David Chase’s saga of an American family comes to an end—of sorts…
Episode 86 – Originally aired June 10, 2007
Written by David Chase
Directed by David Chase
The hour has come round at last. First off, let me extend a warm welcome to any new visitors to my site. (Please leave the door open behind you as you enter.) Regular and long-time visitors to this site can already guess that I won’t be presenting my ideas and interpretations of this episode as definitive. “Definitive” interpretations often feel like an attempt to “get the last word in,” like an effort to end the discussion rather than invite discussion. They close doors rather than open them. I will confess at the outset that I do have a take on the ending of this hour that is very specific, hinging upon particular interpretations of certain details. But I would never describe my take as definitive. Or even correct.
I usually don’t do a scene-by-scene rundown in my write-ups because I don’t like to get my fingerprints all over Chase’s gleaming episodes too much, but also because such itemized analysis can squash the ambiguity and wonderful mystery that David Chase has worked into his series. (And very few episodes convey the ambiguity and wonderful mystery of The Sopranos like this one does.) However, there are so many ideas and issues to explore in this hour, going scene-by-scene might be the most logical way to organize it all. Also, taking a look at each scene in turn may be a good way to give all due respect to this Emmy-winning episode in its entirety, and not just burn a hole into The Final Scene with a magnifying glass as many “Made in America” commentaries tend to do. I’ll try to point out—even more than usual—some of the myriad connections that the hour makes within itself, with previous episodes, and with things and events in the real world. I’ve long felt that appreciating its connectivity is the keystone to appreciating The Sopranos, and the thematic importance of connectivity to the series never feels more clear to me as it does when I finish watching this hour. There is a lot to get to here and this is quite a long write-up, so let’s jump in…
This season 6 Finale kicks off by making a neat parallel with the season 6 Opener. The first episode of the season ended with Tony on his back (possibly dead, possibly alive) after being shot by Corrado, and now the final episode opens with Tony again on his back, and some of us again wondering if Tony is dead or alive. There is some type of organ music playing in the background, giving the scene a ‘funeral parlor’ vibe:
We soon realize that this is not a funeral home but the bedroom of the safehouse we saw in the previous hour. And the organ melody is not mortuary music but the opening bars of Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hanging On” playing over the radio. The song’s title literally heralds what Chase is planning to do to his audience later. Vanilla Fudge’s version of this song is sort of schizophrenic—it goes through some radical tonal changes, evoking a variety of moods and atmospheres. Chase makes clever use of the song’s multiple personalities multiple times within the episode.
The next scene features a clever use of music too. As they wait for Agent Dwight Harris near the perimeter of Teterboro Airport, Tony tells an impatient Paulie to “enjoy the music.” The song playing over the radio is “Denise” by Randy and the Rainbows, which I’m guessing is a sly nod to David Chase’s wife, Denise. Outside the car, the snow is flurrying and a gusty wind whistles through the night. Chase has often used wind expressively, perhaps even symbolically (ugh, that’s a word that gets thrown around too easily), and the wind here sets a mood of tension and unease. Tony gives Agent Harris some information (probably useless) about Bada Bing regulars Mohammad and Ahmed in hopes of getting some info about Phil Leotardo’s whereabouts in exchange. Tony mentions to Harris that his son is “making a molehill” of terrorism. We understand that T is getting the well-known phrase backwards, mangling an idiom as he often does. (It’s a funny little moment and I’ll have some fun with the malaprop later…) During their conversation, Harris gets a call from his wife and it’s clear that there is some strain in their marriage. (He had mentioned in the previous episode that working in the Counterterrorism Division was tough on family life.) The troubled state of Harris’ marriage is a minor detail, but it arguably has an outsized effect in the conflict between the NY and NJ famiglias later in the hour.
Dante Greco transports Tony around in a Steinholz Beverage van. The scene is scored with some melodramatic music: the guitars roar out dramatic chords while the cymbals crash around the keyboard melody. The tense music leads us to believe there is soon going to be some outburst of violence. But then the van calmly pulls in front of the Soprano family’s hideaway, Dante shuts off the engine and the music stops. Chase, we realize, has just used a dramatic section of “You Keep Me Hanging On” here to quickly build tension, but then just as quickly turned the music off to collapse the tension. (Or to put it idiomatically, Chase made a mountain of a molehill and then made a molehill of the mountain.) This is a signature characteristic of The Sopranos: a perpetual, see-sawing inflation and deflation of tension that is at times independent of anything that happens—or doesn’t happen—in the plot. The Sopranos mimics our experience of the real world. Tensions appear and disappear in our lives often beyond our control, sometimes with no rhyme or reason. This perpetual seesaw is a part of “the fuckin regularness of life,” as Chrissie described it back in episode 1.08.
If the seaside setting of the hideaway looks familiar, it may be because this scene was shot just a few miles down the road from the beach house we saw in episode 4.13 “Whitecaps.” Inside the hideaway, Tony peels an orange. (Oranges have been associated with mob whackings ever since the attempt on Vito Corleone in G.1.) AJ worries how everyone will attend Bobby Bacala’s funeral when there is a gangland war going on: “We’re all on DEFCON-4.” It’s an interesting malapropism that AJ makes; in the DEFCON numbering system, “1” signals the most severe military threat while “5” signifies the least severe. AJ is trying to invoke a mountain of threat, but ends up evoking only a molehill instead.
Everyone attends Bobby’s funeral. It’s very windy again, we can hear it howling in the FBI’s video footage. We don’t directly see the funeral, only catch glimpses of the interment service at the cemetery through the FBI’s TV monitors:
At Bobby’s wake, Paulie Walnuts amuses the younger generation just by being Paulie Walnuts. He tries to quote a line from a well-known Catholic chant:
Paulie: “In the midst of death, we are in life.” Or is it the other way around?
Meadow: I think it’s the other way around.
Paulie: Either version, you’re halfway up the ass.
AJ becomes frustrated by the pop-culture conversation at the table. The dark cloud we’ve seen hovering over him in the last couple of episodes hasn’t lifted yet. Still thinking about “The Second Coming,” he mentions the poem’s author “Yeets.” (“Yeats?” his uncle corrects him. Reminds me of the time in episode 2.07 “D-Girl” when the poor kid referred to Nietzsche as “Nitch.”) “America—this is still where people come to make it,” AJ reminds everyone. “It’s a beautiful idea.” But then he goes on to criticize American consumerism (particularly the role of advertising) and foreign policy (particularly Bush’s war in Iraq).
David Chase has been casting a critical eye towards the country since his college days during the Vietnam War. Chase describes The Rise and Fall of Bug Manousos, the student-film he made while at Stanford, as “about alienation. It was about a guy driven crazy by the cheesiness, sanctimoniousness, and fakery of American society. He was frustrated—he shotgunned his TV set. And what got to him were the commercials, the astronauts, and the fact that white-bread Nixonians ruled America.”
I seem to remember reading somewhere that David Chase had at one point thought of naming the entire series Made in America. But obviously, he chose the name only for the finale instead. In a 2007 interview for GQ, six months after the final episode aired, Chase explained the title:
The theme of that episode was “Made in America.” I used that title not only because Tony’s a made guy, and all these guys are made guys, but also because it was about the extreme amount of comfort Americans have, especially people with money. And specifically, it was about the war in Iraq—it was made in America, and as you saw in the show, Tony and Carmela just didn’t want their son to go, and they could afford to see that their son didn’t go. Like some of our leaders.
Chase was troubled by our American desire for comfort, luxury and security at the expense of any real engagement with the serious issues at hand. He was disturbed, in a word, by our selfishness. This was something that Chase was concerned about even when The Sopranos was in its embryonic stage. In an early interview (circa 2000) with Peter Bogdanovich (aka “Dr. Eliott Kupferberg”), Chase described the “absurd joke” that gave birth to his TV show:
The kernel of the joke, the essential joke, was that life in America had gotten so savage, selfish—basically selfish—that even a mob guy couldn’t take it anymore. That was the essential joke, and he’s in therapy because what he sees upsets him so much, what he sees every day. He and his guys were the ones who invented selfishness, they invented “Me first.” They invented “It’s all about me,” and now he can’t take it because the rest of the country has surpassed him.
There’s no “I” in “team,” but there certainly is one in “America.” Hell, there’s even a “me” in “America.” The 86 hours of The Sopranos are a longitudinal study of our “me, me, me” mindset. It doesn’t take very long for the viewer to recognize that the self-centered, self-dealing impulses of virtually all the characters that inhabit SopranoWorld are not unique to them. Selfishness is the germinal idea of Chase’s TV show because it is such a prevalent characteristic of American life.
A funeral repast is probably not the appropriate time or place to make crabby criticisms of America, but I think some of the discomfort AJ’s tablemates feel can be attributed to his words cutting a little too close to the bone. Paulie outright mocks AJ’s diatribe: “He’s saying the framis intersects with the ramistan approximately at the paternoster.” I don’t want to make too much of Paulie’s nonsensical line—but of course, I will. “Framis” was an old-time slang word for things, especially material objects; “Ramistan” sounds like it could be the name of a middle Eastern country that President Bush would invade next; and Pater Noster is the Latin term for the “Our Father,” the most recited prayer in Christendom. So: Paulie’s gibberish manages to possibly reference materialism, militarism, and religion—arguably the three things that most define the world’s perception of America. I’m sure I am reading way too much into what is probably a throwaway line, but then I also wonder: are there throwaway lines on this show?
Back at the safehouse where the NJ crew is holed up, an old episode of The Twilight Zone is playing on the TV. When we consider the monitors that the FBI agents were peering at earlier, this becomes the second time we are seeing a screen within our screen in just the past few minutes. The Sopranos has always reveled in self-reflexive moments, and we’ll be on the lookout for more screen-within-a-screen imagery as the hour progresses. The dialogue within the Twilight Zone episode also has a self-reflexive quality, which gets heightened, as Prof. Franco Ricci points out in Born Under a Bad Sign, when Tony meta-interacts with the man on the television set:
Man on TV: The television industry today is looking for talent. They’re looking for quality. They’re preoccupied with talent and quality, and the writer is a major commodity.
Tony: Well, you know the situation ain’t all bad.
Tony is talking about not having to eat vegetables while hiding in the safehouse, not about the state of the television industry. But he sounds like he could be speaking for David Chase here, giving a final thank-you to the Sopranos’ brilliant writers.
We are also introduced in this scene at the safehouse to an orange tabby. “Baciagalup,” Tony affectionately calls the friendly feline.
In New York, a double-decker bus drives down Mulberry Street as a tour guide explains that Little Italy was once a sprawling area of 40 blocks, but has now been reduced to a row of shops and cafes. Butch DeConcini walks out of Il Cortile restaurant and receives a phone call from Phil Leotardo. Butchie seems inclined to extend an olive branch to Tony Soprano, but Phil doesn’t even want to hear about it and ends the call mid-conversation. I love how this short sequence is shot. Lots of contemporary TV shows like Law & Order and The West Wing have employed the “walk-and-talk,” using it to maintain an episode’s fast pace or to emphasize how busy the characters are or to transition from one location to the next. But Chase doesn’t use the “walk-and-talk” in the conventional way here. In Chase’s hands, the device humorously underscores the shrinking of Little Italy: before he reaches the end of the short phone call, Butchie has walked himself into Chinatown. (That double-decker tour guide wasn’t kidding…)
Tony visits his sister at her home. Janice tries to convince Tony (and probably herself) that she’d be a good mother to Bobby’s kids, but we can’t help but notice her similarities to Livia (who wasn’t a very good mother). “I put Ma and all her warped shit behind me,” Janice declares. But seconds later, she angrily spits out that her son Harpo abandoned his given name to go by “Hal”—a clear parallel to Livia, who had also been angry about having a child who refused to go by her given name. (Remember “Parvati”?) The Sopranos has always suggested that impulses and attitudes pass from one generation to the next, and the idea really gets underlined in this hour.
