Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Author Ethics: ‘The Sopranos’ Finale

Do authors have any ethical obligation not to annoy, upset, or disappoint the fans of their creations? The short answer must forever be “No.” Still, there are unresolved issues of fairness, honesty, loyalty and trust surrounding the relationship between writer and audience, and perhaps the question of ethical duties should not be so easily dismissed.

When David Chase, the creator and writer of HBO’s popular, critically beloved and much-honored series “The Sopranos” decided to end the saga not with a bang but a “Huh?,” he violently pulled the rug out from all those who had hopes, predictions and fantasies about what would happen to Tony and his family. At an ambiguous transitional moment in the diner where the Sopranos were eating either their final meal or just another one, the TV screen went black, never showing us whether they got whacked or simply ordered up some more onion rings. It was different, clever, audacious, ironic, a bit of a cop-out, and something of a cheat.

So what? These are Chase’s characters, and he can do with them what he wants, right? He could have had Tony’s feckless son turn into a were-squid, or have Carmella announce she was going into pro wrestling, or do the last episode Kabuki style. But Chase has also became rich and famous because of the show’s fans, the TV equivalent of what novelists in days of yore used to call “Constant Readers.” Constant readers are loyal, devoted and affectionate; they buy an author’s books and pay the bills. Is it fair that this loyalty flow just one way?

Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t think so. After he killed off his legendary creation Sherlock Holmes in a death struggle with his nemesis Moriarity, fans of the detective stories were so distraught that Doyle relented, and brought Holmes back to life to sleuth again. It was an artistic capitulation for the benefit of the character’s fans; he acknowledged that he had a duty not to dispose of a fictional creation when his loyal readers wanted him to live. Just because authors can do whatever they want to their creations doesn’t mean that they should. If, for example, the new Nancy Drew movie ended with her being captured, drugged and sold to a brothel in Cambodia for a lifetime of sexual slavery, it would qualify as a betrayal of the character’s many fans.

Nancy Drew’s involuntary descent into sexual servitude, the bloody decapitation of Shrek, Indiana Jones’ devouring by demonic cannibals or any number of other horrible finales for popular characters would be unforgivable precisely because the authors would know that their creations’ fates would upset the public. These plot lines would raise the possibility or even the probability that the authors were trying to infuriate the characters’ fans. And if that was really the motivation, they would be acts of aggression and meanness disguised by artistic pretension. Some felt that novelist Thomas Harris’ choice to end “Hannibal,” his sequel to “The Silence of the Lambs,” with FBI agent Clarice Starling completely under the domination of madman Hannibal Lector fell into this category. Or was it just a properly startling and unsettling end to an already dark tale?

Like so many ethical questions, this one revolves around trust. While David Chase certainly did nothing to his characters as outrageous as the hypothetical finales above, he refused to resolve a serial drama that the loyal admirers of his show had invested many hours in watching and discussing. They wanted to know how the Tony Soprano story ended, assumed that the main plot would be wrapped up in the final episode, and looked forward to the resolution. They never suspected that Chase would rob them of this pleasure, because he had always delivered before; they trusted him. The ending they got stunned and infuriated most of the show’s fans, as Chase had to know it would.

Angry viewers crashed the HBO website shortly after the episode concluded. “Chase clearly didn’t give a damn about his fans.” wrote an angry blogger. “Instead, he crapped in their faces. This is why America hates Hollywood.” Naturally, many TV critics called Chase’s betrayal of trust “brilliant;” maybe this was his intended audience. To be fair to him, trying to end a popular TV series is tricky, and can backfire even with the best of intentions. Larry David’s last “Seinfeld” script was a bust; the final installments of “M*A*S*H” and “Cheers” were mediocre at best. But at least the writers tried to make their fans happy. Chase clearly felt that he had no obligation to his fans, and inflicted a non-ending that was guaranteed to cause controversy and unhappiness, but that (we must assume) preserved his artistic integrity in his own eyes.

Well, bully for him. He had the power and the right to disappoint his fans, but that doesn’t make his conduct admirable. He should have cared about his audience. Art being art, the Scoreboard cannot call what he did (or didn’t do) to Tony Soprano unethical, but Chase deserves to suffer the fate of the unethical nonetheless.

No one should trust him again.

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