I’m finding it a little hard to believe that so many people actually thought their cable went out at the end of the Sopranos finale. This instant cliché — ”My God! It looked like technological failure!” — is really a way of saying that David Chase’s audacious capper of an ending was weirder and artier than it was: a joke played on the audience. As someone who thought it was one of the greatest moments I’d ever seen on television, I reveled in those final seconds, stoked by the Life Ends/Life Goes On shock of that cut to black, the marvelous way it got you to roll the scene over, again and again, in your mind’s eye. Rather than bringing the series to a close, that blackout made The Sopranos live forever.
All of the impassioned Sopranos arguments over the last few days have been amazing to behold: This may be the ultimate TV water-cooler conversation. Yet if there’s a genuine debate going on, between the fans who adored the ending and the fans who hated it, what’s also kept the dialogue sparking is simply those, like me, who loved the ending and can’t stop mulling over its how cool was that? resonance, its sudden yet eternal mythology. Here are a few thoughts on why it spoke to us so memorably.
From the start, the diner scene had the ominous glow of a deliverance. Going in, we knew that Chase had two choices regarding Tony — to whack or not to whack — and, more than that, we felt as if we knew in our bones what each of those choices would feel like. If Tony lived, he would more or less go on as is, since even the darkness of the final season hadn’t in any meaningful way altered his nature. If he got killed, it would be his karmic payback, his price for a life of unchecked vice. On some level, Chase would be aligning himself with the grand tradition of Hollywood gangster pulp, which dictated (via the Production Code) that the brutal antiheros of movies like Scarface or The Public Enemy must always die in the end, lest anyone think they had gotten away with their crimes.
The Sopranos, of course, took place in a realm beyond such petty Victorian morality, yet part of the show’s drama is that Tony repeatedly did suffer for his actions, for his life of license. Since most of the final episode unfolded with an oddly businesslike, tying-up-loose-ends, touching-all-bases formality (it was far from Chase’s most graceful act of screenwriting), the arrival of the diner scene had an ”Aha!” feeling about it. The hit on Phil Leotardo had been almost too easy. Here, at last, would be the wages of Tony’s sin.
It was ”Don’t Stop Believin’,” of course, that gave the scene its transcendent fusion of life and dread. This was Chase creating his Ultimate Scorsese Moment, yet one of the keys to creating such a moment is that the song itself can’t be obviously and automatically great. Instead, it needs the scene, the filmmaker, to complete its greatness. ”Don’t Stop Believin”’ was perfect, because it’s a passionate anthem of middle-class faith, a potent and timeless song (and, despite the fact that it’s not by Bon Jovi, soooo Jersey), yet it also comes complete with Journey’s faintly cheesy stadium-concert bombast. Steve Perry’s voice soars gloriously, but the lyrics are almost too obvious, and so they could only be made sublime, complex, cathartic in that rapturous Marty way in a scene where the thing you’re supposed to be ”believing” in — life — is about to end.
And so we all listened to, and watched, what looked for sure like it would be Tony’s last moment. An entire history of pop culture was crammed into that five minutes. The Meadow-parking-the-car bit was pure ironic Hitchcock — weren’t you all but certain her fumbling around at the wheel would end up saving her life? The man who looked like an assassin getting up from the counter and going to the men’s room made a final, luscious link between The Sopranos and The Godfather. And Chase crafting his Ultimate Scorsese Moment?
Even that, by now, is part of a holy cinematic tradition, since he’s hardly the first artist to have baptized his pop-violence aesthetic at the altar of Mean Streets. Quentin Tarantino, who did for under-the-radar ’70s chestnuts (like ”Little Green Bag”) in Reservoir Dogs what Scorsese did for ’60s pop, may have been the first spiritual son of Marty, but the scene, to me, that truly cast its shadow over the last five minutes of The Sopranos was the climax of Boogie Nights, in which Paul Thomas Anderson trotted out ”Sister Christian” to counterpoint the druggy, firecracker-tossing, nerve-wracked spectacle of Dirk Diggler’s descent. Unlike Scorsese, who uses pop to counterpoint violence, Anderson used the spangly melodrama of a Night Ranger power ballad to rhapsodize the threat of violence — the explosion that hasn’t happened yet, suspended in a moment of agonized dream time. Which is exactly what Chase did with ”Don’t Stop Believin’.” He turned the possibility of a bloodbath — rather than the bloodbath itself — into a jukebox mass.
And then…cut to blackness. My first thought, which registered very powerfully, is that The Sopranos had ended with Tony and his family being killed, and that Chase had simply elected not to show it to us, to suggest the horror instead — the same way that you might end, say, a real-life thriller about a nuclear bomb going off the moment before the actual holocaust. The horror you imagine is worse than the horror you see, and so forth. Certainly, if Tony had been killed, this was the most vivid, and daring, way possible to put the audience in his exact position. Death out of nowhere. Not the End so much as…nothing.
But then, in that black space created in my mind, other scenarios began to flood in. What if the assassin wasn’t really an assassin — what if he was just a guy at the counter? More to the point, Tony, who has the ruthless reflexes of a jungle cat, very deliberately spied the guy just before he went to the restroom. What might have happened during those next few moments was Tony getting up, going into the bathroom, and smashing the guy in his windpipe.
This, however, is what really happened:
For a few moments, we felt, and envisioned, Tony Soprano’s death, and so, in the skipped heartbeat of our imaginations, he really did die. Moments later, we imagined that he might have lived, and so he did live after all. He died and he lived. Not the possibility of either one. But both. Cut to black. And let there be light.
You’ve seen Owen Gleiberman’s theory about the Sopranos finale — now, what’s your theory about what happened to Tony as the screen went black? Post your comments below.