Before I wrote about television for New York Magazine and Vulture, I wrote about it for the Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest daily newspaper, sharing a beat with my friend Alan Sepinwall, who is now the TV critic for Rolling Stone. The highlight of our time together was covering The Sopranos, which shot in the paper’s circulation area throughout the state.
On the occasion of the show’s 20th anniversary, we’ve published a book about it, The Sopranos Sessions, combining reviews of each episode, a new interview with series creator David Chase, and selections of our Star-Ledger articles about the show. At the same time, IFC Center in New York City is hosting The Sopranos Film Festival, a mix of episodes, features, shorts, cartoons, and panel discussions. The schedule includes the premiere of My Dinner With Alan, a feature-length documentary in which we sit in the famous booth at Holsten’s and discuss the series and the experience of covering it for the paper that Tony used to pick up at the end of his driveway.
The following is an excerpt from The Sopranos Sessions, in which Alan and I debate the still-controversial last four minutes of the show and come to different conclusions about what it meant.
Alan Sepinwall: Tony Soprano is dead.
Matt Zoller Seitz: Wait, what?
Alan: He’s dead, Matt. It’s obvious.
Matt: Well, this isn’t how I thought this would go. To quote Tony, the floor is yours, senator.
Alan: “Made in America” opens on Tony asleep in the safe house. His eyes are closed, he’s not noticeably breathing, and the camera angle makes it look like he’s lying in state at the funeral parlor, waiting for his friends, family, and viewers out here in TV land to pay our respects. He jolts awake within moments, but we begin our final hour in Tony’s company with this image of him suggesting that he’s already dead, and that he just — like Silvio watching the Gerry Torciano hit — needs some time to catch up with the finality of the situation.
That coffinlike image isn’t the first major allusion to death of the final season, nor the last of “Made in America” alone. In the season premiere, Bacala raised the idea of what happens when you die, speculating, “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?” — a line so clearly important to the end of the series that the conversation is replayed at the end of the penultimate episode, after poor Bobby had that question answered. Images of death — or a Hell frozen over from overcrowding and neglect by management — abound throughout the series finale, as the show’s usual fascination with the extremes of weather in the Garden State gets amped up to an almost supernatural degree. When Tony’s meeting Agent Harris by the airport, or Butchie is wandering through the last remaining scrap of Little Italy while talking to Phil on the phone, or when Tony and Butchie and Little Carmine sit down to broker a peace in that cavernous truck depot, the cold and wind and snow are all so palpable that the only truly applicable phrase is, “You’ll catch your death.”
And that’s even before we get to Holsten’s, a scene shot and edited unlike anything else in the history of this show.
Matt: Yes, but why does a preponderance of imagery related to death and decay mean that Tony had to be shot dead at that diner at that exact moment? This is what I keep coming back to. I don’t believe it’s necessary to establish that to discuss the ending of the show, nor do I think the evidence necessarily points to that.
Whenever the Sopranos ending is discussed, and somebody starts with the presumption that Tony is dead, I ask the same follow-up question: “Why do you need for Tony to be dead?” Because you have to need him to be dead to insist not only that he got shot right there in the diner, but that him being dead is in fact the entire point of the scene, and that no other approach is permissible. Because nothing in that scene says, “Somebody just killed him and that’s what the cut to black is about.” The only objectively true statement that can be made about that ending is that it’s ambiguous. Spending long hours trying to prove Tony was shot at the diner becomes a substitute for meaningful engagement with the show’s themes, which are disturbing not just because of their implications, but because Chase and the writers present them in an open-ended, mysterious, or deliberately opaque way, like a brutal reminder to us that we can’t absolutely know certain things, and it’s delusional to insist we can.
The final close-up of James Gandolfini’s face contains no note of fear or apprehension. He’s just looking up at the sound of a bell ringing, and if classical continuity editing is to be our guide here, the person entering is Meadow, last seen in the third-to-final shot of the scene, walking toward the diner. I suppose you could argue that somebody snuck in from the side, out of frame, and shot Tony. But again, that seems like a reach to me, especially since Members Only Guy hasn’t come out of the bathroom yet. And, as I said, it proceeds from the speaker’s need to have Tony die at that moment, not from any evidence in the scene itself.
