In response to a Vox piece headlined, “Did Tony die at the end of The Sopranos?,” David Chase sent the following statement through his publicist:
“A journalist for Vox misconstrued what David Chase said in their interview. To simply quote David as saying, ‘Tony Soprano is not dead,’ is inaccurate. There is a much larger context for that statement and as such, it is not true. As David Chase has said numerous times on the record, ‘Whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead is not the point.’ To continue to search for this answer is fruitless. The final scene of The Sopranos raises a spiritual question that has no right or wrong answer.”
It’s a compliment to The Sopranos and its creator that the show’s final episode aired seven summers ago and we’re still arguing about the meaning of that cut-to-black ending in Holsten’s diner. I don’t think the Vox piece, or this piece, or any piece ends the discussion. And not to get all Death-of-the-Author on you, but I don’t think Chase’s statement ends it, either. And I say that without disappointment, even though I hate the chorus that keeps chanting “Tony died” over and over as if it were a mantra.
I wish this question didn’t keep getting asked, because I think it’s the wrong thing to ask about The Sopranos. It may, in fact, be the last question anyone should ask about The Sopranos. The fact that a great many people keep asking it is depressing.
I don’t object to the interpretation that Tony got whacked at the diner per se. It’s a perfectly fine and legitimate interpretation, and there’s enough evidence, in that scene and in preceding episodes, to support it (though the insistence that the final scene is “from Tony’s point-of-view” falls apart when you factor in Meadow parking the car and other moments he likely couldn’t have seen). What I object to is the strident insistence that “Tony died” is the only possible interpretation of Chase’s cut to black, and that anyone who does not agree with “Tony died” is (1) an idiot, or (2) misreading the shots, or (3) not paying attention.
They’re not idiots. They weren’t misreading the shots. They were paying attention. They just disagree that there’s only one way to read the ending.
I need to reiterate that I don’t think that Tony lived, necessarily. Nor do I feel any need to disprove “Tony died” as one possible interpretation of that ending. Both interpretations are fine. There are many more that could seem equally compelling, provided the person making the case seems to be operating from a place of curiosity and attentiveness to detail, rather than a desire to reassure himself that his interpretation is the only true and correct one and then ask for a cookie. (I use “himself” because, in my experience, it’s almost always men who need to “prove” that Tony died and won’t accept any other interpretation; make of that what you will.)
When I wrote my final recap of the series for my old blog the House Next Door back in 2007, I argued for a different interpretation, which I offer not to prove or disprove anyone else’s theory, but only because I like it: David Chase whacked the viewer. “Tony looks up at the sound of the door opening,” I wrote. “Cut to black. Roll credits. The story continues. You’re not around to see it.”
“What happens next?” I continued. “We don’t know. We’ll never know.”
To me, the cut-to-black ending seemed of a piece with Chase’s six-season strategy of deliberately thwarting the types of easy closure that viewers had been trained to expect from commercial television. He and his collaborators seemed to prefer sudden, surprising twists and studied anticlimaxes to predictable or obvious solutions. It was as if they’d rather anger, frustrate or baffle us than give us whatever we expected. I appreciate that. It keeps people on their toes, and as long as the show doesn’t seem to be violating the integrity of its characters or themes, you’ll accept nearly anything it serves up.
We spent much of season two expecting Tony to kill Richie Aprile, but his death came out of nowhere, at the hands of his abused girlfriend, Janice, and Tony discovered the identity of the rat in their crew not through careful accumulation of evidence but via a Twin Peaks–like nightmare brought on by food poisoning. The giant Russian of “Pine Barrens” would’ve gotten killed onscreen in a more conventional crime drama as the opening salvo in a mob war, but on The Sopranos he vanished and was never heard from again. Ralphie Cifaretto wasn’t punished for murdering his stripper girlfriend, Tracee. Tony killed him one season later in a fit of rage as punishment for Ralphie burning down the stable and killing Tony’s beloved horse Pie-O-My; a subsequent image of Tony sitting at a makeup table backstage at the Bada-Bing suggested a subconscious connection between his fury at the horse’s death and his despair at Tracee’s unavenged murder (that’s what the photos of other strippers on the mirror were about, perhaps), but that was as far as Chase and his writers were willing to go — and bless them for erring on the side of too little instead of too much.
The Sopranos ending was, I wrote at the time, evocative of the fable of the scorpion and the frog, with the showrunner as scorpion and the viewer as hapless amphibian, expecting to get to the other side of that river despite the scorpion’s well-established record as a ferryman.
Do you think that’s a valid interpretation? If you do, great. If you don’t, that’s great, too. If you think Tony died, or that he lived the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, or that he went along in life having learned nothing, great, great, great: enjoy.