Also noteworthy in this scene: T stands at the railing of Janice’s balcony and looks out at the neighboring houses. The camera pans across the neighborhood as Tony says, “You know, five or six years ago when Johnny Sac bought this house, this was all cornfields here.” There is a note of nostalgia in Tony’s voice. He was born and raised in north Jersey, and he has seen the green panoramas of his Garden State get razed and replaced with ugly, unchecked development. McMansions, made in America indeed.
As he leaves Janice’s house, Tony gets a call from Agent Harris who uses a post-coital moment to give T info on Phil Leotardo’s location. (Oyster Bay, most likely a gas station.) When his partially-clothed companion exits the bathroom and throws Harris an angry look, we understand that this woman may be the “colleague in Brooklyn” (as Harris mentioned in the previous episode) who is giving him the inside dope about Phil. It’s possible that if Harris wasn’t going through his marital woes, he might not be engaged in this infidelity—and Tony would never have received the fateful information. The sight of the young female FBI agent here may also launch us into another speculation. We might remember that in “Walk Like a Man” (6.17), Harris told Tony he never liked Phil because the mobster had tried to set up a rookie agent “for a rape and a beating.” I wonder now: is this the woman that Phil had targeted?
With their new intelligence in hand, Benny Fazio and Walden Belfiore stake out gas stations in Oyster Bay. Chase’s snapshots of American flags interspersed around various advertisements and logos are notable, especially when we consider them in conjunction with AJ’s earlier harangue about American consumerism:
Chase cuts now from the sight of advertisements to the sound of Bob Dylan singing about advertisements; Dylan’s classic “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” is playing over the sound-system of AJ’s truck parked out in a forested area:
Advertising signs that con you
Into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you
AJ and Rhiannon enjoy the music, and then they begin to enjoy each other. But they must scramble out of the SUV when they notice smoke and flames coming into the vehicle cabin. Chase now gives us what is probably the funniest moment of the episode: AJ says, “At least my gas tank was practically empty” and then BANG, Fate chooses this precise moment to detonate the truck. But there’s more than just a little joke at AJ’s expense going on here. For those viewers that expect sensational imagery in their Series Finales, Chase now provides them an explosion. I don’t remember HBO’s teaser clips for this episode in 2007, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they included a shot of this blast of fire. The great irony of this explosion, though, is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the war going on between the New Jersey and New York famiglias. Chase supplied a similar irony in the first episode of the series. There were two explosions in the Pilot, and neither were a result of gangland violence. The first instance was a BBQ mishap in the Soprano backyard. In the second instance, Tony engineered an arson at Vesuvio restaurant in order to prevent a gangland whacking from being carried out there. Chase has defied our expectations of the mobster-genre from the first episode of his series to the last.
In their excellent Sopranos podcast “In at the End,” hosts Val and Alex note that the explosion may function like a “baptism by fire” for AJ. This is a good observation, but I think we also need to know what’s going on in AJ’s head at this moment before we can decide if the explosion will have the effect of a holy ablution. And it’s not always easy to know what is going on in the young man’s head. In his essay, “Christopher, Osama and AJ: Contemporary Narcissism and Terrorism in The Sopranos,” Prof. Jason Jacobs notes that we sometimes have difficulty deciphering AJ as he watches various acts of violence and drama unfold before him. The Professor writes that AJ “stands on, passively watching, and we are invited to speculate on the nature of his involvement: Is he repulsed as we are or is he fascinated? The film style deliberately avoids defining his response for us.” We can find examples of AJ’s beguiling reactions in “All Due Respect,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Kennedy and Heidi”:
I think we can add AJ’s reaction to the explosion of his car to this series of screenshots:
Is AJ, to borrow Professor Jacobs words, repulsed or is he fascinated by the blazing inferno before him? Either version, he’s halfway up the ass—Tony is gonna blow up when he hears what happened.
AJ tries to play the depression card back at the family hideaway, but this strategy has lost its power from overuse. Tony looms and yells, and sends a roar in Meadow’s direction for good measure. AJ tells his parents that he is ok with them not giving him a replacement car because “we have to break our dependence on foreign oil.” Carmela shakes her head, she sees right through his bullshit.
George Paglieri (a character we’ve never met before) brokers a sit-down between the two warring famiglias. The scene that follows is one of the most visually stunningly sequences of the entire series due to its heavily stylized setting. The dark garage where the sit-down takes place reminds me a bit of the Carceri [Prisons] series of etchings made by 18th-century artist Giovanni Piranesi:
Both Piranesi’s prison and Chase’s garage share a chiaroscuro tonal palette, both have busy spaces filled with shapes and angles and perspective lines that shoot deep into the background. They both encumber their viewer with a sense of foreboding and anxiety. So it may be a little surprising when Butchie, after some negotiation, takes off his glove and shakes Tony’s hand. This dark garage turns out to be a place of peace. Of course, many viewers have a valid concern about how trustworthy Butchie is. But I think the earlier walk-and-talk sequence made it fairly clear that Butchie has good reason to be unhappy with Phil’s behavior.
In a 2007 conversation with Tom Fontana (writer-producer of St. Elsewhere, Oz, and other works), David Chase said he felt there was something “mechanistic and stupid” about how he had to keep setting up villains for Tony Soprano to deal with: first Livia, then Richie Aprile, then Ralph Cifaretto. Fontana didn’t think Chase’s self-criticism was justified, arguing that ‘Protagonist vs. Antagonist’ is a fundamental element of storytelling. I agree with Fontana, but as I’ve mentioned before, I am not crazy about Chase’s decision to use the character of Phil Leotardo to bring tension to the end of 6B when he had already used him for this same purpose in Seasons 5 and 6A. Leotardo’s thirst for Tony’s blood now felt a little too “mechanistic” to me, especially considering that he had once said “Whack a Boss? I won’t do that.” That’s why I feel a little vindicated (is that the right word?) seeing Butch turn on Phil now. Even Phil’s own underboss thinks Phil is acting out-of-character, it wasn’t just me.
Paulie brings a box of barber scissors to Satriale’s. Theories abound about the scissors. Some viewers believe the scissors are a hint that Paulie has now become a mole for New York (because the NY leadership had planned their attack against New Jersey while at a mob-affiliated beauty shop [er, “shoppe”] in the previous episode). Other viewers believe the scissors are a callback to the conversation in “Soprano Home Movies” (6.13) in which Bobby says “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens” (because in that same conversation, Bobby and Tony discuss Baccalieri Sr’s occupation as a barber).
Janice comes to the shabby state-run facility where Corrado is being housed. Chase uses a cold lighting scheme and color-design on this set which really emphasizes what a severe, inhospitable place this is. (In the previous episode, Janice told Tony that Corrado has run out of money and can no longer afford to be detained at the more pristine Wyckoff Psychiatric Center. Tony sarcastically handed her a $5 bill.) In his dementia, Corrado mistakes Janice for Livia. Then he mistakes a photo of her daughter Nica for Janice herself. When she informs him that her husband Bobby is dead, he mistakes the news with Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 assassination at the Ambassador Hotel. All these mistakes are surely meant to be seen as examples of Corrado’s mental circuits misfiring, but I suspect that Chase may be giving us something more to mull over. Corrado’s Livia/Janice and Janice/Nica confusion may be another example of how this episode calls attention to the behavioral similarities between family members of different generations. The kids are sometimes indistinguishable from the parents.
(On a side note, Bobby Kennedy’s assassin was recommended for parole just a few months ago, after two of Kennedy’s children voiced their support for the idea. How differently might history have been “made in America” had Bobby Kennedy not been killed during his campaign, and then had gone on to win the Presidency? Would our country be suffering this extreme tribalism and polarization now if someone with Kennedy’s potential to unite the nation had been elected at such a pivotal point in our past?)
In his therapist’s office, AJ says he feels “cleansed” after watching his SUV explode (giving credence to Val and Alex’s idea of baptism-by-fire). But then AJ shrugs off the therapist’s suggestion that he is cleansed of guilt because the Nissan was a polluter—no, he is just amazed to have been so close to dying but then escaping by the skin of his nuts. “My seat melted, I had been in it just a few seconds before,” he explains with a smirk. We now have a clearer answer to Prof. Jacobs question: AJ is more fascinated than repulsed by grand spectacles of drama and violence.
Paulie walks into the empty Bing where he is supposed to meet Carlo Gervasi. He looks with apprehension at the stage—Paulie seems worried that he’s going have another Marian vision. But the apparition of the Virgin Mary doesn’t appear. And neither does Carlo. Tony and Paulie ponder the possibility that Butchie double-crossed them to take out the capo, but realize it is more likely that Carlo flipped after his son was picked up for selling X.
Carmela opens the door of Meadow’s bedroom to find—surprise!—Hunter Scangarelo. Her presence here feels like David Chase wanting his daughter Michele DeCesare to get some more screentime before the series wraps up. But before we scream nepotism, perhaps we should bow our heads and give thanks to Michele because in a 2004 interview for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Chase said that The Sopranos would not exist if it hadn’t been for the birth of his daughter. He simply did not feel a desire to deeply explore family dynamics before that.
Carmela takes a sly jab at Hunter’s troubled past, but when Hunter reveals she is in her 2nd year of medical school, Carm loses all countenance. She is unable to respond to Hunter’s good news with even the simplest nicety. She brusquely says some words to Meadow and shuts the door behind her without even a further glance toward Hunter. I had originally felt that Carmela’s petty behavior was due to some combination of resentment and disappointment that Meadow had decided not to go to medical school while Meadow’s fuck-up friend is now well on her way to becoming a doctor. But now I tend to agree with Prof. Martha Nochimson who writes in The Essential Sopranos Reader that Carmela reacts coldly because she sees Hunter Scangarelo to be a “living reproach.” Hunter has changed her life in a way that Carmela has never been able to. It’s not surprising that Carmela would be so thrown off-balance to learn that Hunter underwent such a positive change; real reform rarely occurs in SopranoWorld. Through Hunter’s reappearance, Chase indicates that growth is indeed possible in this world.
It’s easy to pick on Carmela, and I’ve been critical myself of her on these pages. But I also feel Carmela deserves a lot of credit for how she has tried to support and protect her kids. This feeling is strengthened for me when I see Chase cut from Carmela to the image of another mob wife, Donna Parisi:
Donna Parisi seems sweet, almost childlike, as she mangles one of the oldest jokes around. (“A horse goes to a vet…”) Donna may be a great mother and a wonderful person, but she wasn’t able to keep her son Jason from turning into a low-level goombah, on track to become a fully-fledged Mafioso one day. Despite Carmela’s many faults and hypocrisies, her true love and concern for her son—probably more than anything else—may have steered him clear of a life of crime.
Of course, Donna has another son who does have more professional prospects. Patrick Parisi makes a good impression on Tony and Carmela as they socialize in the living room. Many viewers nevertheless find it troubling that Meadow has gotten engaged to someone with such deep Mafia ties. They seem convinced that this mob daughter and mob son are destined to become mob lawyers and produce little mob babies. But I don’t believe Meadow is making the decision to go to law school with any idea of becoming a mob attorney or some sort of honorarius consigliere, unofficial counselor, to her dad (or to any mobster). Law seems to be her calling. We saw how invested she became in some of the clients at the Law Center where she volunteered in Season 4. We remember that she later interned at a law firm. And she has always stayed abreast of political and social justice issues. (Yes, it is true that Patrick’s firm—which has expressed interest in hiring Meadow in the future—is currently defending a potentially corrupt councilman in a case replete with “bagmen and whores.” But it’s too early right now to predict exactly what type of a lawyer Meadow will be or who she will work for.) We should also not find anything alarming or sinister about Meadow’s engagement to the son of a mobster. Endogamy—the practice of marrying within one’s subgroup—is common throughout all parts of the world, including the United States. Meadow and Patrick’s relationship gets a head start, in a sense, when neither one of them has to explain to the other the quirks of their particular subculture: Sunday dinna’ and see-through socks and how their parents are so financially comfortable despite neither mom nor dad working a 9-to-5. I grew up among Indian-Americans for whom endogamy has been commonplace. I guess many of my friends and relatives found something comfortable in not having to constantly point out which of the dishes are not too spicy, or explain why our dads sometimes wear what looks like a skirt. (It’s called a “mundu” and it’s very masculine, thank you very much.) Let’s give Meadow a break, I think she has earned it.
