Among the profound questions of the early 21st century, perhaps none have been bigger than: “What happened at the end of The Sopranos?”
That’s why it was frankly shocking yesterday when, in a piece from Vox’s Martha P. Nochimson, the show’s creator, David Chase, seemed to clear up what most interpreted as the central mystery at the core of the finale: whether Tony Soprano died, or not.
You’re probably familiar with the ending of The Sopranos, regardless of if you watched the show. The iconic sequence, wherein Tony (played to perfection by the late, great James Gandolfini) meets his family at a diner for some onion rings. While his daughter is parking her car, a suspicious-looking guy in a “Members Only” jacket walks into the bathroom. Journey plays in the background. Tony says something, and then in mid-sentence—cut to black. Cue angry/confused fans.
So can everyone looking for concrete closure from The Sopranos now rest easy? Nochimson relays in her article that when she asked Chase whether Tony perished or not, like so many had done before, he got angry and asked, "Why are we talking about this?" But then, she says he relented, telling her, “No,” boredly, matter-of-factly even. “No, he isn’t.”
Halleluiah! Tony Soprano lives! Right?
Not exactly. Chase has since backtracked on these statements, following the ensuing uproar they caused. But no matter what you believe, none of this really matters in terms of the larger context. Any way you look at it, the bickering around the Sopranos finale is emblematic of the way the Internet has taught people to watch TV.
David Chase’s reluctance to answer Nochimson’s query about Tony’s fate should come as a surprise to no one. In the years since the finale aired, he hasn’t been shy about expressing his distaste for this line of questioning. Shortly after the finale aired in 2007, Chase talked to Brett Martin for Entertainment Weekly and complained, “It's one thing to be deeply involved with a television show. It's another to be so involved that all you do is sit on a couch and watch it. It seemed that those people were just looking for an excuse to be pissed off. There was a war going on that week and attempted terror attacks in London. But these people were talking about onion rings.”
Chase didn’t exactly quiet any of the speculation with this interview, though, and if anything, he exacerbated it. At one point, he mentioned, “There had been indications of what the end is like. Remember when Jerry Toricano was killed? Silvio was not aware that the gun had been fired until after Jerry was on his way down to the floor. That's the way things happen: It's already going on by the time you even notice it.”
Martin responded to this, gingerly beginning, “Are you saying...?” to which Chase fired back, “I'm not saying anything. And I'm not trying to be coy. It's just that I think that to explain it would diminish it.”
We’ll return to whether Chase “diminished” the finale later, but the other important revelation from this interview is what a fascinating, enigmatic character this man is. Nochimson’s piece is actually more about Chase than it is about The Sopranos finale, and Martin found him so compelling that he used Chase as the centerpiece for his 2013 book, Difficult Men, which focused on the showrunners (and yes, they are somewhat disappointingly all men) who made TV’s new “golden age.”
What’s really funny about Chase’s place as the leader of the show which basically orchestrated this golden age is his skepticism about the medium he was working in. Chase has not been shy about sharing this either, although he does frequently come off as hopeful about the elevated potential of “art” as a separate entity from television. Talking to Nochimson about his 2012 major feature debut, Not Fade Away, he says, "I guess what I was trying to get to in Not Fade Away is that experiencing art is the closest an atheist or agnostic can get to praying."
Chase’s high-minded view of what constitutes great art is all over his comments to Nochimson, who frequently returns to literary heavyweights like Edgar Allan Poe and Carlos Castaneda. These forces were a direct influence on the end of The Sopranos, according to Nochimson, who proposes, “The cut to black brought to American television the sense of an ending that produces wonder instead of the tying-up of loose ends that characterizes the tradition of the formulaic series. Tony's decisive win over his enemy in the New York mob, Phil Leotardo, is the final user-friendly event in Chase's gangster story that gratifies the desire to be conclusive, and it would have been the finale of a less compelling gangster story. The cut to black is the moment when Castaneda and the American Romantics rise to the surface and the gangster story slips through our fingers and vanishes.”
However, Nochimson believes this vanishing should not in theory have been as opaque to the American public as many of them found it. She asserts that to a certain extent, a story’s finale is almost always inherently unresolved. “Though you wouldn't know it from watching Hollywood movies, endings are by nature mysterious," he writes. "Chase's art seeks a silent level of knowing more profound than words. He believes we already kow if we open up to that deeper part of us.”
In some ways, Nochimson is justified in positing that even the most satisfying endings leave questions open to the viewer. Because unless everybody dies, these characters lives go on in a world which we’ll never get to see.
But the “unless everybody dies” aspect also happens to be precisely what has driven the primary conversations around The Sopranos in recent years. Either most fans have not been able to access that “deeper part” of themselves that simply accepts the ending for what it is and formulates their own opinions about what happens to the characters once the show ends, or they have looked in that deeper part and found death to be the only logical possibility. This is most clearly evident in the famous, and moreover, incredibly well-written "Master of Sopranos" essay which has been circulating all around the web since the show’s end.
Written by an unnamed author, this essay states emphatically and rather convincingly that the only explanation for the finale lies in Tony Soprano’s death. But as fun as it is, it also may be part of the problem with the way people have started to look at television.
In the years since The Sopranos finale aired, viewers have basically gone in the opposite direction of the episode’s intention, with Internet speculation making it impossible for fans to embrace ambiguity. Lost inspired so many theories that they have their own website. And they’ve been so persistent that ten years after the show premiered, its creators are still debunking them.
