Over the course of six seasons and a few dozen murders, The Sopranos introduced a nation to the idea that television can be literature. It also introduced the idea that literature can have ambiguity. Which, being Americans, we fucking hated.
I’m referring to the ending of the series. Most people didn’t get it. A decade and a half later and they still do not. This because people either do not understand ambiguity, or they understand it but are not strong enough to accept it. Let’s do better.
What was this infamous ending? It’s pretty straightforward. The protagonist is in the bosom of his family. Some stories have been resolved, some are still ongoing. He looks at the camera. Cut to black.
Why did David Chase do this? What did he mean to convey? What happens to Tony, and all the horrible people we’ve grown to love?
When the ending first aired, the most common viewer reaction was denial. Specifically they thought their TV had crapped out on them. They smacked their sets, they fiddled with their recievers. They called their poor cable companies in angry droves. At length they realized that it was not an error. They had been presented with an intentional ambiguity.
At which point, most people decided they had been punked. Long-time fans of the show felt that David Chase had stuck his dick out of their TV sets and directly into their eye. This they ascribed to pretention (“he wanted to go out arty,”), ignorance (“he couldn’t think of a way to end it,”), or downright mendacity (“he hates us.”)
And: these aren’t wrong. David Chase wanted to do something that made his viewers think. He did this knowing that too few had, despite him giving them six seasonsof opportunity. This implied that many could not.
And yet, he had faith that some could.
It is universally accepted that David Chase hates his audience. David Chase does not hate his audience. David Chase hates himself. But the reason he hates himself is that he considers it is responsibility as a storyteller – the measure of his abilities as an artist – to make his audience think. To make them ask themselves: why do they like Tony? How are they like him – and why in the name of God does that not make them shudder?
I respectfully submit to Mr. Chase that most of us are incapable of thinking, and no artist who ever lived or ever will could possibly make us, not with all the time, not with all the money, not if our lives depended on it, absolutely: no. David Chase hates himself because either he is too much the saint, or too much the masochist, to give up on his viewers – and hate them as they so very richly deserve.
Lermontov lamented that “the reading public is still so naïve and immature that it cannot understand a fable unless the moral is given at the end, fails to see jokes, has no sense of irony, and is simply badly educated.” No tweet was ever so green. David Chase knew this. After six seasons of hearing “less yakking, more whacking,” he knew it better than anyone else alive. And yet he would still try to make us think. You stupid bastard, we do not deserve your love.
He had given us a thousand opportunities to think. Now, at the last, he would force us. But even more: we would need to be taught how to think.
The former he did in a moment; the latter, a season – and a series.
To force us to think, David Chase would create an ambiguity that needed to be resolved. He would make it apparent that it was an intentional ambiguity, to show that he the storyteller was passing the burden of resolving it to us the told. And because we are so fucking dumb, he would make it the most glaring, gigantic, flag-waving, slap upside the fucking head ambiguity that has ever been put on film.
The ambiguity is very simple: What happens? What happens to Tony, and his family, and his Family?
Does the final scene tell us? The short answer: NO.
Does it give us any hints?
The final scene introduces three different people. None have any dialogue. First there is a woman in a long black coat. She looks classy, well-kempt, beautiful. She looks like Tony’s type. Second there is a guy in an NRA hat. He looks rough, and aging, but surviving. Third there is a man in a Members Only jacket. He’s handsome enough, but looks nervous. The men both keep glancing at Tony.
Could one of them be there to kill Tony? Absolutely. But that’s not because of any secret clues presented there. That’s because Tony is a fucking Mafia don. Any stranger, at any time, could be an assassin – and so could any acquaintance, any fellow wise guy, any friend. Even most of his family. Basically, everyone not there in the diner with him. Not Carmela, not Meadow, not AJ – but anyone else, at any time, forever.
Could one of them be there to arrest Tony? Absolutely – for the same reasons. Any of them could be undercover assassins. Any of them could be undercover FBI. The show signals this by putting one in a Member’s Only jacket, which calls up This Thing Of Ours, and the other in an NRA hat, which speaks of That Thing Of Theirs. Two types of violence shall forever threaten Tony. But whether a threat is organized (a sanctioned hit), or disorganized (personal vendetta); whether it comes from force authorized by his world or by the world at large… doesn’t really matter to the guy who just got whacked.