Alan: I hear what you’re saying. But the very fact that Chase devotes so much time to what seems like nothing makes the whole scene all the more nerve-racking. To paraphrase one of the Four Questions from the Passover seder, on all other nights we don’t watch Meadow attempt to parallel park even once; why on this night do we watch her attempt to parallel park over and over again? Why is this night different from all other nights?
Chase lingers on the parking job to raise the question of what terrible thing will happen because it’s taking her so long. Chase provides glimpses of all the other customers — a scout troop, two unidentified black males at the jukebox, a man in a Member’s Only jacket like Eugene Pontecorvo’s at the counter — because he wants us to wonder if one of them might be there to take out Tony. (Well, maybe not the scouts.) Chase lets the tension build and build and build — including Members Only Guy walking past Tony and into the men’s room — so that we’ll be primed for something awful to happen as Meadow sprints across Broad Street and into the restaurant. Chase replayed the Bacala death line and laid down so much death imagery throughout the season and this episode, so we will understand that when the scene jarringly cuts to black, it’s because Tony has just died, either via a bullet from Members Only Guy or a coronary from one onion ring too many.
Death is what happens, end of story, right? We can all go home now. Frankly, I’m not even sure why we’re still debating this.
Matt: All right, let me back up for a second and say that at no point during my now ten-plus years of arguing about the meaning of this scene have I said that “Tony died” is an inconceivable or unacceptable interpretation. It’s not wrong. In fact, it’s the most obvious interpretation, given that Tony’s pissed a lot of people off over the years, and in the overwhelming majority of gangster stories, the main guy dies at the end. Plus, that last stretch of 21 episodes does have a persistent chill, visually and plot-wise — a series of deaths and declines, with a lot of the color bleached out. So absolutely, the show is putting us in a frame of mind to anticipate a death.
But I don’t think he has to be dead for us to think about all that related stuff, and I don’t think that’s the only possible interpretation. He could’ve had a coronary or another panic attack. Or it could be, as I wrote in my original recap hours after the finale aired, that the character who died there was us, the spectator.
We don’t get to watch the show anymore. He whacked the viewer. Or maybe nothing happened in that scene, but Tony went on being Tony and maybe died of heart disease or Alzheimer’s, which, given all that we’ve seen him go through, is a sadder outcome.
I think we’re supposed to be thinking about death, or the finiteness of life, during that last scene, but not necessarily that Tony died right then and there, and that’s the end of the story.
Because, while you’re right to point out how Chase and company have very deliberately put us in a death-obsessed frame of mind during this final run, during the preceding seasons he showed us time and time again that he was never interested in doing the obvious thing. And the single most obvious thing to do in a gangster movie is to kill the main character — out of reflex, or because the storytellers want to express that crime doesn’t pay.
Remember, too, that Tony is the Homer Simpson of crime bosses, miraculously avoiding death or prison even as it claims other characters. Think about the randomness of him seeing the FBI agents coming over the hill and escaping even as they arrest Johnny. Or him surviving three car wrecks, one of which fatally wounded Christopher. This guy lives a charmed life. So does AJ, who luckily fails to kill himself — Tony happening to come home at that moment is a Tony caliber stroke of good luck — and in this very episode, the kid survives a truck explosion. What’s more in character for The Sopranos, to kill a magically charmed character in the final scene, or to refuse to do so?
Alan: I don’t know the answer to that hypothetical, because either one seems like the kind of thing The Sopranos might do.
Matt: The point is, The Sopranos resisted all the usual gangster movie reflexes for seven seasons. I can’t imagine that it would succumb to them in its final moments, no matter how great the temptation — and as our conversations with Chase confirmed, that temptation did exist. There has to be something else going on here, otherwise the scene wouldn’t end as it ends, in such a studied “inartful” way. I hate that when you ask, “What happened at the end of The Sopranos?” and people just shrug and say, “Well, he died!” A better question is, “What did that ending mean?”
