Today Vox posted a 5,000-word article by film professor Martha P. Nochimson in which she reveals the answer to the grand mystery of The Sopranos’ last episode, “Made in America.” When we cut to black in that Jersey diner, did that signify the last moment of Tony Soprano’s life? Was that guy in the Member’s Only jacket coming out of the bathroom to shoot him? Nochimson’s article claims to “finally” answer the question by relaying a coffee-shop conversation she had with Chase where she brought up the topic of Tony’s ambiguous fate. Is he dead at the end of the series?
“He shook his head ‘no.’ And he said simply, ‘No he isn’t.’”
Well, that clears that up, then! Nochimson spends most of her article discussing Chase’s personal history and how it intersects with his work, including a long section on his 2012 film Not Fade Away, and says that Chase said the finale’s memorable cut to black is a reference to Poe’s poem, “Dream Within a Dream,” although no further explanation is given as to what that might mean.
“Here's what I conclude. Though you wouldn't know it from watching Hollywood movies, endings are by nature mysterious. There is the instability of loss in an ending as well as the satisfying sense of completion,” Nochimson adds.
Despite the supposedly definitive nature of Chase’s answer to Nochimson in that coffee shop, the article really just serves as another stick on a colossal pile of theoretical examinations of Chase’s intention regarding that final scene. On the one hand, I understand it—watching the Soprano family in that diner and being startled by the cut to black was a genuinely bewitching moment in television history. I figured it as an open-ended conclusion, suggesting that Tony would always be looking over his shoulder for death or an arrest, and never really bought into the subsequent slew of articles that purported to prove Tony had died because of visual clues in the scene and throughout the season.
But the theory is not easily dismissed, so Chase has had to put up with endless questions from fans and critics about what he intended to convey, which is not something any writer really wants to deal with. Chase, in particular, has always seemed uncomfortable discussing the more mysterious elements of his writing, and he’d give answers like this one:
“I’m not trying to be coy about this. I really am not. It’s not like we’re trying to guess, ‘Ooh, is he alive or dead?’ It’s really not the point—it’s not the point for me. How do I explain this? Actually, here’s what Paulie Walnuts says in the beginning of that episode. He says, ‘In the midst of life, we are in death. Or is it: in the midst of death, we are in life? Either way, you’re up the ass.’ That’s what’s going on.”
Look at that answer. Forget for a second what he told Nochimson; Chase was very obviously going for something ambiguous and metaphysical with “Made in America’s” ending, not some series of clues for fans to put together and solve the mystery of Tony’s death. Indeed, that is also Nochimson’s conclusion, although the article is framed as Chase offering a definitive answer, he’s really not. At best, he’s just dismissing the supposedly bulletproof evidence of Tony’s demise, which is usually linked to a line his compatriot Bobby uttered in an earlier episode about not even hearing an assassin’s bullet when it’s coming.
So, if you clicked on this or Nochimson’s article looking for a definitive answer: the definitive answer is, stop looking. If you’re worried that Tony Soprano died in that diner, you should probably stop worrying; if, on the other hand, you’re so devoutly convinced of his death, then fine, one can argue Chase’s intentions are not the be-all and end-all of how audiences should experience art, and you can walk away with your own conclusions.
But one thing should be definitive: let this be the end of Sopranos discussion that focuses on Chase’s intention with that final scene. He produced a masterpiece of television that is still my personal favorite of the three gold-standard HBO shows (along with Deadwood and The Wire); there is so much to flesh out and discuss and enjoy in those six seasons. Let’s give that diner, and “Don’t Stop Believing,” and that cut to black, a break.