Could one of these guys be an FBI agent waiting to arrest him? Could the other be a mafia guy waiting to assassinate him? Surely. Without question: absolutely. Hell, could they both jump up at the same time, end up popping each other, and Tony gets away unscathed? With Tony’s luck, I expect that would be the Season 7 opener, yes indeed.
Many fans expect that the cut-to-black is the result of the Members Only guy coming out of the bathroom with a gun. That’s possible – but it is just as possible he’s a flasher, and comes out of the bathroom with his dick in his hands.
And: could the woman be the end of Tony, not because she wanted to be, but because he wanted her – or even, wanted her to be his end? Most certainly she could. Have you fucking met Tony?
Any of these things could happen in that diner. Or, none of them might happen. The people in the diner might just be there for hash browns. Hell, the next person to walk through that door might be a killer. Or a cop. Or a trusted friend – who is wearing a wire, or holding a gun. That is the reality that Tony has lived with since the series began. That is the reality he will continue living as long as he lives – from the moment the screen goes black, until he dies.
Some people offer their own guesses as to “what happened.” But the scene does not tell us. It does not tell us on purpose. These viewers attempt to collapse an ambiguity into one solution. That is not how you resolve an ambiguity. That is how you solve a mystery. A mystery has one possible solution: you solve it. An ambiguity has many possible solutions: when you have lain out all of them, you have your resolution.
Some ambiguities have no resolutions. We will never know what happened to Valery; some say that Czechoslovaikian is still running through the Pine Barrens to this day. But when we ask ourselves: What could happen to Tony Soprano? What are the possible ends to his story? That is when we realize that we know – because the show has told us.
The series – in particular the episodes of the the sixth season – have given us every possible answer to What might happen to Tony Soprano?
We know who Tony is. We know him better than he knows himself. We know his character. We know his context. We know the ins and outs of his business, his family, his life. After six seasons, we have one of the most complete portraits of one man in modern literature.
But more than that, we have been given foils for Tony. We have been shown how their lives ended – and as such, we have been shown the ends that Tony might meet.
-Look at Johnny Sack. He has it all. Then he gets arrested. He goes to jail. He allocutes – breaks omerta. He still loses almost everything. He gets cancer. He dies in jail. Tony could end up like Johnny.
-Look at Jackie Aprile. He has it all. He’s on top of the world. He still gets cancer. He dies. His end is that of so many men. Tony could end up like Jackie.
-Look at Phil Leotardo. He has it all and yet he wants more. He has insecurities and inadequacies and he can only address them through amibition. He ends up gunned down in a stupid war of his own creation. His end is that of so many mafiosi. Tony could end up like Phil.
-Look at Junior Soprano. He was allowed to think that he was the boss of the family. He slowly lost power. He slowly lost his mind. By the end he didn’t know that he had ever been boss. Tony could end up like Junior.
-Look at Carmine Lupertazzi. He has been boss for decades. He is an old man. He is sharp, respected, comfortable, and free. He dies at the top – an old bastard face-down in a plate of shellfish. Tony could end up like Carmine.
All of these are distinctly possible ends for Tony. He has a thousand enemies who might kill him for vengeance. He has a thousand rivals who might kill him just for greed. He has a thousand feds who’d like to lock him up. He has a preliminary diagnosis for a long-term illness like Johnny and Jackie – and it’s Alzheimers just like Junior.
To go out like Carmine – like Carlo Gambino – might be the best-case scenario for a Don like Tony. But that is only if you are rooting for Tony qua being a Don. Because Carmine never stopped being a mafiosi. And, say it again, folks: being a mafiosi is fucking bad. Small wonder that Carmine’s mute ghost visited Tony. He could not speak to Tony, because Tony had not yet found it within himself to hear the words: Tony, your life is evil, through and through.
But maybe Tony wouldn’t go out like a boss. Maybe he’d go out like a regular made guy. And the series shows us how that would go, too.
FRIENDS OF OURS
-Look at Paulie Walnuts. He’s old but he is not in power. He won’t stop talking about old times. He’s annoying. He’s past-facing. He is tolerated, but he does not have respect. Tony could end up like Paulie.
-Look at Silvio Dante. He ends Season Six the same way Tony begins it. This is a reminder that Tony could not learn, he could not change anything, and just be doomed to continue doing the same thing over and over hoping for a different result. Six more seasons of The Sopranos: entertaining for us, but the greatest possible tragedy for Tony. Tony could end up like Sil.
