world.” The suggestion is that 9-11 changed everything and that rules that were in effect before 9-11 are no longer applicable. This logic undermines just about everything from prohibiting toddlers from bringing sippy cups onto airplanes to listening to our phone calls to the indefinite detention of civilians as “enemy combatants.” The idea is that we live in a world that is more dangerous than anything our founding fathers could have anticipated, and that the rules of the constitution have to be interpreted in light of these new dangers.

While there has been discussion aplenty on the general subject of trading off liberties for security, I never see it pointed out that our founding fathers, in fact, lived in circumstances far more nonthreatening to national security than our own. To me, the fact that the bill of rights was created in an environment of great insecurity to the general safety of the nation is the clearest refutation of all the “post 9-11” arguments out there.

We all know, of course, that the United States waged a war of independence against Great Britain between 1776 and 1783. Perhaps less well known is that approximately 25 percent of the population of the colonies was loyal to the crown (meaning they opposed the revolution), and a significant part of the population, estimated to be as much as 50 percent, was neutral, meaning that they gave no active support to the revolution.

Despite these circumstances, in drafting the Constitution and bill of rights, the founding fathers were not overly concerned with threats from external enemies or civilian insurrection. The greatest danger to our liberties, in their view, lay in the usurpation and abuse of power by those in charge. Think about that when today’s leaders tell you that they need additional powers and their existing ones expanded.

We fought another war against Great Britain in 1812. In that war, British troops actually invaded the mainland of the United States and burnt down both the White House and the Capital building. Think about that when you are told that 9-11 changed everything. As bad as it was, does it actually compare with foreign troops occupying Washington D.C.? Imagine if you can what new national security laws today’s leaders would be clamoring for if the White House and Capital Building were burnt down by an invading army.

Instead of bombarding the population with slogans such as “1812 changed everything,” our founding fathers simply went about their business of defending the country and left our liberties intact. So next time somebody tells you that 9-11 “changed everything,” tell them no, 9-11 doesn’t change anything. We survived 1812 and we’ve survived 9-11. Tell them our founding fathers set an example for how leaders act in a world that was far more dangerous than the one we find ourselves in. Tell them to stop trying to scare us, and act like leaders, or step down so somebody else can.

Try This One Out On Your Republican Friends

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

Okay, this isn’t original, but it makes the point. It is a letter to the editor of the Tulsa World (Ok) newspaper from Clint Gold. Originally written in 1999, it is as true today as it was then.

Not too long ago, my wife and I attended a TV football party in south Tulsa. With a lopsided score, the conversation turned to a livelier subject — politics. The crowd was, of course, top-heavy with Republicans. With each point expressed their faces became more flushed, eyes bulging a little more and veins popping in their foreheads as they railed against the liberal programs.

Finally a lone, liberal voice asked: “Will you people name me one bill your party ever passed to help the working man of this country?” The question created much din and clamor, and someone sputtered, “Well, what have the Democrats done?”

The liberal responded with a few programs and was interrupted by howling and disdain. He noted that he had not promised they would like the programs and he asked to complete his statement — a difficult task to ask of Republicans.

He spoke of Social Security; Medicare-Medicaid; Peace Corps; unemployment insurance; welfare (for the poor and corporate); civil rights; student grant and loan programs; safety laws (OSHA); environmental laws; prevailing wage laws; right to collective bargaining (which brought about paid medical insurance, paid vacations, pensions, etc); workers’ compensation; Marshall Plan; flood-disaster insurance; School Lunch Program; women’s rights.

He spoke of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a minimum wage, instituted child labor laws, and set up time-and-a-half pay for over a 40-hour week.

He mentioned FHA-HUD with its public housing, urban renewal and 44 million residential homes (before WWII almost 70 percent of our nation were renters; by the 1970s this had been reversed).

And farm-conservation subsidies — USDA programs, Farmers Home Administration (the bankers didn’t want to make rural loans), small flood-control lakes (more than 3,000 in Oklahoma alone), rural water districts, rural electricity (REA).

The GI Bill was passed, which the Republicans at the time bitterly opposed. They were salivating over millions of returning veterans to hire as cheap labor. More than 8 million have used college benefits, creating millions of entrepreneurs; most of us had never dreamed of college. For the unemployed GI, there was $20 a week for 52 weeks to help get started (a lot of money in those days). The Veterans Administration provided more than 2 million home loans.

For the bankers at the football party, it was pointed out that the liberals saved their industry with the creation of FDIC and FSLIC, insuring their deposits, and saved Wall Street with the establishment of the Securities Exchange Commission.

The oil men came on bended knees to FDR at a time when East Texas oil was 4 cents a barrel and begged him to save their industry. He did; prorationing overturned the rule of capture and the days of flush production were over. Prorating has served this great industry (and nation) well.

And the list went on and on, but of course this group didn’t let him get halfway through. He noted they were weary, inattentive, so again he challenged them to offer up any Republican legislation examples.

“I’m sure your party has authored one or two comparable bills from time to time, but I can’t think of any, and apparently you can’t either. What it boils down to is this: the liberals dragged you into the 20th century scratching and screaming with your heels in the mud, fighting anything that’s progressive, everything that’s made this country great. You Republicans have never understood that the spending power of blue-collar workers, obtained through Democrats and unions, is what really made this country great. You really believe “The Good Life” was obtained from your own endeavors. You cloak your greed in religion and patriotism, railing against any form of tax, never comprehending that these programs have benefited all of us and our country.”

One Thing You Don’t Hear A Lot About Hilary Clinton

Saturday, June 16th, 2007

She served on the Wal-Mart Board of Directors from 1986 to 1992.

Cheney Out of Control

Saturday, June 16th, 2007

Here’s some news that hasn’t got a lot of attention, but it should. It’s been reported that Vice President Cheney is trying to undermine the efforts of the Bush Administration to resolve the Iran “crisis” by diplomacy(of course, there’s no crisis, but that’s a different story.) According to this report, Cheney is trying to get Israel to launch some cruise missiles into Iran, thereby provoking Iran to retaliate against American troops in the region, giving Bush no option but to initiate military action against Iran.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that chickenhawk Cheney’s heavy hands have been seen shaping American policy, but one question that I have never seen asked is “who the hell is Dick Cheney to be talking to Israel on behalf of the United States?” Yes, he’s the Vice President, but the Vice President’s role in government is clearly spelled out in the Constitution:

a.) He is the President of the Senate and votes if there is a tie; and

b) He sits on the sideline and takes over if the President dies or is incapacitated.

Period. Nothing there about being a policy maker.

So by what authority is Dick Cheney roaming around the world trying to brew up a war? But if the President appoints him, that’s alright, isn’t it? The problem with this is that the President’s authority to make appointments is limited. There are two sources of this power. The Constitution and statutes enacted by Congress. Under the Constitution, the President “shall have power . . .by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.”

What this means is that the President can make certain appointments subject to ratification by the Senate, and Congress can establish other appointments (of “inferior officers”) that are not subject to Senate ratification. Therefore, the only way that the President can appoint Cheney to perform executive functions is if (a) the Senate has approved the appointment, or (b) Congress has provided otherwise. Needless to say, the Senate has not passed on any appointment of Cheney to exercise authority outside his constitutional duties. I have scoured the Federal statutes, and the only thing I can find is that Congress has allowed the Vice President to hire a small staff “to enable the Vice President to provide assistance to the President in connection with the performance of functions specially assigned to the Vice President by the President in the discharge of executive duties and responsibilities.” This is not actually a grant of any authority to the Vice President. At most, it implies that the President may assign to the Vice President special functions to assist the President in the his duties and responsibilities. Although it’s anybody’s guess what functions can be so assigned, it is clear that Congress’s authority is limited to passing laws allowing the President to appoint “inferior officers.” Therefore, the outer limit of the Vice President’s authority under the quoted statute can be no more than that of an “inferior officer.”

What is interesting about this statute is that it assumes that the Vice President takes direction from the President. But that is not the case. The Vice President is independently elected (although you would never know it) and has a narrow role in government as contemplated by the Constitution.

In any case, it is clear that Cheney’s role under Bush has been far more than that of an inferior officer. Under the Constitution, therefore, Cheney’s appointment to these functions was required to be submitted to Senate approval. There is a very good argument that Cheney, more or less with Bush’s approval, has made a huge illegal grab of power. One more good reason to impeach Cheney.

What’s a citizen to do? I’m looking into whether there are grounds to file suit to prohibit Cheney from exercising any functions not specifically assigned by the Constitution. Stay tuned for further developments.