When Paulie returns to Satriale’s, he finds the cat—strangely—sitting on the edge of a table and staring at a photo of Christopher. Hmm, very curious behavior:
There’s a theory floating around that the cat is a kind of reincarnation of Adriana. Maybe there is something to this: we all remember how much Ade loved wearing leopard- and tiger-print clothes. And then there was that time she mimicked a cat in Season One’s “A Hit is a Hit”:
I’m not at all suggesting that Chase was foreshadowing (ugh, another word that gets thrown around way too much) back in Season 1 that Ade would turn into a cat in Season 6. When Chase makes connections between seasons, I think he usually does it by reaching backwards to make a link, not by planting some little tidbit that he plans to latch on to years into the future. In any case, I don’t personally find the theory that the cat is a physical reincarnation of Adriana (or of Christopher, or of anyone else) very compelling. I do believe the presence of the cat on the table here is quite significant, but I’ll come back to this later…
We now get a quick scene of Little Paulie pretending to be a cop as he searches for Phil Leotardo at a gas station. Notice he is wearing a heavy-duty neck brace; the last time we saw Little Paulie, three episodes ago, he was flung out of a third-floor window by Chrissie.
AJ tells his dad that he wants to join the Army (in what turns out to be the most weirdly prescient scene of the episode). He is sure that he’ll be sent to Afghanistan, not Iraq. (Hmm, we still hadn’t figured out how much of a clusterfuck Afghanistan would be for us.) After military service, AJ figures he may get a job as a helicopter pilot for Donald Trump. (Oh jeez.) I think AJ’s plans are very much influenced by what he has seen on television. He has always gotten his sense of reality from TV. In “Johnny Cakes” (6.08), he tried to learn proper knife-wielding technique from a movie before heading to Corrado’s detention center to get revenge on the old man. After this attempt at payback went awry, AJ justified his plan by citing a scene from another movie: Michael Corleone’s bloody vengeance in The Godfather. Now, we see that AJ is thinking about joining the Army after watching a PBS documentary about American soldiers in the previous episode. And of all the post-military careers to aspire to, he probably thinks of “pilot for Trump” because of those scenes in The Apprentice (which had been airing for three years at this point) in which Donald gets chauffeured around in his personal helicopter.
There’s a question to be asked about AJ’s plans for himself: has he given genuinely serious thought to joining the military, or is he just making a rash and immature attempt to prove his manhood to himself and those around him? As is the case for so many questions raised in The Sopranos, the best answer may come in “both/and” form, not necessarily in “either/or” form: I’d guess AJ is both giving real consideration to signing up and hoping that his parents will swoop in and save him from making a military commitment.
Perhaps Tony and Carmela addressed this question in the office of AJ’s therapist, but by the time the viewer is joined into the session, already in progress, Tony has become interested in using the therapist as a stand-in for his own departed therapist. (We might remember Tony similarly used Hesh Rabkin as a proxy for Dr. Melfi in Season Two’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” after the first time Melfi banished him from her care.) Tony continues to unload his issues on to his son’s doctor until a pointed look from Carmela shuts him up.
Tony and Meadow have a meal together at a restaurant. (We don’t see Meadow eating with her family at hour’s end but we do witness her share a meal with her dad now.) Tony is pushing her to choose medical school over law school. She makes a strong—though somewhat manipulative—argument defending her choice: she talks about the power of the state to trample rights and about all the times she saw Tony get dragged away by the FBI. Meadow was born to be a lawyer; she wields words in a way that undercuts or deflects all of Tony’s criticisms here. The cherry on top of her argument is her mention of not wanting to be a “boring suburban doctor.” Meadow knows of her dad’s extracurricular and extramarital activities; she knows he is a man who has always sought relief from having a boring suburban life. Tony is left powerless to continue making his case, it would be like the pot calling the kettle black.
Patti and Phil Leotardo pull into a Raceway gas station. The song playing over their Ford Expedition’s radio is (you guessed it) “You Keep Me Hanging On.” Phil baby-talks to his grandkids as he gets out of the car: “Wave ‘bye bye Grandpa. Bye bye Pop-Pop.'” And then we get POP, POP—Walden Belfiore steps into the frame and pops two bullets into Phil.
There has been an escalating violence associated with cars in recent episodes. (Remember the Somalian’s whose bike was run over as he was getting pummeled, and the motorcyclist that was run over in front of the Bing during an attack from the New York mob?) Now, Phil gets run over by his own car. Chase mercifully doesn’t show us what happens to Phil’s head, but the crunching sound and the reactions of the bystanders make it clear what occurs. Chase sometimes plays to the crowd, he likes to throw a bone to his hits-and-tits viewers. But ironically, the sequences that often get the madding crowd the most excited don’t actually contain a whole lot of graphic blood and gore. The Sopranos never descends into becoming one of those cheap, trashy pieces of entertainment that have been around in America in one form or another since at least the 1920s. Chase only likes some pulp in his fiction.
I like the one that says some pulp
As Walden and Benny Fazio make their getaway after hitting Phil, we get a shot of the crime scene containing seven (seven!) American flags. All the flag-imagery we see in this hour is surely playing to the episode title in one way or another, and I think the imagery here may comment upon our American bloodlust. There is arguably no developed nation in the world that has a thirst for blood (not to mention gasoline) as we do.
I’ve previously mentioned Mario Vargas Llosa’s writings on “the Civilization of the Spectacle” in which he excoriates the dumbing-down effects of mass culture. We live in an entertainment ecosystem that places the highest value on titillation and stimulation. And nothing stimulates the masses like spectacle. Of course, spectacle assumes spectators. As Phil’s brainpan gets crushed, Chase turns his camera onto the nearby spectators in order to make, I think, a wry criticism of those fans that crave the spectacle of violence above everything else. As we watch the man who seems to have hip dysplasia shout “Oh shit!” and the young man in a student uniform turn his head and vomit, we recognize that the gratuitous cravings of voyeurs have ugly consequences on bystander viewers as well.
The youngster’s projectile vomiting is not the first time we’ve seen someone puke this season. The juxtaposition of the youngster in this scene to the characters in next one may jog our memory of the first time this season we did see someone vomit:
Chase cuts from the youngster to a scene with Agents Dwight Harris and Ron Goddard. The very first line of Season 6, we might remember, was Agent Goddard quoting H.L. Mencken: “No one ever went broke underestimating the tastes of the American public.” And then Harris, as if on cue, promptly threw up. Harris was suffering from a stomach bug, but his barfing almost felt like an acknowledgment by Chase of the grosser aspects of public taste. The young man’s barfing now is a similar acknowledgment. Chase surely knows that the public’s taste descends to its lowest levels in its expectations of the gangster-genre. According to a 2007 Vanity Fair article, “An American Family,” Chase believed FOX Network rejected his pitch for the series because they felt his show would not be violent enough to draw fans. Luckily, HBO gave Chase all the latitude and resources he needed to walk the line between high art and low, between poetry and entertainment.
When Goddard informs Harris that “Phil Leotardo got popped,” Harris can’t conceal his excitement, yelling out “Damn, we’re gonna win this thing!” (Chase told Alan Sepinwall of The Star Ledger that this line came directly from the real-life story of former FBI Agent Lindley DeVecchio who got a bit too enthusiastic at the death of Lorenzo “Lamps” Lampasi during the Colombo wars of the ’70s. And was later charged with the crime of providing info to the mafia.) Dwight Harris always seemed a bit more “human” and empathetic than the other agents, and it’s very human to have tribal loyalties. Dwight’s outburst here may be wholly unprofessional, but I’m glad Chase allowed him this final hurrah.
This episode strongly reiterates the idea that kids often take after their parents, and the most obvious example of this must be when AJ walks down the staircase in his bathrobe, as we’ve seen his father do countless times:
AJ almost looks like “the second coming” of Tony Soprano here. He also sounds like his dad in this scene; as he argues with his mother, he exclaims “Always with the drama,” something we heard Tony say to his own mother in the second episode of the series. Carmela and Tony now essentially bribe their son not to enlist in the military by getting him a job in film production. (I think we can find a kind of reverse circumstance between the two “fortunate sons” Christopher and AJ here. Chrissie had hoped that Development Girl Amy Safir would help him expand his life outside of New Jersey, while AJ’s parents turn him into a sort of D-Boy in order to keep him inside of New Jersey.) Little Carmine has agreed to produce the movie Anti-Virus, based on a script received from Danny Baldwin. Sounds like B-movie fare, but it may make some money—after all, Little Carmine had nine pictures under his subspecies before Cleaver. Carm flinches at the thought that her son will be working for a porno company, but hey, it’s better than him going into the Army (at least during a time of war).
I want to add a note about the final line of dialogue in this scene, when Tony tells AJ, “Run that past Rahoony, see what she says.” (Even though he similarly mistook a character named Rahimah as “Rahoomy” back in Season 4, it’s still a little surprising to me that someone who loves classic rock as much as T would mispronounce the name “Rhiannon.”) Tony mispronounces proper nouns often, and the greatest example of this may have been in episode 6.11 “Cold Stones” when he handed Carmela a “Louis Vitoon” wallet. (“Captain Teebs” early in the series might give “Vitoon” a run for its money though). I love the confidence with which Tony makes these mistakes. His aplomb and lack of self-consciousness has always added to his charm, and it’s another reason why we keep rooting for Tony Soprano despite knowing we shouldn’t.
In the backroom of the Bada Bing, attorney Neil Mink breaks the news that Carlo is probably testifying. Mink rattles off the potential charges against his mob-boss client: illegal weapon, interstate trafficking, homicide. Tony momentarily loses his composure. (I probably would too, faced with a witness that’s cooperating and a ketchup bottle that’s not…) Though we don’t know Mink all that well, it somehow feels very typical of him that he keeps getting distracted from the serious conversation at hand by the images of half-naked women on the security monitors of the strip joint. Chase exits this scene with a match-cut from a monitor at the Bing to a monitor in Silvio’s hospital room:
Silvio is hooked up to a ventilator via tracheostomy. His prospects are extremely grim. Tony wordlessly lays his hand on Silvio’s arm, a warm gesture that mirrors the gesture Sil made when the situation was reversed, when Tony was the one lying unconscious on a ventilator in “Mayham” (6.03).
As I listen to the rhythmic hiss of Silvio’s ventilator now, in the Fall of 2021, this scene hits different from ever before. If Silvio needed an ICU bed at this moment, in some parts of the country there might not be one available for him. Watching Silvio Dante’s final onscreen moments, I remember that before Steve Van Zandt played the right-hand man of “The Boss” Tony Soprano, he was the right-hand man of “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen. Maybe it is the title of this hour, “Made in America,” that is causing the chorus of Springsteen’s classic “The Promised Land” to ring through my head as I watch this scene:
The dogs on Main Street howl ’cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister, I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land
Springsteen wrote the lyrics to the song while on a road trip with Van Zandt through Nevada and Utah, and the song is infused with the sense of freedom and hope that those wide-open spaces of the American West manifest. They started their road trip on August 16, 1977—the same day Elvis Presley died. The death of this great American artist—a personal hero of Springsteen’s—seems to have given a poignant, sorrowful undertone to the lyrics. Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi, early in the Pilot episode, have a conversation whose subject and tone—very similar to the song—evoke the freedom and hope that is implicit in the American Dream, but at the same time express an anxiety that the dream has died:
Tony: It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately I’m gettin’ the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.