I won’t take anyone’s interpretation away from anybody — not because I feel that certain interpretations are more provable than others, but because if you’re trying to “prove” a particular theory about the ending of a consciously ambiguous and at times tactically frustrating work of popular art, you’re watching it wrong. You’re trying to conquer and subdue a work that cannot be conquered or subdued, because it was never out to fool you or beat you or turn you into a bunch of engineers solving for “X.” The Sopranos was never about ending mysteries, it was about recognizing and exploring the mysteries of everyday life: the mysteries of personality, motivation, conditioning, and free will, as expressed through behavior and conversation and action, and as translated into metaphor through fantasies and dreams.
That’s what ambiguous art is about: bringing you into contact with Not-Knowing and saying, “Look at this. Live with this. Feel this.” An ambiguous ending isn’t an ending that you can eventually solve if you think about it long enough. That’s a trick ending, or the ending to a “puzzle” story — one in which the entire point is to figure out what happened at a plot level. Chase rarely operated in puzzle mode, not because he didn’t appreciate it — I know from interviewing him that he loves pretty much anything that’s clever — but because it’s not a mode that personally obsessed him. He always struck me as more of a European art cinema guy, by way of The Honeymooners.
The point is, since 2007, Chase has never straightforwardly explained precisely what he meant to do with the end of The Sopranos, despite having been asked about it in interviews and public appearances. There have been moments when he seemed to be on the verge of spelling it out for us. He always caught himself and pulled back. But that never stopped people from seizing on certain words or phrases in order to crow, “See, I toldja! Tony died! David Chase said so!”
Even though he didn’t.
He didn’t say “Tony lived” here, either, despite the headline promising that he “finally answer(ed) the question.” To reiterate his statement from tonight, “To continue to search for this answer is fruitless.”
I understand the need to close off this particular story, whether to punish the show’s gangster hero for his many crimes and misdemeanors or simply to end a six-season-long drama with a classical bang instead of an ambiguous whimper. There is something deeply frustrating about spending six seasons immersed in a fictional world only to be suddenly and brutally wrenched out of it. But it’s a huge mistake to confuse our own personal needs as viewers with the ending’s intent, which in this case is inscrutable, and thus even more frustrating.
During an appearance at the Museum of the Moving Image earlier this year, Chase made statements that some twisted into an endorsement of the “Tony died” interpretation. But if you actually read what he said, he never went that far. In fact, he seemed to realize at a certain point that his words might be interpreted that way and then doubled back. According to The New Republic:
’Well,’ Chase responded to one questioner, ‘the idea was he would get killed in a diner, or not get killed, or somebody would try to kill him, or there’d be an attack.’ He added: ‘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.’ The audience applauded. ‘I didn’t say he’s dead,’ Chase clarified at one point … ‘I wanted to create a suspenseful sequence, and, no, I didn’t want people to read into it like The Da Vinci Code,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t meant like, ‘Wow, the walrus was Paul.’ I mean, what did that mean?’ He added, ‘It was meant to make you feel. Not to make you think, but to make you feel.’
In 2012, he told the Associated Press”
“To me the question is not whether Tony lived or died, and that’s all that people wanted to know: ‘Well, did he live or did he die? You didn’t finish the show. You didn’t answer the question.’ That’s preposterous. There was something else I was saying that was more important than whether Tony Soprano lived or died. About the fragility of all of it. The whole show had been about time in a way, and the time allotted on this Earth. That whole trip out to California was all about that — what people called a dream sequence. And all the dream sequences within the show. Tony was dealing in mortality every day. He was dishing out life and death. And he was not happy. He was getting everything he wanted, that guy, but he wasn’t happy. All I wanted to do was present the idea of how short life is and how precious it is. The only way I felt I could do that was to rip it away. And I think people did get it. It made them upset emotionally, but intellectually they didn’t follow it. And that could very well be bad execution.”
The headline on that Associated Press story was, “David Chase reflects on The Sopranos ending,” which is accurate. He reflected; he didn’t answer anything, or end any mysteries. And yet this interview, too, got twisted into “vindication” of the notion that Tony got whacked at the diner.
When the Vox piece was published, people asked me if I felt vindicated. I said I didn’t, because I never believed in one possible interpretation of the end of The Sopranos, and because there is not enough context for Chase’s quote to support “Tony lived” or “Tony died.” He told the interviewer, “Tony didn’t die,” but that could mean anything: that he didn’t die at that particular moment in the story; that it wasn’t the intent of the scene and people were misinterpreting it. “Fine. Tony’s not dead,” Nochimson says, as if Chase’s handful of words settled the matter for all time, which I don’t think they did.
The only thing I know for sure is that we don’t know for sure what happened after that cut to black. We can choose to live with that knowledge, or we can deny it for our own personal reasons. The choice is up to us.