Back in 2007, when The Sopranos ran its course in Holsten’s ice cream parlor at the end of season six, I was among the dissatisfied. Was Tony dead? Maybe. There were certainly compelling hints that he was. (Principal among them was Bobby Bacala’s comment—which appeared twice in previous episodes—that “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens.”) But the black screen and dead silence that erased that final tinkle of the restaurant's door chime nonetheless felt to me calculatedly cryptic, and, as such, more than a bit of a cop-out for one of the most important shows in television history.
I wrote as much at the time at The New Republic, in a post the bulk of which was confined to the comments section in order to avoid offering spoilers to readers who hadn’t yet watched the episode. The comments aren’t currently available online, but the gist of my argument was that series creator David Chase had just jerked all of our chains with a willfully opaque conclusion: “Yes, David. That was even more ambiguous than we thought you would be. You win.”
Unsurprisingly, a number of readers pushed back. Principal among them was one commenter who made the case, over a series of sharp but friendly posts, that I was simply wrong, that through a variety of signals—in particular the Bacala setup and the sudden blackout—Chase had clearly established that Tony had been whacked. “Chase gave us the murder of Tony Soprano, just as it would have come to him: sudden oblivion,” he argued. “It's not that Chase didn't commit to an ending; it's that it is shocking and disorienting for us to experience the sudden death of a character we know so well from that character's perspective.”
We went back and forth about this for quite a few posts—the longest exchange, in fact, I think I’ve ever had with a commenter. And while I still wasn’t entirely sold on the Tony-is-dead thesis, his arguments certainly got me partway there. Moreover, in an odd but perfect twist of fate, the commenter in question has since become my boss and colleague: J.J. Gould, the editor of TheAtlantic.com.
Some time later, I encountered the aptly titled “The Sopranos: Definitive Explanation of ‘The End,’” a magisterial, dispositive, shot-by-shot exegesis of that final scene in Holsten’s, and I became a full convert. (If the subject interests you at all, it's a must-read.) While I may still have had some complaints regarding a scene so subtle that it required thousands of words—and dozens of screenshots—to fully parse, there was a part of me that was all the more impressed with the achievement. “If you look at the final episode really carefully,” Sopranos creator David Chase had said way back when, “it’s all there.” And it was true: For those willing to take the forensic deep dive, the clues were all available. Yes, Tony was dead. Obviously. Conclusively. Definitively.
Only now he’s not again, or at least not necessarily. In a recent interview with the Director’s Guild of America, Chase offered his own shot-by-shot analysis of the scene and seemed to confirm all my early qualms about the deliberate ambivalence of the finale. Following some interesting details about the challenges presented by the shoot, Chase explains:
I thought the possibility would go through a lot of people's minds or maybe everybody's mind that he was killed ... Whether this is the end here, or not, it's going to come at some point for the rest of us. Hopefully we're not going to get shot by some rival gang mob or anything like that. I'm not saying that [happened]. But obviously he stood more of a chance of getting shot by a rival gang mob than you or I do because he put himself in that situation. All I know is the end is coming for all of us.
So Chase is not saying that it happened, and he’s not saying it didn’t happen. He’s just saying that we’re all going to die someday, and for most of us the end won’t come via Mafia gunshot. Thanks for clearing that up.
I have even less of a sense of what to make of this:
I thought the ending would be somewhat jarring, sure. But not to the extent it was, and not a subject of such discussion. I really had no idea about that. I never considered the black a shot. I just thought what we see is black.
One might even say, with comparable critical insight, that what we see could be none more black. But perhaps most disturbing of all is Chase’s discussion of the song that is used to score the scene, Journey’s 1981 power-ditty “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I had always assumed there was a cruel irony at work here—a somewhat gentler cousin to the use of “Stuck in the Middle With You” during Michael Madsen’s brutal mutilation of a cop in Reservoir Dogs. No, Chase assures us:
I think it's a really good rock 'n' roll song. The music is very important to me in terms of the timing of the scene, the rhythm of the scene. The song dictates part of the pace. And having certain lyrics of the song, and certain instrumental flourishes happen in certain places, dictates what the cuts will be. I directed the scene to fit the song.
What? He directed the scene to fit the song? That song? Surely Chase just means issues of tempo, etc., right? Alas, no:
I love the timing of the lyric when Carmela enters: "Just a small town girl livin' in a lonely world, she took the midnight train goin' anywhere." Then it talks about Tony: "Just a city boy," and we had to dim down the music so you didn't hear the line, "born and raised in South Detroit." The music cuts out a little bit there, and they're speaking over it. "He took the midnight train goin' anywhere." And that to me was [everything]. I felt that those two characters had taken the midnight train a long time ago … And the midnight train, you know, is the dark train.
And with that, the complex, multi-layered final scene of one of the all-time great TV series—indeed, the entire series itself—is reduced to a feeble Steve Perry lyric. Are we really talking about The Sopranos? Or did I somehow wander into a premature Glee retrospective? I suppose we should be grateful that Chase didn’t extend the song’s metaphorical architecture to “some will win” (Members Only guy, grinning over the smoking barrel of his pistol), “some will lose” (Tony, his head blasted in), “some were born to sing the blues” (Carmela, weeping over her husband’s bloody corpse), etc.
In any case, Chase seems to believe that this in no way reduces his masterwork, because “Don’t Stop Believin’” is a worthy proxy for life itself. As he concludes:
[T]he biggest feeling I was going for, honestly, was don't stop believing. It was very simple and much more on the nose than people think. That's what I wanted people to believe. That life ends and death comes, but don't stop believing. There are attachments we make in life, even though it's all going to come to an end, that are worth so much, and we're so lucky to have been able to experience them. Life is short. Either it ends here for Tony or some other time. But in spite of that, it's really worth it. So don't stop believing.
No, no, a thousand times no. This is exactly why artists should be careful about explaining their artistic choices. It may have taken me a while, but I eventually accepted the only interpretation of the Sopranos finale that made it anything other than a huge disappointment. Tony is dead. The guy in the Members Only jacket, coming back out of the bathroom (yes: Godfather nod), shot him from behind as Tony looked up to see Meadow enter the restaurant.
That’s what happened. It’s you, David Chase, that I’ve stopped believin’.