Melfi: Many Americans, I think, feel that way.
Many of us have a feeling, now more than ever, that the very idea of America may be—like Silvio—on its last legs. It’s on life support. Democracy seems to be heading towards a cliff. Maybe we’ll soon balkanize into separate territories, citing irreconcilable differences. We’re not even able to present a united front against a fricking virus. Many of our various problems have certainly been “made in America,” but it is not clear if we still have the national willpower to craft the solutions. Despite it all, though, I still believe in the promised land.
Tony joins Paulie on the sidewalk in front of Satriale’s. An effective manager of men, Tony knows just what to say to get ol’ Gaultieri to agree to take over Carlo’s crew. The two men discuss the cat’s inexplicable behavior as well as the vision of the Madonna that Paulie once had at the Bing, but I’m going to leave further exploration of these topics to until after we get to the cut-to-black.
AJ leaves the new job his parents got for him and careens off to meet Rhiannon in the new car his parents also got for him. He brags to someone over the phone that the BMW gets 23 miles per gallon—not a great number to begin with, but there is absolutely no way he is getting that kind of mpg with such a heavy foot. This is more evidence of AJ’s bogus environmentalism. We may remember that he once explained he didn’t wrap the Matrix DVD he got for his mom because it would be “wasteful to the environment,” but we all knew he was just being lazy. It was in 6.02 “Join the Club” that AJ told his sis he wanted a Prius hybrid, but later revealed to his dad (unconscious at the time) that what he really wants is a gas-guzzling Mustang or BMW M3. (He wanted an M3 and, lo and behold, now he’s got one.) The fact that it was leaves on a forest floor that ignited the fire that blew up his SUV earlier in the hour almost felt like karma at work—Mother Nature giving a big F.U. to the phony environmentalist. But AJ, tooling around in his 330-horsepower coupe now, is saying fuck you right back to Her.
In front of the TV back at home, AJ and Rhiannon watch George Bush and “Bush’s brain” Karl Rove convulse from some horrific muscle spasms (or maybe they’re just dancing?). Tony is in the backyard raking some leaves. This is the last time that we will be seeing him at Casa Soprano. At a 2014 screening of the Finale shown at the Museum of the Moving Image, David Chase said that the image of Tony leaning on the rake and looking at the sun is “maybe the most important shot” of the episode because “that to me is the key to the whole concept. And that ties back to the ducks and the bear and life on the planet and him taking peyote and seeing the sun come up. And it’s not all negative at all.”
It is difficult to know exactly what Chase was referring to when he said “the whole concept,” but I believe he may have been talking about the idea of connectivity. This quick little scene is filled with connections to earlier moments. We can hear the sound of ducks somewhere in the distance. (Ducks again.) We can see the early evening sunlight filtering through the trees. (Trees again.) There is a rustle behind Tony, but it is not a black bear or an assassin; it is only Carmela coming to say Holsten’s is the consensus for dinner.
Tony pays a visit to the institution where Corrado is. The gameshow “Joker’s Wild” is playing on a TV in the background. (The host tells a contestant, “Your spin, Ron”—the final time of the series that Chase will directly send me a hidden message hahaha.) Tony has come to inquire about Corrado’s finances, but the man is in a confused state. He believes that his accountant who visited earlier is “from another galaxy.” Corrado’s mental deterioration is plainly evident, and it’s a little heartbreaking to see. Tony manages to swallow some of his anger and tries to reminisce with his uncle about “this thing of ours.” I think there is a point about Corrado’s patronymic name that can be made here. Named after his father, Corrado is called “Uncle Junior” by his loved ones. There have been various “Juniors” throughout the series who weren’t quite as strong or smart as their senior namesakes. Jackie Jr, Anthony Jr, and Carmine Jr (aka Little Carmine) are all examples. It’s almost like there is some element in the blood that gets thinned out from one generation to the next in SopranoWorld. We never learned very much about Corrado Senior, but we can see now that the most powerful Junior in north Jersey—the one and only Uncle Jun—has become reduced to a befuddled old man.
It’s too late for any real reconciliation between Tony and his uncle—Corrado is beyond reach. As he gets up to leave, we see a signboard behind Tony that reads “Next meal: Supper.” Chase’s next edit does indeed cut to the location of the most discussed, debated and deconstructed Supper in television history.
Little Feat’s “All That You Dream” is playing at Holsten’s when Tony arrives. (He is wearing a shirt that is similar—but not the same—as the one he wore when he was shot by Corrado in episode 6.01. Make of that what you will.) We hear the bell on the door ring as Tony walks in. The restaurant is all warm tones, in contrast to the cold palettes that colored several locations in this hour. It is perhaps fitting that the final scene of a series about the NJ mob would take place in a diner, the quintessential type of New Jersey eatery. (Even though “diners” were not invented in Jersey, they proliferated throughout the state because they provided cheap, fast fare to New Jersey’s large population of working-class folks.) Tony takes a seat, slips some coins into the jukebox and the familiar piano-intro of “Don’t Stop Believin'” starts playing. Though it’s difficult now to imagine the scene scored to any other song, Steve Perry gave the greenlight to David Chase to use the track only three days before the episode aired. According to the press-and-media site PR-inside.com, “Perry is a huge Sopranos fan and feared his 1981 rock anthem would be remembered as the soundtrack to the death of James Gandolfini’s character Tony Soprano—until David Chase assured him that wouldn’t be the case.”
The Holsten’s scene is very conscientiously edited with the music in mind. (I think I read somewhere that when Chase was younger, he would turn down the volume on his TV set and turn up the volume on his record player just to see what kind of interesting emotional effects would occur in the overlay between the music and the television images.) We get a shot of Carmela as Steve Perry sings “Just a small-town girl.” The camera lingers on Tony as we hear “Just a city boy.” My favorite interplay between screen-imagery and lyric may be when a couple sitting in the corner immediately laugh after the line, “Working hard to get my fill,” almost as though they caught the pun (i.e., “working hard to get my Phil”). As the song rises toward its crescendo, the emotional temperature of the sequence also rises. It dawns upon the viewer that this is The Final Scene.
The scene has an abundance of connections and call-backs to earlier moments from the series. AJ says to “focus on the good times,” calling back Tony’s words at a restaurant table in 1.13. Meadow struggles to park her car, a callback to her announcement in 2.02 that she got her driver’s license despite having trouble with parallel parking. One of the patrons is wearing a USA hat, which feels like an underscore of the episode title. The sight of two black men entering the diner reminds us of the two African-Americans who were hired to kill Tony in Season 1…
It was the sight of these two black patrons that pulled me, more than any other element, to the edge of my seat. In an essay I had sent to the Miami Herald for their Sopranos Finale Prediction Contest, I wrote that if there was any karmic justice in SopranoWorld, then Tony and the rest of his crew would be wiped out by a group of unidentified black males. At the same time, I didn’t believe that there would be any karmic justice. In the Herald article that came out just before the finale, they quoted a line from my essay: “The universe of The Sopranos doesn’t seem to be one in which justice reigns—it is one in which karma has no purchase.” (Obviously I had a tendency for pretentious language even back then.)
Chase keeps cross-cutting to a suspicious-looking man in a Members Only jacket at the counter. Tony seems to momentarily make note of the man as he gets up to walk to the bathroom, and some of us may be thinking of the scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone emerges from a bathroom to wipe out his enemies. The music is beginning to soar now, and so are our pulse rates.
Chase gives us, cryptically, three medium-closeups of each family member putting an onion ring into their mouth. It almost feels like a secular version of the Catholic ritual; instead of the sanctified bread of the Eucharist, the Sopranos are partaking of breaded-and-fried onions. The Sacred and the Propane, er, Profane:
The imagery calls back the closeup of Carmela receiving Communion in “College” (1.05). There was a mix of the sacred and the profane in that scene too, as Carm and Fr. Phil put aside their boners for each other in order to take part in the holy rite:
The ritual has its roots in the Biblical account of the Last Supper. Many Sopranos viewers, quite reasonably, see the closeups at Holsten’s as a tip-off from David Chase that the Sopranos are now having their “last supper” together as a family. Chase has been connecting Food, Faith & Firearms throughout the series, beginning in the first hour. (We may remember that in the Pilot, Father Intintola was with Carm when she grabbed a rifle from a cabinet in her dining room, of all places.) If a gunman does now show up in the Holsten’s dining room, moments after the three closeups, it would fit right into the Food, Faith & Firearms template.
Of course, that’s not the only way to read the three closeups. The episode title is a dead giveaway that Chase is very concerned in this hour with what it means to be American, and there is something very “American” about wolfing down fatty food as though it were a sacramental act. Consumption may be our true religion. Didn’t our Founding Fathers say something about an inalienable right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Deep-fried Vegetables?
Meadow hurries across the street toward the restaurant. (At the end of the Season 3 finale, she ran away from her family but now she runs to them.) Weirdly, a Ford Expedition that looks a lot like Phil Leotardo’s vehicle passes behind her.
The bell on the door rings, Tony looks up, and the screen cuts-to-black.
Even Quasimodo couldn’t have predicted this.
The ending of “Made in America” is so wrought and beautiful and emotional and complex but elegantly simple too that we’re still talking about it well over a decade later. Although the final sequence came off the grill years ago, it keeps cooking because, you know, the juices…
Like everyone else that night, I thought my cable went out until I saw the credits start to roll about 10 seconds later. (Chase wanted to sustain the black screen for longer by nixing the credits altogether, but the Directors Guild objected.) There was immediately lots of chatter about what the sudden ending meant. Some viewers were convinced that they saw Meadow enter the diner right before the cut-to-black, fueling rumors that there were two different endings broadcast in different parts of the country. (This is not true—we were simply conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs to expect to see someone enter the diner each time the bell rang.)
Some viewers believed that it was futile to try to make sense of the ending because David Chase was signifying that life itself is senseless. This was the view expressed by Father Andrew Greeley (possibly the best-selling Catholic priest-slash-novelist in the history of publishing). In “An Ending With No Meaning,” the article Greeley wrote the day after the finale aired, he says…
The intellectuals should have been ready for David Chase’s “post-modern” joke. What did the series mean? It meant that there was no meaning at all. Like all stories, The Sopranos had no meaning because life has no meaning. “Post-modern” literary theory holds that an ending to a story is a “fallacy.” An ending tries to impose a meaning on a story, either an optimistic ending that says there was a purpose in all these pains and sufferings or a tragic ending which provides a “catharsis.” Post-modernism (which can mean everything and nothing) insists that life is neither comedy nor tragedy but a meaningless series of events that stops eventually for everyone in the story when they die… Life is absurd.
The priest—who describes himself as a “pre-modernist”—takes some cracks at what he perceives to be David Chase’s nihilistic postmodern sensibility. Also frustrated in David Chase was “Fly on Melfi’s Wall,” the thoughtful administrator of the online Sopranos forum “The Chase Lounge” and who is the author of the cerebral and popular essay, “Tony’s Vicarious Patricide.” (“Fly” expressed her disappointment on her personal website which seems to no longer be up, so I don’t know what her current feelings are…) I have some sympathy for those who felt angry, not because I share their viewpoint in any way but because I can understand how disappointing it would be to invest so much time and emotion into a series only to feel in the end that Chase cheated his way out of a proper resolution. I think some of their bitterness may also stem from David Chase’s public persona. He can seem brooding at times, and his clever sense of irony and sardonic wit can lead some fans to think he’s trying to mindfuck us. We’ve all seen his “I’m-smarter-than-you” smirk:
But in actuality, the vast majority of Chase’s comments about the finale have not been overly ironic or clever. When commenting about “Made in America,” he has often been heartfelt, sometimes to the point of cheesiness. I think there is a moment in the final scene that signals just how heartfelt Chase’s intentions were:
AJ: Focus on the good times.
