I was a few days late seeing the finale of "The Sopranos" as I was in Toronto for a trade show (I know I don't need to mention which one -- everybody knows about the Rapid Excavation and Tunneling Conference). When I finally did get to see it, I was beyond pleased with how it ended. I do understand the naysaying that has gone on in its wake. Scratch that, I don't understand it, per se, I will say, though, that I'm not surprised. More on that later.
The final scene was among the best of the series in that it summed up so much of what made "The Sopranos" great and gave us insight into Tony's life and how it will be going forward. In a series that repeatedly set the table with symbols and allusions without necessarily getting to the meal that viewers might have expected, the final scene presented so much and slow burned all the way to that crash to black.
From the moment Tony played Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" on the table-top jukebox, we leaned forward, expecting greatness. And we got it. Not in the form of a final act of violence from or against Tony. Nothing that easy. The camera played around the room and we noticed everyone in the restaurant the way Tony did. The way he has to, given who he is. He lives beneath the constant threat of death or arrest. Guys like Tony live long enough to see their kids finish college (or not) because they drink every situation in. They measure every room and everyone in it. What happened to Baccala, what happened to Phil, couldn't happen to Tony. He's too aware. Sure, he looks like a big slug of a guy, but when he's been caught dead-to-rights by would be assassins and authorities in the past, he leaps into action like a cat and slips away.
No way the guy from the counter walks into the bathroom and gets the drop on Tony on his way out. We're meant to wonder, as it harkened back to "The Godfather," but Tony sized him up and weighed the threat. Even with his daughter on her way into the restaurant, he knew where everyone in the room was. If he hadn't developed that skill, he'd have been dead long ago.
At the end, we're left to wonder, doesn't Tony have to pay for his sins? Absolutely, I say. He does, he has, and he will. Viewers hoping for repentance on his part should have known better. Tony hasn't changed. He's made himself into a certain type of person and asking forgiveness just isn't in him. The whole point of Melfi's final arc, her realization that she hasn't done anything for Tony as a patient, is meant to underscore that Tony hasn't changed since we've known him. He's only gotten better at his job and has made himself more securely who he is.
Back to Tony's sins. He pays for them every day. The price he pays for the life he's chosen is that he lives in constant...fear isn't the right word. He lives with the pressure of knowing that everything he has and is can go away in a flash. He can't just go out for dinner with his family and relax. He and his family need to be ready at the drop of a hat to relocate to safe houses and disappear from their lives. Who wants that life? Even if it comes with a big house and a chauffered SUV and so on. If the point of working hard is to enjoy the fruits, when does a guy like Tony really get to enjoy them?
Of course, that explains why he lives as a hyper-consumer. Like a shark he chews through money and posessions and never stops. He's always moving forward, never able to rest. And this is the price he pays. He can't retire. He can't get a gold watch and a country club membership and become a motivational speaker to keep himself busy. He's got to live this life until he lets his guard down. And once that happens...
So I'm just not sure what people would have wanted. Death or repentance would have been horribly jarring and inconsistent. Anyone who felt cheated by the ending that was would have been more disappointed by the alternatives. Maybe not right away, but closing the book definitively on Tony Soprano would have damaged the series that preceded. Does knowing Tony gets popped in a diner illuminate the series? How about if he had flipped? No way. Leaving Tony how we found him fits better with everything that came before. And since we know he's not going to change, we know what comes after.