Alan: Yeah, I would say the circumstantial evidence of death in the scene is overwhelming. But is that enough to convict Chase for murdering his main character? I mean, if you step back and think about it, killing Tony this mysteriously does defy Sopranos modus operandi in multiple ways.
Matt: Aha! Doubt.
Alan: Other than maybe the revelation that Big Pussy was an FBI cooperator — a plot idea conceived in the show’s embryonic stages, without Chase expecting anyone would care about him resolving it — The Sopranos tended to keep its plot cards face up. You knew virtually everything important that was going on, not only with Tony, but with all his enemies and allies. At this moment in “Made in America,” nobody that we know of wants Tony dead. Phil is gone, Butchie made peace with New Jersey, and anyone else who might wish Tony a violent end is out of the picture.
A man in Tony’s business will always have enemies — Eric Scatino probably still nurses a massive grudge — so it’s not outside the realm of plot logic that some rando or long-forgotten character could have hired Members Only Guy to do the deed. (For that matter, Members Only Guy could be the loved one of a Soprano victim himself.) But it’s an enormous leap from how the series told stories in every scene, and episode, up until this one.
Matt: Yes. And I would argue that, if the main takeaway from that scene is, “Oh, they shot him,” then either the show has failed and suddenly decided to give up and be a typical gangster story in its final four minutes, or there’s something else happening here.
I vote that there’s something else happening. And if it helps to move the discussion beyond the question of whether he’s dead or alive, I’ll just say, “Fine, he’s dead.” And now what? What does that leave us with, if that cut to black means somebody somewhere shot Tony? What is this ending saying? Or if we can’t discern that, what is this ending trying to make us think about?
Alan: Maybe we should ask the cat. The show absolutely dabbled in the supernatural throughout, from Paulie being haunted by Mikey Palmice, to Tony dreaming something that Tony B was actually doing, to whatever and wherever Kevin Finnerty was. There’s a reason The Twilight Zone keeps coming up, whether in conversation or on the safe house TV in the finale. The cat turns up at the safe house and gets brought back to Satriale’s, much to Paulie’s horror — “You can’t even put them near a baby; they suck the breath right out!” — particularly once it starts fixating on a photo of Christopher from the set of Cleaver. Is this, the superstitious Paulie wonders, just a cat, or his late colleague returned to life? Sometimes, a cat is just a cat, but it’s hard not to consider this one within the context of what happens, or doesn’t, a few scenes later at Holsten’s.
The Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger famously theorized that if you place a cat into a box with some kind of hazardous material, the cat may live or die, but until you actually open the box to check, the cat is simultaneously dead and alive. Maybe the wiseguy who has turned into a cat — Schrödinger’s cat, to be precise — isn’t Christopher, but Tony?
Matt: What do you mean by that?
Alan: What I mean is, maybe that cat is Christopher reincarnated, or maybe it’s just a cat that won’t stop hanging around Satriale’s and staring at a photo of Christopher. We don’t know, and will never know. And thus, that cat is Christopher and not Christopher at the same time.
Matt: Just like the Holsten’s scene. And the Russian. And the matter of whether Ralphie was responsible for the fire. By telling other people what we think happened, we are revealing ourselves. We’re admitting who we are.
Alan: Yes, the Holsten’s scene is about death — specifically, about the idea that we are all here on borrowed time, and our lives can be snatched away at any moment, without warning or explanation or the slightest hint of fairness.
Matt: “Death shows the ultimate absurdity of life.” —AJ Soprano. Fuckin’ internet.
Alan: There’s no way around that, and even David Chase says as much in the sixth interview later in this book. And it’s true that, the longer the Holsten’s scene and the parallel parking go on — and on and on and on — the harder it becomes to shake the feeling that Tony, or Meadow, or maybe everybody, is about to get whacked.