Tony: Don’t be sarcastic.
AJ: Isn’t that what you said one time? Try and remember the times that were good?
Tony: I did?
Tony: Well, it’s true I guess.
In the past, we have seen David Chase anticipate some of the criticisms his show is going to get and rebut those criticisms right within the teleplay of an episode, and I believe he may be doing it again with this exchange between father and son. David Chase, like AJ, is not being cynical but sincere in the final scene. In any case, I don’t think most viewers agree with Father Greeley anyway—they don’t see the final scene as lacking any meaning but rather as having a very specific meaning, maybe even multiple meanings. There are many different theories across the Sopranos’ fan-universe about what Chase was getting at with the cut-to-black, and one of the most prominent comes from the Master of Sopranos: Definitive Explanation of The End blog. Master-of-Sopranos makes a good, multi-pronged argument that Tony is killed by the man in the diner wearing the Members Only jacket (hereafter called “Members-Only-guy”). The cut-to-black, the argument goes, expresses Tony’s moment of death. Bobby Bacala’s line in “Soprano Home Movies” that “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens” coupled with Silvio’s statement in “Stage 5″ that he “didn’t know what happened until after the shot was fired” (regarding the whacking of Gerry Torciano) form the bedrock of the argument that Tony doesn’t hear the shot that kills him, and we viewers don’t understand what happened until afterwards. I have some reservation treating Bobby Bacala—who is not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer—as some sort of prophetic oracle upon whom our understanding of the most controversial finale in TV history depends, but fine, okay; I guess we gotta take what Chase gives us. The part of Master-of-Sopranos’ thesis that I find more persuasive is the argument that Chase establishes an editing pattern which points to Tony’s death. Every time the Holsten’s doorbell jingles, Tony looks up and then we viewers see the person that is entering, almost as though we are seeing the person from Tony’s point-of-view. The first time this occurs, a brunette woman enters:
This pattern repeats four more times, and then in the final moments of the scene, the bell rings once more, Tony looks up once more, but then the screen goes black—signifying that we have entered Tony’s POV once more and are seeing the black death that he has just experienced.
This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that Chase uses point-of-view camera shots a number of times earlier in the episode. There are multiple times when Tony looks at an area, we are shown the area almost through Tony’s point-of-view, and then we see him immediately in that area. The most obvious—and almost jarring—example occurs right at the beginning of the Holsten’s scene:
Tony enters the diner, we see an empty booth from his POV, and then Tony is immediately sitting in the booth. But David Chase’s intention in using this particular editing pattern, as told to TV critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall (The Sopranos Sessions), goes beyond Master-of-Sopranos’ interpretation of the edits. Chase explains that “what I was trying to say was that we put ourselves in these positions. We put ourselves in these scenes. Nothing happens by accident. We are the engineers of our destiny.” (Chase also mentions that this editing technique was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey which blew him away the first time he saw it—partly because he was high on mescaline.)
In a 2019 piece published by the Directors Guild of America, Chase gave a fairly thorough explanation of some of his shooting, editing and staging decisions for the final scene. But he didn’t go too much into what it all means. And he explicitly refused to talk about whether the cut-to-black represents Tony’s POV. He spoke like a filmmaker, not a philosopher, and it’s one of my favorite interviews of him ever.
Chase, to this day, has never explicitly answered The Question about Tony’s ultimate fate. Sixteen years running, Chase has yet to violate his own personal oath of omerta. He has, however, made many statements that provide some insights. Here is a sampling, but full disclosure—I chose these particular quotes because they set the stage for my own interpretation of the cut-to-black:
- Five years after the Finale, Chase said: “To me the question is not whether Tony lived or died, and that’s all that people wanted to know…There was something else I was saying that was more important than whether Tony Soprano lived or died. About the fragility of all of it. The whole show had been about time in a way, and the time allotted on this Earth…. He was not happy. He was getting everything he wanted, that guy, but he wasn’t happy. All I wanted to do was present the idea of how short life is and how precious it is.”
- Seven years after the Finale, Vox.com published an article by Prof. Martha Nochimson in which she claimed David Chase told her that Tony Soprano did not die. Chase denied saying this to her and released a statement in response: “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.” When pressed in a later interview exactly what this spiritual question is, Chase replied, “Is that all there is?” In the same interview, Chase also said, “So, is he dead or is he alive? Paulie says in the beginning of the episode, ‘In the midst of life, we are in death. Or is it: in the midst of death, we are in life?’ I don’t know what else to say.”
- Chase reiterated Paulie’s bit of dialogue at a talk at the Museum of the Moving Image: “I’m not trying to be coy about this. I really am not. It’s not like we’re trying to guess, ‘Ooh, is he alive or dead?’ It’s really not the point—it’s not the point for me. How do I explain this? Actually, here’s what Paulie Walnuts says in the beginning of that episode. He says, ‘In the midst of life, we are in death. Or is it: in the midst of death, we are in life? Either way, you’re up the ass.'”
- At this same Museum talk, Chase pulled a piece of paper from his coat pocket with a Carlos Castaneda quote scribbled on it: “Warriors don’t venture into the unknown out of greed. Greed works only in the world of ordinary affairs. To venture into that terrifying loneliness of the unknown, one must have something greater than greed: love.” Chase said this Castaneda passage summed up his feelings about the Sopranos ending.
- Talking to the press just before the release of his feature film Not Fade Away, Chase was pushed again to speak about the final scene. “If he didn’t die that night, he’s going to die very soon. And the problem is the same: There are the number of minutes in life and they go like this,” Chase said as he made a ticking sound. “They’re gone. And you don’t know when it’s coming. That’s all I wanted to say.”
THE DEATH OF THE AUTHOR
I could fill this page with the various statements that Chase has made over the years, but there is a 500-pound gorilla in the room (as Tony would say) that needs to be addressed: How much importance should we give to David Chase’s own words about his show? In 1967, literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes published a highly influential essay, “The Death of the Author,” in which he argued that the essential meaning of a work of art is determined by the audience of the work, not by the author. If we accord the author’s intent any importance, Barthes claimed, we give the author a kind of tyranny over the material. To kill the author, then, is to liberate the author’s text. The death of the author is necessary for the birth of the reader, free to understand and interpret the text as they see fit.
Ironically, David Chase himself may have given us a glimpse of his own feelings about the “death of the author” concept through a Season 6 episode of Northern Exposure titled “The Graduate.” (Chase was Executive Producer of Northern Exposure during its fifth and sixth seasons.) In that hour, the character Chris Stevens must defend his Master’s thesis on Ernest Thayer’s classic poem “Casey at the Bat” to two professors, one who is a traditionalist (who believes an author’s intent should be taken into consideration), and the other a postmodern-deconstructionist (who wouldn’t mind tossing the author’s intentions, whatever they may be, right out the window). Stressed out that he won’t earn his Master’s Degree unless he pleases both professors, Chris has a dream that reflects his dilemma. The cheeky, irreverent dream finds Chris fighting alongside several eminent artists and authors in a military battle. The dream ends with a surprise twist which may provide us with a useful blueprint as we construct our own interpretations:
Chris Stevens crawls through smoke and gunfire to confront his enemy, only to discover that the enemy is himself. So: Chris is both the defender of this platoon of artists and simultaneously responsible for the deaths of these artists. I think this is a good metaphor for my own attitude towards the “death of the author.” I tend to be pretty interested in knowing what an artist’s intent is, because I think it is difficult to make a proper assessment of a work without having any idea what the intentions behind it were. But at the same time, I don’t want to glorify the artist’s intent like it’s the Holy Word of God or something. I want to keep the power in the hands of the people.
As persuasive as Master-of-Sopranos’ argument is, it doesn’t really—excuse the pun—ring my bell. It doesn’t speak to me deep down in my soul. I find it too schematic, too disconnected from some of the larger patterns within the series, and—more fatally—too disconnected from the larger themes of the series. By the time I came across the Master-of-Sopranos blog, years after the Finale, I had long constructed an interpretation that, to me, seemed more in keeping with the overarching spirit of The Sopranos…
My first thought after seeing the Finale that night of June 10, 2007, was that it was a perfect and brilliant expression of the ambiguity that resides at the heart of the series. It made perfect sense to me that the final scene would launch us from a state of extreme suspense to a state of permanent suspension. Scrolling through HBO’s Sopranos forum later that night, I saw that someone had mentioned that the orange tabby that suddenly shows up in the final episode represented “Schrodinger’s Cat.” I was familiar with Erwin Schrodinger’s thought-experiment and was intrigued, but I felt it was a reach absent any other evidence. But then the next day, possibly on the same forum, I saw another post recalling that in episode 6.04 “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh,” the scientist that Tony had met in the hospital, John Schwinn, had made an outright reference to Erwin Schrodinger.
The cut-to-black suddenly got a whole lot more interesting to me.
I’m not a physics wonk by any means (and I’ll probably get emails and comments pointing out my ineptitude), but I’ll do the best I can to explain the thought-experiment devised by Erwin Schrodinger in 1935. Imagine that a cat gets placed inside a covered box along with radioactive material that emits a tiny particle as it radioactively decays. The particle triggers a hammer which smashes a vial of poisonous gas which then kills the cat. But here’s the rub. Particles at the microscopic quantum level behave like waves, or more accurately, like waves of probability. (Schrodinger’s Equation, which Schwinn mentioned in episode 6.04, describes the behavior of these probability waves.) So, inside the box, there is a probability that the particle will be emitted and the cat dies, but also a probability that the particle won’t be emitted in which case the cat survives. In the overlap—the “superposition”—of these two probabilities, the cat can be thought of as being both alive and dead at the same time.
Superposition may seem like a strange concept, but it is a well understood phenomenon that applies to soundwaves, ocean waves, and waves of probability as well. It’s easier to understand once we visually see it. Waves pass through each other, and the area in which they overlap is the superposition:
Werner Heisenberg, one of the early experts on quantum mechanics and the author of the famous Uncertainly Principle (and whose name is familiar to fans of Breaking Bad), interpreted Schrodinger’s Equation and related phenomena in a way that Erwin Schrodinger found questionable. Schrodinger put forth his “Schrodinger’s Cat” thought-experiment to show how absurd Heisenberg’s interpretation was; it is, obviously, absurd to say that a cat can be simultaneously dead and alive. However, the question of how to interpret quantum phenomena is still up for debate, and further mathematics and experiments over the last several decades have shown that Werner Heisenberg was actually on the right track. Many, if not most, theoretical physicists today think that the cat, given the right circumstances, can be considered to be both dead and alive within the state of superposition.