-Look at the Richie Aprile or Feech La Manna. They get nabbed, but don’t talk. They go away for a long time. They come out decades later and try to reclaim what they once had. But it’s not the same – and it never was very good, really. One ends up dead; the other, back in jail. Tony could end up like Richie or Feech.
-Look at Big Pussy. He gets nabbed for doing crimes. He turns state’s evidence. He betrays his friends. At length they find out, and kill him. Tony could end up like Big Pussy.
-Look at Tony Blundetto. Gets nabbed, goes away, comes out and tries to go straight. He cannot. The straight life is too hard, and the temptation of the mafia life is too strong. Even if he’d stayed alive, he still would have become a murdering criminal. Maybe he knew that. Maybe that’s why he got himself killed. Tony Uncle Johnny could end up like Tony Uncle Al.
-Look at Febby Petrulio. He got nabbed, turned State’s Evidence, gets put in Witness Protection – but even he got pulled back in a little, becoming (yet another) drug dealer in Waterville, Maine. And then, after 20 years of looking over his shoulder, Tony pops up and kills him. Was it happenstance or fate? Was his death more or less surprising than that of Ray Curto? Alive as a nobody, or dead much the same – Tony could end up like Febby.
-Look at Vito Spatafore. Maybe Tony wouldn’t suddenly switch teams – but I can imagine him doing any one of a number of things that transgresses against the code and conservatism of the Mafia. Imagine if Paulie found out he’d killed Christopher. Imagine if the Cifaretto crew found out he’d killed Ralph over some hooer. Imagine if he’d actually fucked Adriana when Christopher was alive. Tony could absolutely end up like Vito – either tortured to death, or a schnook.
-Look at Christopher Moltisanti. In the end, he was only a little more insecure than Tony; only a little more hedonistic; only a little more impulsive. When faced with the truth – “Chris, you’re in the mafia” – he could not resolve the dissonance. Chemical solutions did not solve his spiritual problems, and so he commited Suicide By Wop. He did not have years of therapy to help him break it down; and so, when he had a breakthrough, he broke. Tony could very easily end up like Christuhfuh.
-Look at Bobby Baccala. He’s only a little fatter than Tony, a little dumber – a little less charismatic, a little less authoritative – he is Tony as not made for TV. Bobby was gunned down at a model train store. Tony could be gunned down at the Ritz-Carlton in a pile of neurotic brunettes; the difference is cosmetic. They had the same dissonance and, instead of facing it, sought escape. Tony could end up like Bobby.
-Look at Hesh Rabkin. He’s made it out alive, he’s semi-retired, he’s no threat to anyone and people like him. Then his wife dies. Can you imagine if Tony woke up one morning and Carmela was gone? Can you imagine that? Can you imagine Tony without Carm? Do you want to? Would he want to? Tony could end up like Hesh.
Thus are the endings possible for a man like Tony Soprano. He could end up deposed. He could end up slain in war. He could end up haunted by the ghosts he has deposed. Or poison’d by his wives, or sleeping kill’d; all murder’d-
for within the hollow crown,
that rounds the mortal temples of a king,
keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self, and vain conceit.
(Arthur Miller used Willy Loman to show that the tragedies once reserved for kings and cardinals could also befall a working-class man in America. David Chase chose a midpoint between pauper and Plantagenet: Death of a Made Man – The Sopranos.)
But these are all bad endings.
Is there a character in The Sopranos who has a redemption arc? Is there someone who repents? Who makes amends? Is there even one person who gets out, and does not get pulled back in?
I don’t think so.
And I think that it is right that it does not. Because Tony is completely unredeemable. He is evil. His day-to-day business is doing evil. He does no good at all. He skims. He steals. He shakes down businesses. He ruins lives. He busts unions. He trafficks girls. He beats people. He tortures people. He kills 19 people over the course of the series, and probably a whole bunch of others before. He is a mass murderer. He may be the worst person in the entire series – and one of the worst protagonists in all of literature. Gabagool.
Tony’s problems flow almost entirely from the fact that he lives an evil life. But telling a guy like Tony that is not very useful. Telling anyone that is not very useful. Dr. Krakower told Carmella the simple truth; she made her husband buy her jewelry. The television writer JT Dolan told Christopher the simple truth; he killed him, then did his best to kill himself. Dr. Melfi tries something different. She hopes to give Tony the tools to examine his life, and come to these conclusions for himself. Elliott thinks she’s wasting her time. Still she tries.