But the scene can be about the idea of Tony’s imminent demise without actually featuring it — and, if we’re being stubbornly pedantic, it doesn’t feature it. Meadow runs to the door, the bell rings, Tony looks up, and … nothin’. You can interpret that cut to black any way you want it (to quote the other Journey song featured on the jukebox right below “Don’t Stop Believin’”), but maybe Tony is the cat: dead and alive at the same time, because we can’t see into the box to know for sure.
Matt: Well, that’s been my overall point in these arguments from the very beginning, and I’m glad you framed it in those terms, because it does a nice end run around the whole “Tony Soprano, dead or alive?” question, which I’ve always thought was an attempt to change the question mark at the end of the sentence to a period. I think “Tony died at that moment” is a valid interpretation. But I also think it’s fair to say that he lived beyond that moment, even to a ripe old age, because ultimately this scene is making us ask, “What have we learned?” or “Where have we been?” and “Where is Tony, right now, as a person?” These are reckoning questions, and they can occur at many different points in a person’s life.
Of course, these questions occurred to Tony after Junior shot him, and that
his response was to absorb rather shallow lessons — like, make better choices in the moment, and try being a better listener — while ignoring bigger ones like, “Maybe you’re depressed all the time because you’re a gangster.” Melfi steers him toward this realization throughout the series, even in the pilot. But he always manages to avoid going there. I think the ending is sadder and more powerful if you think, “All those people he killed, all those people he loved that died, all the stuff he’s been through personally, including getting shot and being in a coma — none of that really made much of a dent in this guy’s thick skull.”
Alan: Okay, but then, why the cut to black? Why the ambiguity at all? If the scene’s about the fragility of life, and the omnipresent specter of death that leaves us all fumbling about for meaning in this cold, cruel world, why leave even a trace of ambiguity? Why cut to black on that shot of Tony’s uninflected face, as opposed to a glimpse of Members Only Guy raising a pistol, or even Tony looking distressed as his body deals with a gunshot, a coronary, a stroke (like the one that killed Livia), or some other cause of sudden death?
It could be that Chase simply likes ambiguity and confusion. Blow-Up is one of his favorite films, and it has a famously non-definitive ending that invites the viewer to project their own meanings. He was never interested in the Russian, the rapist, the stable fire, or any of the other characters and threads that he left dangling over the life of the series, except as forces that test the main characters and reveal their essence.
Or it could be like the decision in “Long Term Parking” to not only provide a glimpse of Adriana’s daydream where she just gets in her car and heads south on I-95, but to deliberately stage her death scene so that she’s off-camera when Silvio fires the fatal shot. Maybe, after spending a decade telling stories about this man — and having spent a whole lifetime thinking many of the same thoughts as Tony, particularly where their mothers were concerned — Chase just couldn’t bring himself to direct a scene explicitly killing him, or even one where he asked James Gandolfini’s face to point us more blatantly in that direction.
Matt: Well, that’s interesting, because it brings Chase himself into the mix, and I think we both should admit that our interpretation of the ending is affected by our conversations with him while writing this book.
And by that, I don’t mean he handed us the answer, because The Sopranos was never the sort of show that made you hunt for answers in that way. I just mean that Schrödinger’s cat is useful if you’re applying it to a story that could end either in a radical, art-house movie way, or in a traditional way, but with a fancy wrapping.
Alan: It’s hard to play dumb about what we discussed with Chase, but the great thing — or the maddening thing, depending on your point of view — is that even with all he ultimately told us, there’s still no definitive answer to the dead/alive question. We know what the scene means, but we don’t know what happened.
Matt: An important distinction. Yeah, I was thinking that, too — that despite the hours we’ve spent talking to Chase about the ending, I don’t think it’s necessarily been “explained” in any meaningful sense, in terms of what happened next, and I get the impression that Chase can’t really explain it either. It’s not an insult to say that he doesn’t really know why he did what he did, because all through our interviews with him, we kept trying to get him to explain the reasoning behind certain choices, only to discover that there wasn’t any, and he and the writers and directors were just doing what felt correct.
