(SPOILER ALERT: This is a recap of The Sopranos' series finale. This is spoiler central.)

Was that supposed to mean lights out for Tony Soprano? Or did the crew just run out of film?

No, the picture and sound on your television set didn't cut out at the most inopportune moment possible. The Sopranos brain trust intended that the last thing you hear, after six spread-out seasons and 18 Emmys, be the words "don't stop"—as in, "Don’t Stop Believin', " the classic Journey tune that played in the background as the final moments of the revered HBO drama played out Sunday night.

No matter that a shady-looking possible assassin who had been eyeing Tony all night (immediately making you think, Are we supposed to know who that is? Is he from season one?!) had just gone to the men's room, or that Meadow was breathlessly running through the door at Holsten's (best onion rings in the state, Tony says, a foodie till the end), after having had a randomly tough time parallel parking outside, to meet up with the rest of her family.

And so what if Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri looked suspiciously troubled in all his scenes—we're left wondering why. Was he ratting out his longtime crew to the Feds or, almost as bad, to New York? All we know is that he's the same crude, wily-eyed egomaniac that he was on day one.

Even Journey didn't make it all the way to the credits, which uncharacteristically rolled by silently after a completely abrupt cut-to-black as Tony looked up, ostensibly to see Meadow coming in. The point is, he'll spend the rest of his life—however long or abbreviated—glancing up to see who's walking through the door, and with what intention.

But that's how The Sopranos creator and executive producer David Chase envisioned the ending to one of the most smartly written, well-acted and layered TV series in history. So, that's what we got.

The series mastermind has said that when he was shopping his idea about a depressed mob boss with mother issues who's trying to maintain his grip on two types of "families," he was more concerned about maintaining creative control than about winning a pickup.

Thanks to HBO, however, he got both—bloodthirsty viewers be damned. In fact, Chase told the Washington Post recently that he pretty much had tonight's episode all figured out in his head about three years ago.

"There were not many changes from what I originally envisioned...It has all been planned out, we always knew exactly where it was going, but within that framework, we left a lot of room for each episode to have its own character and to invent stories that would fit in with the continuing story—if that makes any sense," Chase said.

Critics may have been divided over whether Tony getting whacked was the only way this series could conceivably end (meaning, most assumed that Tony was gonna be eating vinegar peppers with the fishes—or in prison). But running over the long list of possibilities for this series' swan song, the more melodramatic options seem almost silly now, considering Chase's penchant for mining the seemingly mundane for humor, violence, irony and universal truths.

The show—so rewarding and simultaneously frustrating to watch at times—wasn't groundbreaking because of the graphic sex and violence, the liberal use of profanity and the head-in-a-bowling bag moments—although none of that ever hurt as The Sopranos became the most all-around successful show in premium cable history.

It was the combination of shock, awe, dark comedy, tragedy, suspense, normality and abnormality and sheer absurdity mixed with eerie familiarity that won Chase comparisons to Dickens and Shakespeare. 

So, despite the fact that The Sopranos' 86th episode didn't feature an elaborate Godfather-style revenge sequence or prove that what goes around comes around, as far as our murderous yet beloved antihero is concerned, or otherwise mete out a lot of heavy-handed poetic justice—minus Phil's literally mind-blowing demise—the ending was, in fact, as producer Brad Grey told the Hollywood Reporter, done "elegantly and probably exactly the way it should" have been done. 

Try telling that, however, to the thousands of disgruntled viewers who reportedly swarmed HBO's Website afterward, most of them complaining about the lack of closure, not to mention the dearth of rolling heads.

Of course, the public's demand for nonstop action of the whacking variety is understandable, after having been made to wait nearly two years for season six to begin, and then another 10 months for the final nine episodes to kick off. That's just mean. People were peeved enough that they had to wait a mere four months to see what was in the hatch on Lost.

But, once you stop and consider these, none of them seem quite right when you think about the direction the show has taken in the last couple seasons:

  • [Insert name here] blows Tony away—karmic, yes, but luckily Chase knew that we didn't really want this to happen, even though it would have been a real gut check.
  • One of the other Sopranos is killed accidentally—too Godfather: Part III. But it almost looked as if A.J. was toast when his SUV caught fire, didn't it? How could he miss the leaves! 
  • Tony has a massive coronary—see above.
  • Tony goes to prison—this isn't Seinfeld.

Instead, we got the type of episode that closed out the first half of season six, way back when on June 4, 2006. Subtle, brilliantly acted and somewhat discomfiting, with a healthy dose of signature Sopranos payback.

With the deaths of the characters nearest and dearest to our hearts having occurred in the last few episodes, giving us more time to ponder the moral implications, Chase left a fan-friendly slaying for the finale: Phil Leotardo's exit harkened back to the days of Ralphie's beheading and Richie Aprile's Hefty bag burial.

After being whacked in the traditional sense by one of Tony's goons, the increasingly power-hungry newly minted boss of the Lupertazzi family ended up as roadkill when the SUV he had been riding in, with his grandchildren strapped into their car seats in the back, rolled over his head after his wife jumped out of the driver's seat to call for help.

The camera panned away, but the sound effects were enough. That, and the fact that a random bystander meekly said, "Oh, s--t," and another young man standing there projectile-vomited.

Vintage over-the-top Sopranos gross-out.

Meanwhile, the past few weeks gave us plenty of people to mourn. It's okay to admit if you shed a tear or two when one of the following met his maker.

Christopher Moltisanti's unheralded murder at Tony's hands was a fittingly pathetic end for this brutish yet uncomfortably endearing aspiring filmmaker. Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri's death was plain sad, considering he was an all right guy who had only just made his bones at the behest of Tony, and only because his boss was trying to get back at him for whipping his butt in a fight. Silvio Dante, while always likeable (but maybe that's only because he looked like he had walked out a Dick Tracy comic strip), was still a murderer, and he is now lying in a coma, his gravity-defying pompadour ignominiously deflated. Paulie, meanwhile, was just too all-around nasty to die.

So, with Tony's crew whittled down to nothing already, Chase left The Sopranos' finale wide open for more what-ifs and even more philosophical musing.

In other words, the series ended as it began. There are problems still to be solved; Tony is still a dangerous, paranoid sociopath who might go to jail (we did find out that Carlo has turned rat and an indictment is imminent); Carmela is still stoically burdened by what she knows and yet still doesn't know enough, such as the truth about Adriana (Edie Falco will have to settle for a fourth Emmy for turning in one of the most complex small-screen characters, ever); A.J. is still a spoiled brat (the army would have eaten him alive); and Meadow is still looking for the normal person's way out, which currently comes in the guise of constitutional law.   

Hence, Tony Soprano's story continues. Unfortunately, we don't get to be a part of it, but as A.J. reminds his dad in the series' dwindling moments, sometimes you just have to look back and focus on the good times.

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