Tony Didn’t Die: Making a Case for the Survival of the Boss of North Jersey in the Sopranos Finale
By the Crusty Curmudgeon
December 12, 2012
Note: In December of 2012, the AV Club was wrapping up its reviews of the final season of The Sopranos. The Crusty One prepared this essay in anticipation of the debate that would ensue after the review of the last-ever episode was posted and the enigmatic ending was analyzed.
“Master of Sopranos” makes a great artistic case for the evocation of death in the Sopranos series finale, “Made in America,” from the way it’s cut, to all the allusions and callbacks it contains. (Anyone out there who hasn’t seen it can read it here.) I have not yet heard anyone argue that the symbolism of death is not present here. So this is a starting point on which we can (and should) find nearly universal agreement: Death symbolism abounds in this final episode; be it a specific character’s death or, perhaps more broadly, death in general—death for all of us, the finite nature of existence, how all things eventually end. But is it meant to specifically tell us that the Tony Soprano character literally gets shot in the back of the head by the guy in the Members Only jacket at the precise moment the screen goes black? In my opinion: No.
First, there’s a very simple technical reason why the Tony-is-dead theory doesn’t work: The pov of the final shot is wrong. In fact it’s completely backward. MoS asserts that the cut from Tony to black should be read as “Tony hears the bell, looks up and sees... nothing, as Tony is killed in an instant.” But if it’s Tony who dies, the abrupt cut to black should come off of his pov. We should see Meadow walking through the front door from Tony’s perspective at the back of Holsten’s and then the sudden cut. But what we get is a shot of Tony himself immediately before the cut—an audience pov. (This editing would actually seem to lend more credence to the-audience-got-whacked theory... but let’s put a pin in that for now.)
Secondly, once we put aside the broader symbolism of death and deal with the idea of Tony getting killed at that specific moment, we’re drawn back into the meat & potatoes of plot. The first logical question that leaps to mind, then, is this: Who is Members Only guy and why would he kill Tony? I think we can agree that he’s not some kind of rogue cop or federal agent; nor is he a crazy, civilian, lone-gunman, stalker type (because the show never offered any evidence of such a character existing prior to this point & such a soap-opera plot twist would be beneath it). The only answer that might make any sense at all is that he’s a mob-ordered killer, likely connected to New York. In fact there really is no other reasonable possibility for supporters of this theory. It’s the only one they’ve got… and it doesn’t work.
The mob has very strict rules for how they do business. These rules may seem crazy to everyday people, but they still apply and have been lived by fairly strictly in the American Mafia for the last 75-100 years. One of the rules is that to take out a made guy you get permission from up the food chain. Once permission is granted, the guy who granted it can’t come back later and say, “I changed my mind, I didn’t want you to kill him, now I’m pissed and I’m going to kill you.” This kind of chaos is bad for business and only breeds further conflict—which, in turn, brings heat. Avoiding such circumstances is the very reason these rules were created in the first place.
Tony not only gets permission to take out Phil from Butch, but gets it earlier in this VERY SAME episode (“Do what you gotta do”). Chase gives us this scene because it’s essential to the plot for the reasons I just outlined. With those words from Butch, the larger beef with NY is buried and Tony has de facto permission to whack Phil. So after giving us that scene in this SAME episode, we’re supposed to believe there’s another scene we do not see where Butch completely reverses himself on this extraordinarily important decision? To do this would be a definite cheat. Sepinwall put it best in his new book when he said, “Narratively, this was never a show that cheated, or tried to trick its audience.” This leaves us with no reasonable explanation that would support the Tony-is-dead theory from the standpoint of pure plot mechanics. Again: If the jacket-guy killed Tony, Chase would have given us a scene at some point after Phil’s death and prior to Holsten’s that gave us a reason for jacket-guy (or someone, ANYONE, who might employ him) to want Tony dead.
…And in case someone brings up the Russian from “Pine Barrens” as a counter-argument here, let me respond in advance: Chase wasn’t trying to trick anyone or play games with the disappearing Russian in that episode. You want to know what happened to the Russian? He died. How do I know this? Because we, the viewers, clearly see him get shot in the head by Paulie.
Why didn’t Chase definitively tell us he died by showing us his corpse? BECAUSE IT WASN’T REMOTELY IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO DWELL UPON. In fact the fate of the Russian is utterly irrelevant to the larger story Chase is telling us. The main point of the “Pine Barrens” episode (generally) is the relationships of Paulie & Christopher, both with each other and to the rest of the crew; and (more specifically) their collective headspace in this particular episode (that headspace being utterly lost and confused). The Russian was nobody; not a major character—no character at all really, just a plot device. In as much, he served his purpose completely and there was nothing left to do with him.
