NEW YORK – Tony Soprano carries on.
The much-awaited conclusion of HBO's "The Sopranos" arrived Sunday night in a frenzy of audience speculation over the fate of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano: Would he live or be killed? Would his family die before his eyes at the hands of his enemies? Would he go to jail? Be forced to enter witness protection?
And what of his vindictive rival, Phil Leotardo? Would the Brooklyn boss, who had ordered a hit on Tony, prevail?
In the end, the only ending that mattered was the one masterminded by "Sopranos" creator David Chase. And playing against viewer expectation, as always, Chase refused to stage a mass extermination, or put the characters through any major transformation, or even provide his viewers with comfortable closure.
The most decisive development: Phil was crushed. But there were few other tidy resolutions.
This much-anticipated farewell, the series' 86th episode, was brilliant. But it was also perversely non-earthshaking — just one last visit with the characters we have followed so devoutly since 1999.
Here was Bobby Bacala's funeral (the Soprano soldier was shot dead on Leotardo's orders last week). Here was Tony (series star James Gandolfini) paying a hospital visit to his gravely injured consigliere, Silvio Dante (Phil put bullets in him, too).
Tony's ne'er-do-well son A.J. (Robert Iler) continued to wail about the misery in the world, and voiced a fleeting urge to join the Army and go fight in Afghanistan (Tony persuaded him to get involved in filmmaking, instead). Daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) harped on her plans to be a lawyer.
Tony visits his senile Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) at the nursing home. "You and my dad, you two ran North Jersey," Tony prompts him.
"We did?" says Uncle Junior with no sign of recognition. "That's nice."
Sure, headaches lie ahead for Tony. The Feds are still after him. And Meadow's fiance, Patsy Jr., is a lawyer who may well be pursuing cases that intrude on Tony's business interests.
So what else is new?
The finale displayed their lives continuing, for better and worse, unaffected by the fact that the series is done. The implication was, they will go on as usual. We just won't be able to watch.
Of course, Phil (Frank Vincent) hit a dead end after Tony found him and had him clipped. The execution was a quick but classic "Sopranos" scene: Pulling up at a gas station with his wife, Phil made a grand show of telling his two young grandchildren in the back seat to "wave bye-bye" as he emerged from his SUV. The next moment he was on the pavement, shot dead.
Then you heard the car roll over his head. Carunnnchh! Quick, clinical, even comical, this was the only violence during the hour.
Not that Chase (who wrote and directed this episode) didn't tease the viewer with the threat of death in almost every scene.
This was never more true than in the final sequence. On the surface, it was nothing more momentous than Tony, his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), as well as Meadow and A.J. meeting for dinner at a cozy family restaurant.
When he arrived, Tony dropped a coin in the jukebox to play the classic Journey power ballad "Don't Stop Believing." Meanwhile, every moment seemed to foreshadow a disaster: Suspicious-looking people coming in the door or sitting at a nearby table. Meadow on the street having trouble parallel parking her car. With every passing second, the audience was primed for tragedy. It was a scene both warm and fuzzy, yet full of dread. It set every viewer's heart racing, for no clear reason.
But nothing would happen, just a family gathering for dinner at a restaurant. Four people among many.
But then, with a jingle of the bell from the front door opening, Tony looked up, apparently seeing Meadow make her delayed entrance. Or could he have seen something awful, something he certainly deserved, about to come down?
Probably not. Almost certainly a false alarm. But we'll never know. With that, "The Sopranos" cut to black, leaving us nourished after eight years. And flustered. And fated to always wonder what happens next.