That final scene is something he felt was correct, and that came out of his desire to subvert or amend the traditions of the gangster film, while perhaps coming to terms with the fact that he was unable to escape them. This is a show that’s very interested in dream language, psychoanalysis, and the contradictory, mysterious forces that make us who we are, and it’s inevitable that this series, perhaps more than other works of art, would have become a Rorschach test.
Alan: Tony’s situation as he enters Holsten’s is complex however you look at it. Professionally, he has just survived a war with New York — has, in fact, enough juice that he was able to kill a rival boss with the tacit approval of Phil’s successor — but his organization is in a shambles. Paulie, long the most useless captain on the payroll, is the only major ally he has left.
Personally, he’s on good enough terms with his immediate family that they’d all happily join him for onion rings and more at their favorite ice cream place. And, other than a couple of ugly fights, he has been getting along much better with Carmela since she took him back than he ever did during the first six seasons of the show. But Meadow is marrying into the extended Family by getting engaged to Patrick Parisi and becoming a lawyer — two things Tony never wanted for her — and AJ recently survived a suicide and is so lacking in direction that this low-level job working for Little Carmine feels like a salvation. So when he walks into the restaurant, judgment has already been passed, or maybe suspended. He is either an enormous success or a pitiful failure.
Matt: Or he can be both.
Alan: The cat.
Alan: Let me ask you this, then: If, during one of our many conversations with Chase, he had invited us to lean in close, and whispered, “Guys, Tony’s dead,” how would that change your feelings about the ending? And, flipping that, what if he’d whispered, “Guys, Tony’s alive”?
Matt: If he’d said, “Yeah, I killed him,” I would’ve been deeply disappointed in Chase. Because it would’ve meant that he did the most obvious thing and then tried to hide it by making it seem as if he was creating an ambiguous or art-house type of ending. And I think I would have been equally disappointed if he’d said, “Tony is alive.” And that’s because I like not knowing, and to me, everything about this ending says, “You’re not supposed to know, you’re supposed to live in the not-knowing.”
A lot of characters live there and have to make peace with it. The loved ones who lost people to “witness protection” or because they “ran away” suspect they were murdered but can’t prove it, even though we viewers saw it happen.
This ending puts us in their shoes. We make up stories to reassure ourselves that we have control over life, and we really don’t. I’m reminded of that moment in “D-Girl” where Dr. Melfi summarizes existentialism for Tony. “When some people first realize that they’re solely responsible for their decisions, actions, and beliefs, and that death lies at the end of every road, they can be overcome with intense dread … a dull, aching anger that leads them to conclude that the only absolute truth is death.” I think the insistence on “proving” that Tony died is a means of reasserting control over the show, and over the life of the person doing the proving. Death is the only absolute truth for everyone, and if you read that ending simply as “he died,” you can wash your hands and walk away from it and not have to think about anything else that might be raised in that scene.
This is a show about either accepting that you’re not in control of anything, or making a conscious decision to deny that. The idea of presenting the ending as a thing that can be mastered and explained is philosophically the opposite of everything that led us to that point.
I know this is a minority reaction, but I like being baffled or challenged or frustrated by art. I like having to make a case for a particular interpretation or just throw my hands up. It’s fun for me. What I don’t like is any kind of conversation that seems to be leading toward, “He’s dead, end of discussion.” Because that should not be the end of the discussion when you’re talking about a show like this one, a show about psychology, development, morality, and all these other deep and tangled subjects.
The way the ending teases audiences by seeming very definite while denying us answers and closure makes it the ultimate Sopranos moment. And it throws all the other things we’ve been discussing, here and throughout this book, into sharper relief. Because it’s taking the question of whether Tony lived or died off the table.
Alan: I spent many years after the finale as a card-carrying, vocal member of Team Tony Lives. I made arguments like the one above, about how a secret assassin repping an enemy we never heard of before would clash with every narrative rule the show ever followed. More recently, I found myself swaying over to Team Tony Dies, not only because of the death imagery throughout the season — including the way so many episodes open, as this one does, with Tony waking up from a deep slumber — but because some of my initial, long-hardened impressions of the scene didn’t hold up under further scrutiny.