Tony Soprano is not the Russian. Tony is our protagonist. What happens to him matters. Someone in New York suddenly deciding to whack him would be a major, major plot point. For Chase to leave out such a scene for the purpose of catching the audience off-guard & deliver some cheap, shock ending would be beneath him, imo.
Obviously, the ending Chase gave us was divisive. The only reason I feel so strongly about this issue, myself, is because I believe the trickery implied by the Tony-is-dead camp demeans the show and its legacy. Prior to The Sopranos, Chase worked on some high-profile and well-respected shows, from The Rockford Files in the 70s to Northern Exposure in the early 90s. But in many interviews with Chase that I’ve read, he’s expressed little affection (more often outright disdain, actually) for his work on these shows. Because such shows were ultimately formula programs that left little room for deeper artistic expression.
As luck would have it, Chase is currently promoting his new movie, Not Fade Away, and was just interviewed by Stephen Witty of the Star-Ledger. In the article, he described Northern Exposure as “self-conscious and self-congratulatory and precious.” The full article can be found here:
(I’ll have a few more quotes to share from this article where relevant below.)
The Sopranos was a very conscious break from conventional, formula TV, and thus should not be examined or analyzed as such. The Tony-is-dead theory, I believe, is born out of conventional analysis that overemphasizes what’s on the surface (i.e., just what we see on the screen). This show demands deeper analysis than this. Chase is striving for art here. True artists create art to make the viewer think, evoke a feeling or set of feelings, perhaps even to outright disturb their audience—but they don’t play head games or concoct elaborate jokes to pull on them.
We know Tony Soprano is going to die at some point (as are we all, of course)—and we might even agree that it will likely be a violent death that he never sees coming. But to kill Tony at the end of the final episode because the character is “evil” and “has it coming” is an all-too-neat, all-too-conventional resolution for Chase, I believe. (Really, our bad-guy protagonist ends up on the wrong end of a bullet, poetic-justice style, to end the series? Doesn’t that sound just a bit too simple and easy for this show? Prior to the finale, in the entire history of this series, how often did we see any kind of real justice served out or any real redemption for anyone?)
Why, then, was that final sequence directed and edited in the fashion it was? For the best answer, I’d circle back to the Sepinwall book—but not the Sopranos chapter. Strangely enough, the best answer (imo) comes from Matt Weiner in the Mad Men chapter. There, Weiner credited Chase for encouraging him to tell stories with “gaps in communication.” He went on to say that what ends up on the screen is “just what happens and I don’t know what it means.”
Again, I’m thankful for the timing of this, as the recent Whitty article saved me the trouble of digging though old magazines & websites. Chase corroborates the idea of purposeful ambiguity in his work in said article thusly:
Chase resolutely refuses to comment upon [the ending of The Sopranos finale], except to say—well, if you really knew him, as a writer, you wouldn’t have been so surprised.
“First of all, I’m just not sure that the ending is the most important part of any story. That sounds stupid, but I think what you really remember from anything you watch are the high points, certain scenes that touched you, or moved you... And I enjoy ambiguity; to me it makes watching something more of an adventure.
“Now, people seem to like the comfort of knowing where the story’s going, of being ahead of it a little. I don’t know, maybe it’s always been like that. Maybe the 70s were just a blip. But stories could be ambiguous then, and they didn’t have to have happy endings. Can you imagine pitching Cuckoo’s Nest today? ‘Yeah, and then at the end, the hero has a lobotomy. And his friend smothers him, and then rips up a sink and throws it through the window.’ Yeah, they’d just love that.”
In a very meta way, I think Weiner captures the idea even more perfectly through the words of one his characters, Ken Cosgrove, in a Mad Men episode that featured discussion of a Rothko painting. After another character (Sal) says that the painting “must mean something,” Cosgrove responds: “Maybe it doesn’t [mean anything]. Maybe you’re just supposed to experience it. Because when you look at it, you do feel something, right? It’s like looking into something very deep. You could fall in.”
He could just as easily be talking about the end of “Made In America,” no? Let’s try it the Ken Cosgrove way—let’s put aside what may or may not have happened with the story/ characters at the moment the screen went black, and instead talk about what happened to each of us—what did we feel as viewers—at that moment?