Of course, I don’t think David Chase would expect us to have a deep understanding of quantum mechanics (if he was indeed evoking Schrodinger’s Cat in the series finale). But Chase has made some eye-opening statements that seem to reference quantum physics (and a chunk of this write-up will be exploring these ideas), so it could be useful to watch the following video which gives a better explanation than I ever could of Schrodinger’s Cat and its implications:
I’m sure to many of us this makes about us much sense as the framus intersecting with the ramistan at the paternoster. But these are not fringe ideas. Both Schrodinger and Heisenberg were Nobel Laureates in Physics. The key sentence in the video for us to focus on for our purposes here is: “Until a particle is measured and observed, it actually exists in all the states it could possibly be in.” The act of observation, then, “collapses” the superposition—thus collapsing all possibilities into the one reality that we view. In a sense, the viewer determines reality. My argument is helped by the fact that in the video, the act of observation is represented by a movie camera. David Chase, in effect, turns his movie camera off with that cut-to-black so that Tony Soprano, in essence, continues to exist in all the different states that he could be in. Chase doesn’t remove the lid, so to speak, from the box. Binary options—such as dead/alive, or paranoid/relaxed, or soon-to-be indicted/soon-to-be not indicted—no longer exist as binaries in regards to Tony Soprano. He is, within the fictional “box” of SopranoWorld, both dead and alive. Tony’s existence within the fiction is not necessarily an “either/or” proposition anymore. By removing our ability to observe, David Chase preserves all the possibilities. Tony becomes forever suspended in a state of narrative indeterminacy. We are left with a sort of “Schrodinger’s Capo.”
This idea of preserved possibilities keeps in line with a statement that David Chase made to director and long-time collaborator Alan Taylor. Per The Hollywood Reporter, Taylor says that Chase told him that “the idea behind mapping out the final scene is that every possibility is alive in that room.” And in November of 2008, Chase told Entertainment Weekly, “There’s more than one way of looking at the ending. That’s all I’ll say.”
The concept of a cat that is both alive and dead simultaneously also neatly echoes Paulie’s line at Bobby’s funeral early in this episode, a line that David Chase has made direct references to on multiple occasions when asked about “Made in America”:
“‘In the midst of death, we are in life.’ Or is it the other way around?”
When I rewatched “Made in America” one or two days after the original airing, something about Walden Belfiore’s description of his aunt’s cat caught my attention. As the orange tabby sits at the edge of the table at Satriale’s, Walden says, “They’re funny that way. I had an aunt, her cat would only sit at the exact corners of the table staring out, or at the intersection of two walls staring in.” I realized that Walden’s choice of words seemed to be describing a kind of imaginary box of space. “Corners of the table” evokes the base of a box-like volume. And the “intersection of two walls” describes the joint where two vertical planes of a box meet. Manipulating the image a little bit, we get a better sense of what I’m trying to say:
Coincidentally, someone placed a statue of a cat at Erwin Schrodinger’s home in Zurich in homage to his famous thought-experiment, and this cat is located, in an echo of Walden’s words, “at the intersection of two walls”:
Chase brings a cat (of sorts) into the final scene via the mural on the backwall of Holsten’s. The mural seems to be honoring the Bloomfield Bengals whose mascot, not surprisingly, is a Bengal tiger.
According to various reports, the mural was brought in solely for the final scene which suggests that Chase had some specific reason to install it there. (I don’t remember seeing the mural when I visited Holsten’s three weeks after the finale—but I was in town visiting my brother, and I went to the diner to enjoy an egg cream and those notorious onion rings, not to gather forensic evidence for future analysis.) Chase may be providing us a particular insight with that mural, but if he is, he hides his tracks well. If I’m getting my NJ geography correct, Bloomfield High School (which uses “Bengals” as their nickname, and at one time had a facade that looked very similar to the building in the mural) is located about two miles away from Holsten’s—in which case it would be quite natural that the diner would have this mural hanging on its backwall. It becomes difficult to determine whether the “clue” that I’m thinking of is actually there.
“Schrodinger’s Cat” is not simply some arcane theoretical construct dreamed up by quantum physicists with too much time on their hands. The weirdness that is at the heart of the thought-experiment reflects the weirdness found in real-world quantum experiments. Scientists have found that actual physical particles behave one way when they’re being observed and another way when they’re not. The “Double-slit” experiment, shown in the following video, might make us question whether reality is even real. Luckily, Morgan Freeman’s familiar voice might be able to provide us some comfort:
The particles behave like discrete, separate particles when there is an observer present, but like waves when there is no observer. (Just as in the earlier “Schrodinger’s Cat” video, the “observer” in this video is represented by a movie camera.) Morgan Freeman tells us that the Double-slit experiment “suggests that we can change the way reality behaves just by looking at it.” Reality, in a sense, hinges upon whether there is a viewer there to observe it. Reality is viewer-dependent. (It’s almost like the old Buddhist koan: If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, did it really make a sound?) What Sopranos fans may find really interesting about this quantum mystery—I got a bit of a jolt when I first found out—is that it was at Bell Labs in New Jersey where this experiment was first successfully carried out. Bell Labs, we may remember, was where John Schwinn had mentioned he worked. Although the Double-slit experiment had been carried out using light particles (photons) in the early 1800s, it was not proven until 1927 at Bell Labs that all particles—not just photons—exhibit properties of both particle and wave. A plaque commemorates the momentous discovery:
It is this “wave-like behavior of elementary particles” mentioned in the plaque that Schrodinger’s thought-experiment is all about; the overlapping probability waves of the radioactive particle put the cat in a live-dead state. As explained in the “Schrodinger’s Cat” video above, one of the implications of the paradoxical behavior of these quantum particles is that it logically leads to the Many Worlds hypothesis, the idea that our Universe branches off into a new universe every time there is a superposition of probabilities. (The hypothesis fits the mathematics logically, though it is impossible to prove.) According to the Many Worlds idea, an almost infinite number of alternate universes with alternate realities are being formed at every moment. In one reality, Noah Tannenbaum might have actually punched Tony’s lights out instead of just threatening to do it. And then that reality might branch off into one in which Tony gives Noah a pass, and into another one where Tony and Chris toss Noah into Patterson Falls. Each Noah would only know of the reality that he was in. Reality is viewer-dependent. I bring this up because David Chase may possibly have an awareness of the Many Worlds hypothesis, and might even have slipped references to it in The Sopranos…
As reported in an article for Vox.com, Chase told Prof. Martha Nochimson that, “I’m not a religious person at all, but I’m very convinced that this is not it. That there’s something else. What it is, I don’t know. Other universes. Other alternate realities.” In the same article, Nochimson shares a statement Chase sent her via email: “Nature is part of Our Universe and Our Universe is part of Nature and there could well be more universes or mirror universes.” To critics Matt Seitz and Alan Sepinwall, Chase described the extended coma-dream in which Tony is superimposed (superpositioned?) with Kevin Finnerty as “not a dream, but I guess you could actually say an alternate universe.” And he also described it to them as an “alternate-reality state.” We may remember that when Tony struggled to convey his experience with peyote to Dr. Melfi in “The Second Coming” (6.19), she suggested that perhaps he saw “alternate universes.” Tony initially laughed off her suggestion, but when he realized that she wasn’t being sarcastic, he responded, “Maybe.” I do not know, of course, whether Chase is some sort of quantum physics junkie. Maybe he reads physics magazines as a hobby, the way some people play with model trains. Regardless of his familiarity with these concepts, David Chase ended up constructing SopranoWorld to be something like the quantum world, a place in which the truth about reality is, in some sense, viewer-dependent.
Take, for example, a statement that Tony made in “The Second Coming” to Dr Melfi: “I’m a good guy, basically.” Is this a true statement? The truth that Tony finds in that statement may be different from the truth that Melfi finds in it which may be different from the truth you or I may find in it. The statement is both true and false. Ultimately, the scientific formulas and empirical data behind quantum theory and “Schrodinger’s Cat” are not important for my purposes in this write-up. What matters is not the mathematics but the metaphor. The metaphoric power of “Schrodinger’s Cat” resides in how it describes the world as uncertain and full of ambiguity.
Chase has been making the case for ambiguity from the very first moment of his series. The beguiling opening image of The Sopranos has inspired many different interpretations over the years:
Bill Wyman over at Salon.com believed the image conveyed how Tony feels constricted by the various women he must contend with. Prof Martha Nochimson argued that this quiet, still-life image juxtaposed against the noisy and dynamic opening-credits sequence underscored the tensions in Tony’s life: balance vs. imbalance, symmetry vs. asymmetry. For Lorraine Bracco, the statue says as much about Dr. Melfi as it does about Tony Soprano. My take on the image was that it immediately established the diminished power of The Mobster, unlike the establishing-shots that had previously opened most works in the gangster genre. So, the reality contained in this opening image depends on who it is that is viewing the image.
Uncertainty seems to be David Chase’s North Star, it has guided all aspects of his series. We find uncertainty in several open-ended storylines. (Whatever happened to the Russian in the Pine Barrens? Did Ralphie kill Pie-O-My?) It is difficult to take an irrefutable position about many of the characters. (Is Carmela a good person? Did Livia have a psychological disorder, or was she just an asshole?) We may be on the fence about some of the choices characters made. (Should Dr. Melfi have utilized Tony for revenge against her rapist?) We are left unsure about motivations. (Why did Tony kill Christopher—was the murder purely transactional, i.e., a bid for more security? Or was it more emotional, i.e., the result of long-simmering grudges? Or was it mostly subconscious, i.e., Chris paid the price for Tony’s repressed anger towards his father?) An episode title from Season One proclaimed outright the impossibility of having absolute knowledge: “Nobody Knows Anything.” In Season 6, Tony was dogged by some of the most difficult-to-answer questions anyone ever has to confront: “Who am I? Where am I going?”
TV critic Emily Nussbaum writing for New York Magazine days before the Finale aired confessed she had no idea what to expect in the final episode, because “The Sopranos is a show founded in plot twists never untwisted and a certain amount of maddening, excellent stasis.” I don’t think there has ever been a TV show that has basked so joyfully as this one in “plot twists never untwisted.” Poet and critic Geoffrey O’Brien, writing in the New York Review about a month after the Finale aired, also described the ambiguity that is in the bone marrow of Chase’s show:
We were left always on the brink of a resolution—whether of plot, or character analysis, or ultimate significance—that never quite arrived. Instead there were suggestive ellipses and asymmetries… Chase pursued, in each episode, the pleasure of a different sort of ending, that of hanging unresolved in a state of rapt frustration, enjoying the patterns as they warily stopped short of coalescing: a paradise of disequilibrium.
Ben Macintyre, in “The Sopranos: every inch a Shakespearean drama,” written one week after the Finale, found the ambiguity in the series to be its distinguishing characteristic:
The Sopranos marked the moment when pop-culture television entertainment became high culture. It showed that the narrative strength of television can be harnessed to the central dilemmas of existence… Every scene came laced with ambiguity, between the characters, within the characters, and between Tony and an audience that found humanity in his sins. This is what distinguishes literature, which poses difficult questions without necessarily providing answers, from soap opera.
It’s not just difficult questions that Chase doesn’t always provide answers to. Sometimes even trivial questions never get answered. The unknown man who comes down the stairs and then goes back up the stairs at Livia’s remembrance remains unknown. We never learn what the “Easter baskets” that Chris referred to in Season 3 were all about. (Tony himself says, “I don’t even know what that is. And to tell you the truth, I don’t wanna know.”) In Season 5, Silvio and Tony have a wordless exchange about a song that’s playing at the Crazy Horse:
They seem to have had a prior conversation about the song, but I don’t think the viewer was ever privy to that conversation. Not everything is divulged to the viewer. Some of the events that occur in SopranoWorld occur outside of the viewer’s gaze.
David Chase had been finding ways to express the theme of ambiguity years before The Sopranos premiered. Brett Martin, in his book Difficult Men, describes the ambiguity that closes Off the Minnesota Strip, the 1980 made-for-TV movie which earned David Chase his first Emmy for screenwriting: “Off the Minnesota Strip ends as untidily as can be, with Micki and a boyfriend lighting out for the Sunset Strip and stopping just short, the question of what they’re looking for and whether they’ll get it left dangling and unanswered.” (The movie—co-starring Hal Holbrook [aka “John Schwinn”]—can be found on YouTube. I would recommend it to any fan of David Chase, not so much for the insight it may provide into the The Sopranos but just because it’s a great motherjumpin’ movie, Jan.)