I had thought, for instance, that the sense of paranoia instilled in the viewer by the rapid editing style Chase uses for the scene was shared by Tony himself — that, perhaps, the point of it all was to finally put us in the mind-set of the main character, to make us realize, “This is how miserable it is to be Tony Soprano: to spend every minute of every day worrying about who could be coming through a door to kill you.”
But all that stuff exists outside the text, not in it. Gandolfini’s playing it as Tony enjoying a peaceful night out with Carmela and the kids, up to and including that final look on his face in between when the bell rings and the screen goes black.
Matt: Yeah, he’s checking out the scene in there for self-protection, but he does that everywhere he goes.
Alan: So for a while, it seemed easier to just go with the idea that he dies — that the cut to black follows on Bacala’s line from “Soprano Home Movies,” Silvio’s reaction to the Hairdo’s death in “Stage 5,” and all that death imagery. I thought about Tony’s entrance into Holsten’s in the context of the earlier scenes where he visits Janice and then Junior. In both of those, Chase employs an unusual editing style, cutting directly from a shot of Tony looking out at the space he’s just entered to a different point of view where he’s already crossed most of the distance to the relative he’s come to see.
Matt: Yes! And the music is continuous throughout. Bits of time are elapsing in terms of the physical motion of Tony in that space, but that’s not indicated by the music, which never stops. That’s one more reason why this scene feels dreamlike, along with all those incidental characters, like Members Only Guy and the uniformed Boy Scouts, who feel like people you’d meet in an ’80s music video. I think you could make a better case for Tony Dies if you assume he’s dead before this scene even starts.
Alan: The distance he walks is shorter each time, and when he gets to Holsten’s, we just cut from him looking at the restaurant to him in the booth, in a way that suggests he’s seeing himself — really, that he’s seeing the whole scene play out, like he’s already left his body and is just envisioning what might come next back on this mortal plane. So it felt better to go with “Tony died.” It was An Answer, in a way that “Tony lives” never entirely felt like one to me, and when Chase wrote that article about the scene for DGA Quarterly, and talked about the fragility of our mortal existence, I was able to smile and say, “Aha! That’s it! I know now, and I don’t have to worry about this anymore.”
Except the longer you and I talked about it, both on our own and with Chase, the less substantial that idea felt, too, until by the end, I wasn’t entirely sure that even Chase knows if the guy’s dead or alive. And does that matter?
Matt: You mean does it matter if Chase knows what happened? No. It’s become increasingly clear to me as we’ve worked our way through the entire series again, with over 10 years of perspective on that finale and nearly 20 years of living with the show in some form, that Chase is an intuitive writer, somebody who’s not trying to send messages or create puzzles for people to solve, but is just trying to make people feel and think and question themselves.
It’s also easy to see that Chase is of two minds on the last scene. Which is perhaps something he telegraphed by bringing that cat into it. This is an artist sorting through contradictory impulses, in hopes of reaching audiences in a deep way. There are no cookies for figuring things out.
Alan: Okay, so a hypothetical: Either way you lean, what happens after that cut to black? If Meadow just walks in and the family enjoys the rest of their onion rings, a nice meal, and some ice cream, what happens to Tony Soprano after? Does he sweat and strain rebuilding the Family after the damage Phil inflicted upon it? Do the Feds show up a week later to arrest him, Carlo having finally given them the missing piece of their RICO prosecution? Is the Daniel Baldwin script a huge hit at the start of AJ’s shocking career as a Hollywood tastemaker?
And if Tony drops dead after the bell rings, whether from a bullet or (like poor Gigi Cestone) internal distress, obviously the next few moments involve Carmela, Meadow, and AJ being horrified and grief-stricken, but what comes after? Does Tony’s death alter the career plans of either kid? Did he really leave enough money in overseas accounts to take care of Carmela after his passing, or will she soon be taking Angie Bonpensiero’s old job passing out supermarket samples? Does Paulie freaking Walnuts somehow become boss of the Family, or does Butchie throw up his hands at this point and decide to put his own guy in charge of the gang that couldn’t shoot straight?