For me, when the screen suddenly cuts to black—and stays black for several rather uncomfortable seconds—it offers that weird sensation of staring into the abyss & the abyss staring back into you. Much like that Rothko painting, we could fall in. It didn’t evoke Tony’s death… it evoked my own. Our own lives could end at any moment—perhaps not as violently or dramatically as one of the gangsters on The Sopranos, but in nearly as many unpredictable ways that we’ll never see coming. I could have died at that moment. (Maybe I did. Maybe my existence since then hasn’t been real, but some kind of purgatorial, afterlife trial that I’m not even aware of. Maybe the whole damn world ended at the moment and we’re all trapped in that purgatory together right now…. Somebody cue the Twilight Zone music.)
Which leads to the even larger question of what death is. What is it like to be dead, to not exist? It’s not like anything really, because to feel is a quality of living, so you can’t even express it in such terms. The most popular philosophical definition of life/reality is DeCartes’ “cogito ergo sum”; “I think, therefore I am.” The opposite, I then imagine, is “I no longer think, therefore I no longer am.” But how do we describe a state of not thinking? Again, how can we conceive of a state wherein we can no longer conceive of anything, not even self-awareness? That abrupt cut to black becomes a visual/ artistic koan—a paradox that can only be meditated upon; never truly answered.
Which brings us back to a point I mentioned way back at the beginning of this filibuster: One of the alternate theories in the immediate aftermath of this finale was that Tony did not get whacked at the end—we, the audience, did. As I said, the editing would certainly seem to lend more support to this theory. If it’s Tony who dies, the screen should cut to black off his pov. Instead it cuts off our pov. Tony’s vision does not suddenly cut to black; ours does. My only problem with the audience-got-whacked theory (and this is strictly based on most of what I read at the time) was that most of those theorists framed it as a joke or an F-you from Chase to the audience. But Chase is neither so petty nor so juvenile. So while the interpretation of the ending is technically correct, I think most of such theorists (again, based on what I read at the time) misapprehended the true spirit/ intentions behind it.
So did Chase “whack” the audience? Yes and no. Yes, inasmuch as I believe the intent (assuming any specific intent even existed at all) may have been to make us consider our own mortality, our own death, when we see it. And no, in that it was not a gesture intended to “put one over” on us or play a joke at our expense.
Aside from the cuts in the editing, the other key element in the final sequence is the music. First, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is an upbeat song. Maybe this song choice was intended as nothing more than ironic juxtaposition with the downbeat/ menacing atmosphere that was more typical of this show. It’s also possible the lyrics may have had some meaning. Those that strike me most are “the movie never ends, it goes on and on,” which is perhaps meant to hint that this episode will not have a conventional “end.” And then there’s the chorus repeating “don’t stop” before Chase cuts precisely on the word “stop.” Again, this can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. My own is this: That the best art can capture the infinite, but life—and TV series—have a beginning and an ending. They don’t go “on and on,” they “stop.” It’s another juxtaposition—this time of life and death; the finite and the infinite.
But again, I’m only speaking of my own experience with it. This is what it evoked in me. I’m not even sure Chase had intended anything so specific when he made it. Maybe pure ambiguity was the sole goal of all of it. We may never know—and in all likelihood, Chase doesn’t want us to.
Before the finale aired, the most widely-held opinion amongst critics was that we’d get some kind of non-ending. An ending where nothing is definitively resolved and life goes on, not much better or worse than before. Tony would somehow escape the NY beef with his skin intact, which should be a kind of victory except it’s not, because at the end of the day he’s still stuck being Tony Soprano, and Tony Soprano will always be a miserable prick. Such an ending would be in keeping with Chase’s previously established style and themes. And if Chase directed his ending in a conventional, formulaic manner, we probably would have seen Meadow walk into Holsten’s and sit down at the table, followed by a wide shot of the whole family together there, with the camera then slowly panning back, coupled with a slow fade to black, then the credits begin to roll, Journey still playing all the while until finally fading out as the last credits flash on the screen. The end; hit the HBO tag.
As I’ve pointed out numerous times though, Chase’s intention was to defy convention and break away from formula. So he didn’t want to go out with any traditional slow fades, neither visually nor musically. Instead, he abruptly cut off both. It’s quite possible the idea for the abrupt cut came to him first, and only then he realized the potential effect such a cut might have. Or it could have been the other way around. Maybe he knew he wanted to stir a certain feeling (perhaps several possible feelings; or create a more general atmosphere) and then determined an abrupt cut could work for him.
In any case, there’s nothing in the ending that precludes the fictional Tony’s life going on just as most critics expected it to. I, for one, am among those that believe this is the case. I believe life does go on for Tony in his fictional universe. But our relationship with him, along with the life of this television series, has come to an end. An ending we never saw coming.
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