Many popular films and TV shows have made references to Schrodinger’s Cat over the years: ABC’s Castle, multiple episodes of The Big Bang Theory, the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. The most obvious example, surely, must be “Perfect Circles,” the Season 3 opener of HBO’s popular drama Six Feet Under. The entire 10-minute opening sequence of that episode is structured around Schrodinger’s thought-experiment and is stocked with allusions to Heisenberg, the Many Worlds theory and alternative universes. The character of Nate Fisher is having some sort of near-death experience, or maybe an anesthesia-fueled dream, as he undergoes a risky surgery. Nate is essentially Schrodinger’s Cat, and he can only know his ultimate fate when he opens the “box” (in the form of a casket):
Six Feet Under was overt in its handling of Schrodinger’s thought-experiment, but David Chase is far more subtle with it. (So subtle, in fact, that we can’t even be sure it’s there.) It is interesting that this scene from Six Feet Under ends with a fade-to-white. Some Sopranos fans have noted that when Tony exits his coma and regains consciousness in “Mayham” (6.03), Chase signals the event with a fade-to-white. Since the fade-to-white represents Tony’s reemergence into life, they argue, then the cut-to-black must represent Tony’s death. There is some good logic to this argument, no question. But it’s also true that Chase’s “symbols” often don’t have the fixed, absolute meanings that we might want them to have. The colors “black” and “white” don’t carry their traditional symbolic meanings on The Sopranos, as Chase made clear to us in Season 3. In “Proshai, Livushka” (3.02), Meadow helped AJ analyze a Robert Frost poem for an English assignment. “I thought black was death,” AJ said. “White too,” Meadow responded. Even ‘black’ and ‘white’ don’t have fixed, black-and-white meanings on Chase’s show. The Sopranos is too ambiguous for that.
AMBIGUITY AND ITS DISCONTENTS
I first became familiar with Schrodinger’s thought-experiment while reading Ursula Le Guin’s fictional short story “Schrodinger’s Cat” back in college. In the story, a narrator and a talking dog named Rover put a cat in a box and physically perform the experiment. When they pull the lid off the box, they find that the cat has disappeared. They are uncertain about the fate of the cat. Moments later, the roof of the house that they are in gets lifted off, almost as though they themselves are the subjects of the same type of experiment. Le Guin, it seems to me, is making the point that the uncertainty that exists within the experiment can keep expanding outward into ever-larger “boxes” until finally the entire universe itself can be understood to exist in a state of uncertainty. In the final lines of the story, the narrator says, “I shall miss the cat. I wonder if he found what it was we lost.”
So what is it that we have “lost”? I believe Le Guin’s narrator is lamenting the loss of the comfort and security that we had back in simpler, more certain times. In our current age, neither governments nor religions nor any other institutions are able to provide us with very gratifying answers. Everything is in question and everything is up for debate. Even the ground we walk on, at its most fundamental level, is shaky and uncertain according to quantum theory. For some people, living in this tangle of ambiguities and uncertainties can lead to a kind of nihilism in which nothing means anything and nothing matters. Livia Soprano, the matriarch of SopranoWorld, seemed to have this mindset. Nothing had any value or meaning for her. She had no close connections to anyone—not to friends, family or her co-residents at Green Grove. Livia’s dark attitude was most clearly articulated in “D-Girl” (2.07) in a lecture to AJ from her hospital bed:
“Why does everything have to have a purpose? The world is a jungle. And if you want my advice, Anthony, don’t expect happiness. You won’t get it. People let you down…In the end, you die in your own arms…It’s all a big nothing. What makes you think you’re so special?”
Livia’s severe “It’s all a Big Nothing” philosophy cast its shadow over all of SopranoWorld. Tony, Janice and AJ were the most direct and unfortunate inheritors of Livia’s deep pessimism, but over the course of 86 hours, we saw countless characters be afflicted by dysfunction, disconnection, and social and familial fragmentation. Professor of Philosophy Al Gini, in his essay “Bada-Being and Nothingness,” touches upon the work of anthropologist Ernest Becker in his analysis of Livia and other Sopranos characters. Ernest Becker believed that people are constantly looking for ways to avoid confronting our relative insignificance, and that even civilization itself has been constructed by humankind as a sort of “defense mechanism” against our awareness of our own mortality. Prof Gini writes that “like Livia Soprano, Becker believes we all view life as ‘a big nothing’…Like the ‘lost boys’ of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Tony’s band of boys, with more stugots than savvy, pursue a lifestyle that, while destructive and dysfunctional, distracts them from the dread of dwelling on their own personal sense of insignificance and eventual demise.”
Or, as AJ put it in “D-Girl”: “Death just shows the ultimate absurdity of life.”
It is certainly possible to view the final cut-to-black in “Made in America” as one last exclamation by Chase on the absurdity of it all—a full-screen manifestation of Livia’s “Big Nothing.” But—as I’ve argued throughout this website—I don’t believe that David Chase shares Livia’s nihilistic pessimism, nor that his TV show is ultimately an expression of it. Au contraire, I believe Chase uses his TV show to make a strong argument against such ugly nihilism, and the primary way he does this is through his use of connectivity. There is little doubt that Chase places a high degree of importance on the connections within the series. As reported by the Los Angeles Times in a Feb 2004 article, “The Family Hour Returns,” Chase would go to France at the end of each season to work on ideas for the following season, and then…
“…I come back from France with a chart of every character over 13 episodes,” he says. “What happens here, what happens there, how do things intermesh. Then I show the chart to the writers and ask, ‘What are we going to do that really interests us?’ Separate stories sometimes emerge, and the chart sometimes becomes just connective tissue.”
If I may quote from my “D-Girl” write-up: “In our own lives, connective tissue is what binds us to our loved ones, our gods, work, community—all of those things that give our lives dimension and meaning. When such tissue dissolves, we become alienated and alone—like Livia. On The Sopranos, connective tissue takes many forms. It may be a repeated word or name or imagery. It could be the reappearance of a character or storyline. It might be similarities in certain camera angles or in the staging of scenes. Sometimes music is reused. The series does not only connect back to itself, it is also uses reference and allusion to connect to books, films, paintings, popular culture, urban legends, history, myths. Such connectivity gives SopranoWorld a certain ‘thickness,’ a sense of dimension, from which verisimilitude and meaning can naturally arise…
“Chase exploits the medium of television to achieve a high level of connectivity. Since The Sopranos is about 86 hours long and spread out over 8 years, there is ample opportunity for connections to be made. Every television series is made up of moving images, music, dialogue, locations, architecture and costumes, but not every series exploits these elements as The Sopranos does in order to make connections.”
EVERYTHING IS EVERYTHING
The Sopranos, all the way down to its basic structure, is composed of an intricate lattice-work. Over time, the show becomes a tapestry of inter-connectedness. But it is not only through the structure and construction of The Sopranos that Chase shines a light on the idea of connectivity. He seems to use certain characters for this purpose as well. Near the end of Season 1, when Tony was feeling troubled about his relationship with his cold-hearted mother (she was trying to get Corrado to whack him), Tony had hallucinations of a young woman who possessed all the warm, matronly qualities that own his mother lacked. We may remember that Isabella said she was a dental student “interested in tumors of the gum and the soft tissue of the mouth.”
Tony’s fantasy-mother was studying how to heal and repair connective soft tissue—similar to how Chase builds “connective tissue”—while Tony’s real mother can’t help but sever and destroy all the connections and connective tissue in her life.
But the character, even more than Isabella, that represents connectivity is John Schwinn, the scientist who made his one and only appearance in episode 6.04 “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” (an episode title, coincidentally, that literally refers to connective soft tissue). Schwinn appeared just after Tony emerged from a coma in which he found himself overlapped with an alternative version of himself named Kevin Finnerty. (He was both Tony and not-Tony simultaneously.) In contrast to Livia Soprano’s conception of a meaningless universe—the Big Nothing—in which no one is truly connected to anything else and everyone dies alone, Schwinn envisions a universe in which “nothing is separate, everything is connected.” (“Everything is everything,” the rapper Da Lux chimes in.) In a neat parallel, Livia had pronounced her grim philosophy to AJ from a hospital bed, and it is again from inside a hospital that John Schwinn shares the doctrine which could serve as a potential antidote to Livia’s poisonous ideas:
I won’t rehash my entire 6.04 write-up here, but the salient point is that Schwinn sees everything—the boxers on the TV, you, me, the wind, everything—as all part of a giant “soup of molecules.” Any separation we see between objects is part of a perceptual paradigm that we have constructed in our own minds. “The shapes we see exist only in our own consciousness,” Schwinn says. In other words, the reality we experience is viewer-dependent. Moments after Tony mentions that Schwinn worked at Bell Labs, Schwinn instructs the people in the room to “think of the two boxers as ocean waves…” (It was indeed at Bell Labs, as I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, that a pair of scientists demonstrated that the underlying elements that make up all physical objects—two boxers, for example—do in fact behave as waves.)
Speaking about “Made in America” from his home in France just days after it aired, David Chase famously told The Star-Ledger, “Anybody who wants to watch it, it’s all there.” This quote has been embraced by every Tom, Dick and Harry that has a particular theory about the ending that they want to promote. Including me. I think Chase’s quote can take on a deeper meaning if we view it in light of Schwinn’s philosophy. Livia saw the universe as a dark and meaningless abyss—ultimately, there is nothing there. But Schwinn envisions a universe teeming with combinations and re-combinations of particles into myriad and infinite connections—it’s all there.
In “Fleshy Part of the Thigh,” the Christian fundamentalism of Pastor Bob brought John Schwinn’s generous and all-encompassing view of the universe into sharper relief by way of contrast. Pastor Bob had a belief-system that was divisive, binary and exclusionary. He even believed that anyone who accepted the theory of Evolution was destined to go to Hell. “Evolution and salvation are mutually exclusive,” he announced to Tony.
When we first met Pastor Bob, he seemed like a kind and attentive minister. But as the hour progressed, Bob got a little creepier. And he came off kind of simple-minded too, like when he proclaimed that humans and dinosaurs lived together at one time. (“What, like The Flintstones?” Tony asked with a smirk.) John Schwinn, on the other hand, became more of a sympathetic character as the hour advanced. David Chase, it seems to me, has more sympathy for the gray ambiguities of Schwinn’s all-inclusive philosophy than the black-and-white, “either/or” fundamentalism of Pastor Bob.
In “Fleshy Part,” Paulie Gaultieri and Tony Soprano almost seemed like the goombah counterparts, respectively, of Pastor Bob and John Schwinn. Paulie has always been a man of simplistic rules (“As of the wedding day, anything that touches her pussy is off-limits”) and easy certainties (like his calculation that all his mortal and venial sins can be paid off with a 6000-year stint in Purgatory). In 6.04, Paulie’s simple and unambiguous view of the world was fractured by the bombshell revelation that his mom is not actually his mother—and he could barely cope with it. Tony, fortified by John Schwinn’s broad and expansive view of things, tried to get Paulie to look at the bigger picture, to look past his current crisis. But Tony was not very successful. Some Autopsy readers may have noticed that over the seasons, I’ve been cataloging this basic difference in attitude between Paulie and Tony. Paulie has a conception of the world in which everything is rigid and meaningful and proceeds in an orderly way, but when something comes along that throws a wrench into this orderly vision, he flips the fuck out. Tony, in contrast, has the ability to take a broader, less self-absorbed view—but the loss of any rigid truths that he can live by sometimes leaves Tony teetering on the edge of nihilism. I’ll quickly recap some examples in order to show how this difference between the two men culminates now in “Made in America.”
