With the very sad, untimely death of James Gandolfini last week, Tony Soprano is definitely, for sure, no fooling, unambiguously dead.
The actor’s passing has kicked off a great many well-deserved tributes to his work, on The Sopranos in particular, which in turn has renewed the debate on that series’ controversial cut-to-black ending — specifically, whether Tony was killed in the final scene.
The people who feel that Tony died — specifically, that he was shot in the head by the guy in the Members Only jacket coming out of the bathroom — have a pretty strong case, best summed up by the “Master Of Sopranos” essay that picks it apart shot by shot. Cliff Notes version: it’s clearly set up that the scene is alternating between closeups of Tony and Tony’s point of view, so when he looks up and the scene then cuts to black, it’s cutting to his point of view, which, in death, is nothing.
There is another, less vocal camp that feels that the ending is meant to show that after everything, Tony’s punishment is to live life with one eye forever on the door, waiting for the murder that he knows will someday come, and yet, as Steve Perry would have it, “paying anything to roll the dice just one more time.” As the song also says, “The movie never ends, it goes on and on and on,” but as that was not the language in David Chase’s contract, he had to end somewhere so he picked an arbitrary spot and ended it.
Those are both very interesting arguments and I don’t particularly disagree with either of them, but my reading of that ending was a little different.
In the last scene, when Carmela arrives and joins Tony at the Holsten’s diner, she asks how did Tony’s meeting go with the lawyer. Tony tells her that Carlo (one of his captains) is in custody and has turned informant, and that the lawyer is expecting Tony to be indicted any minute. That, for all intents and purposes, is the end of the story. Tony Soprano’s reign as the boss of North Jersey, which in many respects was the story of this show, is over, so the story is over.
As for whether he’s then killed by the guy in the Members Only jacket in the john, or by the Unidentified Black Males at the jukebox, or by the Cub Scouts in the corner booth, or by Carmela sitting across from him, well, that doesn’t really matter. Over the course of the show, one immutable fact was drummed into the audience’s head over and over and over again: if your friends in the Mob even suspect that you might inform on them to the Feds, they are going to get you. We saw it with Big Pussy, with Adriana, with Eugene Pontecorvo, to name only a few. They’re not maybe going to get you. They’re not going to try to get you. They’re going to get you. So whether they get him in the diner in front of his family, or run his car off the road on the way home, or shoot him in his driveway, or blow up his house, or stab him in the gut on the courthouse steps, it really doesn’t matter. He’s under indictment, and in a position to inform on the bosses of the New York Mob. They’re going to get him.
For the audience to feel cheated or angry because they didn’t get to actually see the bloodshed kind of validates David Chase’s discomfort with what he created, and retroactively validates his decision not to show it to them. The details are beside the point. All the relevant information has been given. The story’s over. Cut to black.
Great, now I have that goddamn song in my head again!