I ask this not to spoil the details of the many pieces of Sopranos fanfic I have saved to the cloud, but to consider the larger question: Which ending is more interesting? Whether we get to see what comes next or not, which is a more entertaining, exciting, and/or thematically fitting conclusion to the story of The Sopranos: Tony’s abrupt death or his continued existence?
Matt: I think it’s more interesting if he lives. I think it would fit with the cycles of experience depicted in the series. This guy has much more self-awareness and sensitivity than other people in his line of work, but is still a prisoner of his conditioning and maybe his genes, and always seems to fall far short of enlightenment. And if, to quote Mad Men, the greatest predictor of what somebody is going to do is what they have done in the past, Tony’s always going to basically be Tony, the loquacious gangster who puts himself first.
I think it’s also interesting if he dies, though that’s a less disturbing ending to me, because it’s the standard gangster-story ending, and no matter how you read it, for reasons of genre history it always comes back to “Don’t do crime, kids.”
Alan: Back in the day, I felt like death was an easier sentence for Tony to take, because so much of his life — thanks to genetics, mental health, and the monstrous business he has chosen — brings him so much misery. But in rewatching the series and writing this book, it’s clear that among Tony Soprano’s greatest gifts is his ability to live in the moment, shrug off the overall pain and paranoia of his life, and enjoy the many fruits that come with being the boss of New Jersey.
Matt: “If you’re lucky, you’ll remember the little moments, like this, that were good.” The end of season one.
Alan: Right. So maybe he’d have a relatively fine old time drifting into old age. The day James Gandolfini died — in sudden, startling fashion that sadly evoked the very themes Chase was trying to convey with this scene — I wrote that, “as horrible a human being as Tony was, it gives me a small bit of comfort on this surprising, terrible day, to imagine Tony still alive, waddling out of his SUV and into the pork store, or calling up Dr. Melfi for one more shot at therapy.”
Now? Now, I’m Schrödinger’s critic: equally intrigued by the idea of Tony living and Tony dying. I understand what the scene was about — and, more importantly, I know how it made me feel the first time I watched it, every time since, and through all these conversations I’ve had with you and the rest of the Sopranos-loving world about it over the last decade. I felt then, and now, afraid for Tony Soprano, and painfully aware of both his fragile mortality and my own, more keenly than any other piece of art has made me feel. That matters much more to me, ultimately, than a definitive answer.
Matt: There was a moment a few years ago when a journalist reported that Chase told her Tony lived, and he got mad at that — as mad as he’s gotten at all the people who keep saying Tony died. But what he said, specifically — and he was directing it toward everybody — was, “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.” I think the most important two words in those two sentences are “spiritual question.” And if we fixate on anything other than that, we’re missing the point.
When people ask me, “Do you think Tony died?” I sometimes answer, “Of course.” And then I pause and add, “Sooner or later, everybody does.” Which admittedly is a dickish thing to say — but you know what I mean? That bell, to me, is a tolling bell, as in “Bring out your dead.” It rings every time somebody goes through that door. I’m not saying “Holsten’s is Heaven!” or anything like that. I mean it’s a prompt for us to think about death and life, and what we’ve done with our lives.
Maybe the ending is moralistic, but not in the way that some of the people who need Tony to be dead might frame it. Maybe the ending is saying, “This guy never got it. Are you gonna be like him?”
Alan: This is all-important, and we’ll see what happens to the conversation now that the phrase “death scene” is out there. We only have this one life, and precious little control over how long it lasts. How do we choose to live it? Tony Soprano has clearly made many bad choices, as have the other people at that table with him, as have nearly all the characters with whom we’ve spent these 86-plus hours of television. I think you and I are in agreement on the larger point of the scene, right, Matt?
Matt: What point is that?
Alan: Obviously, he’s alive.
Excerpt from the new book The Sopranos Sessions by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall published by Abrams Press; © 2019 Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall.