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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Did Paul Get Whacked? The Endings of The Sopranos and the Acts of the Apostles

What happens when something ends before it should? On a recent Sunday evening, millions of people went to bed with the unease of an open ending. The arguments proliferated immediately: Was the ending of The Sopranos a cheap trick or a beautiful work of art? Was the ending a snapshot of quotidian Sopranos dysfunction, depicting characters who have learned little and will continue in their ways? Or, were there hints of a different ending that the observer was supposed to supply once the screen went dark? While a comparison between Tony Soprano and the Apostle Paul may seem strange, the ending of the Acts of the Apostles elicits reactions similar to the ending of The Sopranos. Does the ending portray Paul in all his apostolic glory? Or, does Luke hint at another ending outside of the text?

In The Sopranos, the final two episodes of the final season are a tension-packed montage of mob warfare. Tony, the boss of New Jersey, makes a "move" on Phil Leotardo, the boss of New York. At the same time, a contract is out on Tony's head. Tony's top two capos (sort of like vice-presidents, only with better hair) are shot in the penultimate episode, and Tony goes into hiding. The entire final season was burdened with Tony's impending doom. Carmela, Tony's wife, comments that Tony should know that there is a piano hanging over his head wherever he goes. Similar comments were pervasive in the final season, indicating that the characters themselves knew the end was near, making the imminent immanent.[1] In the final scene, Tony and his family assemble at a diner, while the song "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey plays from the juke box. The screen goes dark in the middle of the scene, and the song cuts out with the words "don't stop." It is a very abrupt ending, and one that leaves many things unresolved, including an impending grand jury indictment and the contract that has been put on Tony's head by New York.

The book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome. After a series of arrests, trials, and escapes, Paul arrives in Rome, living by himself under Roman guard (28:16). The text's parting words tell us that Paul lives in this situation for two years, preaching with boldness in a manner unhindered. This ending might not seem troublesome at first (i.e., it does not have the dramatic snap-to-black of The Sopranos ending), but Paul is awaiting trial before the emperor, to whom he appealed (25:10-12). Festus responds to Paul's appeal: "you have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go" (NRSV). The story ends before Festus' words are fulfilled, and, more pointedly, before Paul's death. Acts ends in an unfinished manner; it is "something of a disappointment."[2] Both The Sopranos and the book of Acts end, if not abruptly, at least prematurely. There are three major ways people have responded to the ending of these two works.

The first response is to say that the ending is bad. Many people, immediately after The Sopranos ended, started expressing their frustration (after checking their cable boxes to make sure they were not broken). Anonymous chat room visitors called the ending a trick. Or, as the headline in the New York Post read: "Tony and Gang Whack Fans." Equating the ending to the crushing demise of Phil Leotardo might be exaggerated, but it adequately expresses a common sentiment. Along with the assessment of a bad ending is a skeptical view that David Chase could not whack Tony because he needs him for a movie sometime in the future. Scholars have assessed the ending of Acts in very similar ways. One theory claims that Luke died before he could finish writing. Another common response is that Luke intended to write a third volume. The shared sentiment here is clear: either the ending is not adequate (a trick or the result of untimely death) or the ending is abrupt because there is more to come, even though there is no evidence of a subsequent installment in either case (later apocryphal stories of Paul in Spain notwithstanding).

A second response suggests that, even if abrupt, the ending is appropriate, making "possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and with the middle."[3] From this perspective, the final Sopranos scene adroitly captures the essence of life: it goes on in its mundane, muddled, ambiguous way. The Sopranos ending is the anti-Friends and Sex and the City ending, in which Ross and Rachel (or Carrie and Big) finally unite, insulting the observer by forcing her or him to believe that this time things will be different. Quite the contrary, The Sopranos ends by doing what made it continually good, offering a frank snapshot of forces that tug at life. The ambiguity of the ending blends well with the moral ambiguity that made the show cutting edge art in the first place. Tony deals with federal investigations and a mom that tries to whack him — a bizarre world at first blush — but his struggle for authentic existence is no different than for those of us sitting on the couch. Because of this, Tony's ending needed to be commensurate with life: to kill him would have been to kill each of us. In Acts, it is also profitable to read the ending as appropriate to the narrative it concludes. The ending is somewhat abrupt and leaves some details untold, but it presumably ends the way the author intended. The last thing said of Paul is that he preached the gospel in an unhindered manner with boldness (28:31). This fulfills the words of Jesus from the beginning of the story, that his witnesses will extend to the end of the earth (1:8). Acts, at its core, tells the story of God pushing the message of Jesus further into the world. Paul's doing this very thing in Rome is the zenith of this push, the perfect ending to a story that repeatedly narrates God's message crossing into new territory. While the ending may not fulfill all righteousness, it is appropriate to the text itself. If read this way, both of these endings may adhere to what Frank Kermode suggests about the relationship between art and reality. He quotes Iris Murdoch: "Since reality is incomplete, art must not be too afraid of incompleteness."[4]