More recently, True Detective prompted viewers to swarm the Internet, obsessing over the "Yellow King" and almost every other single detail the show offered. It got to the point where creator Nic Pizzolatto had to do as the Lost showrunners eventually did, and set the record straight on the most ridiculous theories out there. This over-hypothesizing also turned conversations about the show’s literary references into a debate over plagiarism, which didn’t really add up to anything but annoying nitpicking in the long run.
And the Internet hasn’t made things much better for film. A 2011 Cracked list called “7 Hotly Debated Movie Questions That Totally Have Answers” attempted to explain purposefully ambiguous elements in titles across all genres. The list included entries such as the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the FedEx box in Cast Away, the whisper in Lost in Translation, and the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey (the Sopranos finale is in there, too, despite the fact that The Sopranos is a television show.)
It also doesn’t help that directors like Christopher Nolan (and the actors he works with) have been overly eager to explain his movies away to whoever is listening. This wouldn’t be such a problem if not for the fact that Nolan is one of the few Blockbuster directors working today who tries to inject his films with just a soupcon of ambiguity.
All of this begs the question, is all of this explanation necessary? Many of the stories in question aren’t really that ambiguous, for one thing. Which isn’t to say there haven’t been plenty of aggressively ambiguous projects (some better than others) to come out in the last few years. Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek's Cutoff, David Fincher’s Zodiac, and the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man are all examples of this. And Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve was so desperate to contain “explanations” of his 2013 thriller, Enemy, that he made the cast sign a confidentiality agreement barring them from discussing interpretations of the movie.
Foreign cinema is different, in that explanations aren’t offered so readily. The idea that everything must be spelled out for the audience is mostly an American conceit.
What’s so disappointing about this is that trying to crack the end of a movie like 2001 takes away from the greater point of the film. The stylistic, sensory, and thematic joy of this movie (another Chase favorite) isn’t ultimately about “explanations.” Sure, explanations are fun, in so much as they can further the conversation about a great film. But looking at it under a microscope can be tedious. Lately, even lesser favorites like Mary Harron’s American Psycho have prompted viewers to look for answers while missing the overarching ethos, along with downright dumb pictures like the Alien-baiting Prometheus.
This fits in with TV, too. There is a line of thinking which supports the idea that a little messiness in a show’s finale is a good thing. Sure, no one wants anything as far out of left field as the Dexter sendoff, but a dash of ambiguity doesn’t hurt. For instance, as widely loved as the ending to Breaking Bad was, there were a few people in the minority who thought it was all a bit too neat, that it didn’t leave the viewer enough to wrestle with.
Revisiting The Sopranos in 2012, The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff wrote about how he felt that the show’s followers were starting to miss the forest for the trees:
A crazy thing happened to me on the way through the final nine episodes of The Sopranos. I’d read the famed 'Master Of Sopranos' essay that this comment section has discussed and debated a million times over. I actually read it a couple of times, since I found it a fascinating piece of using formalist film criticism—the picking apart of the smaller elements that go into the whole of a filmed work (shots, cuts, etc.)—to make one very specific argument. If you’ve never read it, I recommend it, even if I don’t really endorse it. After reading it, I was pretty convinced that I would watch these final nine episodes and see everything the unnamed author of the blog post saw, see how everything points to the death of Tony Soprano. Indeed… I toyed with adopting the theory wholesale.
But I can’t, and for reasons that go beyond my general irritation that the blog post, more than any other element, has turned far, far too many discussions of this show into discussions that solely talk about the final five minutes of its entire run.
In addition to this, VanDerWerff contends that endorsing or rejecting the “death theory” doesn’t mean that The Sopranos can’t be appreciated for its meditations on mortality. For him, it’s not important whether Tony dies in the finale or not. The show’s observations on death are about more than that.
Tony Soprano dies.
Maybe he dies at the end of 'Made In America,' when the Members Only jacket guy puts a bullet in the back of his head (something we don’t see, because we cut to black from his point-of-view). Maybe he dies in 40 years, surrounded by family and friends and little Parisi grandchildren. (At the thought of that, maybe he would have preferred the bullet.) Maybe he dies right after leaving Holstens when he gets hit by a bus. Maybe he dies because he gets cancer. Maybe the cancer is eating him alive right now. Maybe he dies in a fight with Carmela, when she finally gets fed up and takes a shot at him. Maybe he decays slowly in a hospital somewhere, like Uncle Junior, the only solace he has a moment to look out the window at the sun and the birds, a moment to wonder who he is or who he was. Tony Soprano dies. So do you. So do I.
Nochimson emphasizes in her Vox piece that discussing the underlying motifs of Chase’s work “is a better kind of discussion than furiously arguing about Tony's ultimate survival.” That said, while her article is intermittently excellent, it has reopened old wounds about the show’s endings which would have been better left untouched. And while Chase has now backtracked on his statements about Tony’s survival or lack thereof, the fact is that the whole incident is only likely to reignite shouts of “You’re wrong! I’m right!”
But The Sopranos isn’t a puzzle to be solved. Its insights on life, death, love, community, and identity are more complex than that. This is why (with all due respect to The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men) The Sopranos is the greatest television drama of all time. And no amount of straightforward explanations can change that.
Photo by Jason Reed