My lord, wise men ne’er sit and wail their woes,
But presently prevent the ways to wail.
It has been six seasons and Tony has not quite yet identified his woe, let alone work to prevent it. That is not surprising, because the source of his woe is being in the mafia – which is his livelihood, his life, and his identity. To be a wise man and a wiseguy: dissonance.
It is no wonder he doesn’t want to face that truth. No wonder that he runs from it. No wonder that he tries to drown it in wine and women and song. No wonder that suppressing it causes him more and more distress. The rot is at the core of his person, and it is awful.
The song being played over the final scene is “Don’t stop believing.” This can be read as a criticism of us viewers. Every episode, Tony shows he is unredeemable. And yet we keep hoping. Why? Have we suspended disbelief because we like being entertained? Are we stupid? Are we EVIL? Or was James Gandolfini just that fuckin’ hot?
Or: does the final moment offer a glimmer of hope? Does Tony finally have a moment of waking intuition? Do his dreams, and his trips to the Bardo, finally come to the forefront of his mind – come under his control? Have six seasons of trial and tribulation – and six seasons of therapy – brought him to a breakthrough? Does he look around him – does he finally look within – and ask himself: where am I going? Where can I go? Can I get out? Can I not get pulled back in?
And: do I want to?
Don’t stop believing?
The Sopranos is a character study. The character being studied is Tony Soprano. The audience studies him – but also, he studies himself. The psychologists and psychopomps of the series are his guides. He has Melfi; we have David Chase.
The audience, and Tony, are taught how to study a character. We are also taught how not to do it. We are shown most clearly that being Dr. Krakower, being JT Dolan, does not work. Being told the truth does not overcome an audience’s investment in a protagonist any more than a mobster being told the truth overcomes their investment in their life. They must be taught to tell themselves the truth. Then, they must be forced to. Did Tony have a breakthrough? Did we?
It is my sincere hope that The Sopranos cuts to black at the moment that Tony understands the bitter truth: he cannot be happy and still be a Soprano. Maybe he will decide that getting out is too hard. Maybe he will decide that he is happy enough. Maybe he will not be able to effectuate his decision. Maybe he will, and then get pulled back in. At least he will have known. Not just been told – but figured it out himself. If he promptly gets popped – legally, lethally – is less important. I hope Tony finally had the agency to choose. I hope that, in the end, Melfi was able to give him that.
At the very least, we know that Tony has done better by his kids than was done by him. They are not in the mafia. That is not to say they are entirely removed from it. AJ tried to escape his parent’s materialism, Meadow her parents’ community and expectations; both were pulled back in. AJ might not amount to much, but his kids will have a blank slate the likes of which he never had. Meadow might not have gone to med school, but her kids might well ask Aunt Hunter for a rec letter. Tony gave his kids better than he was given. Whatever else you’ve done, Tony: that is something.
As an aside: there are four people who walk into the diner in the final scene. One is a young business woman. One, a goombah in a Members Only jacket. One, an old dishevelt man in an NRA cap. And one, Carmella.
This is undoubtedly me being thoroughly whimsical, but – if the final scene of the show involves Tony having a little clarity, and looking at where he might be going in life, I like to think that those characters are Tony seeing the future of his family. His future is a garden of forking paths; for better or worse, theirs are pretty settled. The young woman is Meadow. She is happy, middle-class, not very interesting. The Members Only guy is AJ. Not quite as happy, not quite as successful, a bit more introspective, not a member of This Thing Of Ours but not quite fully removed from it either. And Carmella is, of course, Carmella – because, for better and for worse, she is timeless.
The fourth fellow, the old man, is Tony. Perhaps it is Tony crippled by gunfire or by his sins. Perhaps it is Tony grown old and less relevant, like remember-when Paulie or senile Uncle Jun. Perhaps it is Tony broken in jail – or jailed and then released but and still broken. Perhaps it is Tony in the Witness Protection Program or on the lamb, grown old from looking over his shoulder… or just from no longer being a Soprano.
By the end of six seasons, The Sopranos had taught us what, deep down, Tony always knew: all the ways it could end for a guy like him. While we were being taught the truth, Tony was being taught to face it. Did he get there? Did he get to the point where he could make a choice – before badge or bullet took that choice away?
I hope so. And, I hope that he would then make a choice, and I hope that it would be a good one. That’s a lot of hope. But I am dumb and awful enough to have liked Tony Soprano, and I would like to believe that