A final response is to suggest that the author intended an implied ending and left clues for the observer to interpret and fill in the gaps. In the final Sopranos scene, the camera occasionally lingers on a sketchy looking individual in the diner who is sitting at the counter. The family pays no heed and instead eats onion rings. The man at the counter enters the bathroom. As I was watching this, I shouted, "Oh no! This is just like The Godfather." In that movie, Mikey enters a restaurant bathroom to get a gun in order to execute a revenge hit on behalf of his family. The Sopranos often showed deference to The Godfather movies, and the final scene is obviously meant to evoke its la cosa nostra predecessor. Within hours of the last Sopranos, there was a chain e-mail circulating the globe; it claimed that Tony really was dead, based on these Godfather overtones and a few other details culled from previous episodes. Paramount in this search was a line Bobby "Baccala" Baccalieri uttered to Tony: "At the end, you probably don't hear anything, everything just goes black." Tony remembers this line at the end of the penultimate episode, while clutching a large gun to his chest. Conspiracy theorists tie these things together and say that the moment the screen went black was the moment Tony dies. In the book of Acts, similar interpretation is possible. Paul's death may not be included, but the narrative signals that it is to be assumed. The story of Paul has similar shape to the story of Jesus in Luke's gospel.[5] Both Jesus and Paul are castigated, arrested, and repeatedly called before leaders to give account of their actions. Both characters also are engulfed in an inexorable journey, Jesus to Jerusalem (see Luke 9:51) and Paul to Rome (Acts 25:6-12; 28:16). If we know how it ended for Jesus, presumably the end was similar for Paul. Paul's death also infuses his words in chapter 20. He does not know what will happen to him in Jerusalem (20:22), he does not count his life as having any value to himself (20:24), and at the end of the speech there is much weeping because Paul had said that he would not see them again (20:38). In this chapter, Paul seems resigned to his own impending death, which the readers of Acts could have associated with Rome. So, although it is not specifically shown or narrated, both Tony and Paul may share a grim fate hinted at in the details and echoes of their respective stories. Such interpretation, however, paints us as fulfillment specialists, Kermode's pleromatists, who "seek the center that will allow the senses to rest."[6]

There are, then, some interesting parallels in how people react to the finale of The Sopranos and the ending of the book of Acts. In both cases, the ending is open. Some things are left unresolved. Tensions are not relieved. One important cue to be taken from both of these works is that ambiguity and openness tend to breed interest. The ending of both The Sopranos and Acts spurred observers to rummage back through previous episodes in order to help understand the ending. Acts is not alone in biblical literature with an open ending. The story of Jonah ends with a question asked of its title character; the question is not answered. The Gospel of Mark also has a famously unfinished and abrupt conclusion, leaving readers with an unsettled feeling that people have been trying to remove by expanding the ending (as represented in the manuscript tradition) or by offering elaborate theories of how the original ending must have been lost.[7] The recent movie, Lost in Translation, also has an open ending. It ends with a whisper that is audible to the audience, but the words cannot be discerned; the ending is radically open. For some, such endings are onerous, sending "interpreters scurrying to the ramparts, fearful for their lives."[8] As Mike Wilbon remarked about The Sopranos finale on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption (a show that is not bad as a cultural bellwether): "When you have a point of view . . . tell me your point of view . . . don't expect me to supply my own ending or do that much interpretation." Part of the reason The Sopranos ending (and perhaps that of Acts as well) hit a nerve is that it forces the reader/observer to interpret. Kermode, when discussing literature that is "at least very good," says that in "varying degrees" such works represent a "falsification of simple expectations as to the structure of a future."[9] According to Kermode, the more daring the peripeteia, the more the work "respects our sense of reality."[10]

What comprises a good ending? Is a good ending when Ross and Rachel are finally together so that we never have to think about them again? Or, does the best type of ending question all that has come before? Does a good ending constrict and determine the future or leave the future open? In the case of The Sopranos and the book of Acts, however the quality of their endings is to be assessed, they evoke strong reactions from those who experience them. In these endings, "the reader is not offered easy satisfactions, but a challenge to creative co-operation."[11] The endings ask new questions rather than answering old ones. In these two examples, it seems that the best ending is the one that calls forth an open future and makes you go back to the beginning and start all over again.[12]

Micah Kiel, St. Ambrose University

Notes
[1] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 30.

[2] Morna D. Hooker, Endings: Invitations to Discipleship (London: SCM Press, 2003), 59. See also Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 31; New York: Doubleday, 1998), who says that Acts "ends abruptly and surprises the modern reader" (791).

[3] Kermode, Sense of an Ending, 17.

[4] Kermode, Sense of an Ending, 130.

[5] Hooker, Endings, 59.

[6] Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), 72.

[7] For a brief summary of different reactions, see Hooker, Endings, 12-13. A theory about a lost ending is offered by N. Clayton Croy, The Mutilation of Mark's Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003). See also Donald H. Juel, "A Disquieting Silence: The Matter of the Ending" in The Ending of Mark and the Ends of God: Essays in Memory of Donald Harrisville Juel (ed. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Patrick D. Miller; Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005), 1-14.

[8] Juel, "Disquieting Silence," 12.

[9] Kermode, Sense of an Ending, 23.

[10] Kermode, Sense of an Ending, 18.

[11] Kermode, Sense of an Ending, 19.

[12] See Hooker, who, when discussing the ending of Mark, claims that it "points us back to the beginning; we have come full circle, and the disciples have to learn the painful lessons of discipleship all over again" (Endings, 25).

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Citation: Micah Kiel, " Did Paul Get Whacked? The Endings of The Sopranos and the Acts of the Apostles," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=695

 
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