In episode 2.09 “From Where to Eternity,” Chrissie emerges from his coma with a message from his deceased victim Mikey Palmice: “Tell Tony and Paulie: ‘Three o’ clock.'” Tony dismisses the whole thing as a dream, but Paulie becomes convinced the “message” is that he is going to Hell. Paulie had calculated that six millennia in Purgatory would be enough to pay off his sins, but now he’s having doubts. He visits a psychic in an attempt to reassemble his fractured worldview. He complains to his priest and then stares at a Jesus-statue, looking for guidance. (The statue remains silent.) Tony tries to get Paulie to step back, look at the bigger picture, not be so fixated on his own point-of-view. T makes a reference to Hinduism, trying to get Paulie to understand that his belief-system may not be the only truth out there. But this broad-mindedness brings Tony to the suspicion that there may not be any truth out there at all:
Tony: You eat steak?
Paulie: What the fuck you talkin’ about?
Tony: If you were in India, you would go to hell for that.
Paulie: I’m not in India. What do I give a fuck?
Tony: That’s what I’m trying to tell you. None of this shit means a goddamn thing.
In “Fleshy Part,” Paulie and Tony once again act as foils to one another. Paulie becomes extremely self-absorbed and bitter after learning the truth about his parentage from his aunt/mother. He practically disowns the woman that raised him. Tony, surely bolstered by both the Ojibwe quote that someone posted in his room—“Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind carries me across the sky”—and by Schwinn’s concept of a universe in which everything is connected, tries to get Paulie to see the bigger picture:
The difference between Tony’s and Paulie’s worldviews are starkly illustrated by the “visions” they each see on the Bada Bing stage. In 4.09, Tony becomes transfixed for a moment by the overhead spotlight shining down on “nothing.” He has just cleaned himself up after the dismemberment and disposal of Ralph Cifaretto who he murdered in anger for the killing of Tracee and (possibly) of Pie-O-My. Tracee once graced this stage, but—as the spotlight underscores—she is no longer around. Her life—like all lives, it may seem to Tony—is just “a Big Nothing.” Paulie, in contrast, has a vision of a Big Something on the Bing stage: the Virgin Mary. In 6.09, Paulie’s orderly vision of the world is coming completely undone: he is expecting a cancer diagnosis; the local priest is demanding an unreasonable fee for St. Elzear’s festival; Bobby Bacala is giving him agita after a mishap on one of the rides; and he has a confrontation with his adoptive mother after running into her at the street-fair. At a time when he is in desperate need of guidance, he sees the Blessed Mother. Whether the vision is an actual supernatural occurrence or just a hallucination in his own head, it helps to re-center him. After the vision, he goes to Green Grove and reconciles with his kind-hearted mother Nucci.
Now, in “Made in America,” Paulie tells Tony about this otherworldly vision he had at the Bing. But Tony mocks him: “Why didn’t you say something? Fuck strippers—we could’ve had a shrine…” Their differing attitude towards the cat and its behavior also comes up. Paulie admits that he would be willing to drown the cat, convinced that it has supernatural reasons for staring at the photograph of Christopher, while Tony figures the animal’s behavior is simply due to the photo’s “abstract shapes or somethin’.” Tony dismisses Paulie’s superstitions, though he does confess he had a run of good luck at the casino after Christopher died. Paulie is a man committed to his beliefs; Tony barely has any beliefs, unless it puts money in his pocket:
It is quite fitting that Paulie would despise the cat if the cat is indeed of the Schrodinger variety. All of the concepts that Schrodinger’s Cat represents—ambiguity, abstraction, doubt, uncertainty—are concepts that Paulie recoils from. I don’t want to get too precious and intricate with all of this, but I’ll throw an idea out there anyway… If we look at that earlier image of the cat sitting on the table and staring at the photo of Chris, we notice that Paulie and Walden Belfiore are literally—but also perhaps metaphorically—on opposite sides of the table. The two men have very different attitudes toward the cat. Walden compares the animal to his aunt’s cat (possibly activating the Schrodinger’s Cat metaphor through his description) while Paulie grabs a broom to shoo the feline away. (He starts sweeping the floor instead when Tony walks in.) And then moments later, Walden and Paulie again find themselves on opposite sides of the cat as Paulie questions the young man about his uncommon name.
“I was named after Mr. Bobby Darin. ‘Walden Robert Cassotto,'” he shoots back. It’s a perfectly sensible explanation for the name, maybe there is nothing more to be said about it. But it’s such an uncommon name for a goombah, it makes me wonder if Chase is making a subtle allusion to the book Walden, the most famous work of the Transcendentalist thinker Henry David Thoreau. There had been a connection (admittedly tenuous) to Transcendentalism previously in the series: “The Second Coming,” the poem which had such an enormous presence in the last few episodes (and was also alluded to by AJ early in this hour), was first published in the Transcendentalist journal The Dial. (And we know that David Chase has at least some familiarity with Transcendentalism; in the Northern Exposure video clip above, one of the regiments is named “the 45th Transcendental” and counts Thoreau as one of its soldiers.) Walden Belfiore always seemed a little different from the other guys to me. When Tony tried to share his mind-altering experience with peyote to the fellas in the episode “The Second Coming,” Walden seemed to be the only one who had had any similar experience. In the current episode, it is Walden that activates the mind-altering metaphor of Schrodinger’s Cat; it is through the Transcendentally-named Walden that “Made in America” fully “transcends” the limitations of the gangster-genre to reach a profoundly philosophical plane.
YOU, ME AND THE TREE
I think I’m going down a rabbit hole here trying to find a direct link between Transcendentalism and The Sopranos. But that doesn’t mean that there is no link. The Transcendentalists were influenced by Eastern belief-systems like Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact, Henry David Thoreau helped translate the Lotus Sutra—one of the most venerated scriptures in Buddhism—into English. (The first English-language publication of the Sutra was in The Dial, the journal that first published Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”) Buddhism occupies an important space in The Sopranos, and I believe it directly informs the cut-to-black.
In 2019, in prep for a trek in the Himalayan mountains, I started reading Peter Matthiessen’s classic travelogue The Snow Leopard. Matthiessen—a practicing Buddhist—wrote the book partly as a rumination on Buddhist ideas and partly as a journal of his months-long expedition in 1973 to the Crystal Monastery in the Dolpa region of the Himalayas. I wondered if David Chase had been influenced by this work when he decided to situate the monks that appear in episodes 6.02 and 6.03 at the “Crystal Monastery.” I became pretty convinced this was the case when I flipped to a footnote on page 321 of Matthiessen’s book and found this Ojibwe quote: “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind carries me across the sky.” I discovered later from an interview included in The Sopranos Sessions that Chase did indeed get the Ojibwe proverb from The Snow Leopard. In this same interview (Session #6), Chase gives a Buddhistic interpretation of the bell that sounds throughout the final scene at Holsten’s, connecting it to the bell we heard in “Soprano Home Movies” at the beginning of the season: “Well, you know, the bell was introduced at the lake. And what is the purpose of a bell? In the Buddhist religion, the bell calls you back to being here now.” Chase had made a similar statement years earlier at a talk at the Museum for the Moving Image: “I had read that very often in Zen ceremonies they ring a bell like that, and what it’s supposed to do is bring you to the present, to keep bringing you to the now—the right now.” (It was at this same Museum talk that Chase pulled out the piece of paper, as I mentioned earlier, with a Carlos Castaneda quote on it to read to the audience. Interestingly, the paragraph in The Snow Leopard which contains the footnote to the Ojibwe proverb also makes a reference to Carlos Castaneda’s most famous book, The Teachings of Don Juan.)
Many of us had recognized the Pavlovian effect of the bell at Holsten’s, and perhaps even read the bell as a sly reference to Bell Labs (Schwinn’s place of employment) or “The Three Bells” (The Browns’ song heard in earlier episodes). [The first verse—or first “bell”—of the song, heard in episode 6.04, was about Little Jimmy Brown’s birth. The second verse, heard in 6.05, was about Little Jimmy’s marriage. The third verse, about Jimmy’s death, is never heard on The Sopranos—but this third of “the three bells” is alluded to by the Holsten’s bell, according to one theory.] Chase’s words about the bell now allow us to also think of it as a spiritual object that delivers a core Buddhist concept into the final scene. The idea of being fully in “the right now” is a central tenet of Buddhism. Time is a river but only the present moment is ever accessible to us; therefore it is of the utmost importance for us to be present in the fullness of the current moment. The last time we hear the bell in Holsten’s is just before the cut-to-black. Of course, we can interpret that cut as representing the moment of Tony’s death. But this seems like such an impoverished reading of it to me in comparison to the richness of the Buddhistic interpretation. The cut-to-black, like a Buddhist’s bell, snaps us into a clear awareness of the moment and the totality encompassed within it. The immense history of the past leads up to that moment—as it does to every moment. All the potentialities of the future are contained in that moment—as it is in every moment. It’s all there, right in that moment. As it is in every moment. Most of us spend probably 99% of our waking hours too distracted to ever fully inhabit any of the moments that we pass through. We’re just too busy or too tired or too whatever. But we all snapped to attention when Chase cut to the black screen, didn’t we? Perhaps Chase’s intention was to remind us to appreciate each moment because it can all be ripped away from us at any time. But maybe he was also telling us that when we connect—truly, fully and consciously connect—with the present moment, then we are connecting, both forwards and backwards, with eternity itself.
As I’ve argued in earlier write-ups, I believe Chase uses Buddhism in the same way he uses John Schwinn’s physics: as an antidote to Livia’s venomous nihilism. (I’m not going to re-litigate those earlier arguments but I’ll touch upon the pertinent points.) In “Mayham” (6.03), Tony aka Kevin Finnerty makes a trip to the Crystal Monastery where a young monk expresses his sense of synthesis and assimilation with all that is around him: “One day we will all die, and then we will be the same as that tree. No ‘me,’ no ‘you.'” The monk’s dialogue prefigures John Schwinn’s words in the following episode, when the scientist explains that there is actually no separation between all that exists in the universe, everything is simply a “soup of molecules.” Everything is “all part of the same quantum field.” The monk’s Buddhism and Schwinn’s physics each convey a sense of integrated connectivity with the world, undercutting Livia’s view that “it’s all a Big Nothing.” I find it very interesting that the Buddhist word for ‘scripture’—sutra—literally means “thread.” Our English word “suture” (meaning ‘stitch’ or ‘to stitch’) comes from sutra. Connectivity is so central to Buddhism that even its scriptures and prayers can be thought of as “threads” that connect all things. There are almost too many troubling elements to name in SopranoWorld that have the effect of a solvent, disintegrating important connections and bonds: violence, extortion, betrayal, greed, carelessness, consumerism, cruelty… Chase introduces Buddhism into SopranoWorld, I believe, to show a possible way to suture the gaping psychological wounds made by disconnection and nihilistic thinking.
Buddhism levels the differences between all things in its attempt to bring everything into a state of harmony. There is no real distinction, as the young monk suggested, between you, me or a tree. Dualistic thinking, on the other hand, emphasizes differences. Dualism defines each thing or option by its contrast to an opposing thing or option. A goal of Buddhist practice is to negate such dualism. In one of the most influential books in bringing Buddhist thought to Westerners, An Introduction to Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki writes that…
The proper answer to the question of what remains of life when everything is denied is ‘a slap in the face.’ Being slapped is real enough—it remains. What is denied is the idea of being slapped, the labelling of experience, the attempt to reduce the experience to an abstraction. The negation of dualism, then, is really an affirmation of experience.
Dualistic thinking requires there to be names and labels that define each thing separately from every other thing. Buddhist thought, on the other hand, claims that such labelling denies us from having a true experience of reality. Two episodes after Tony got slapped by the Buddhist monk, he came across Pastor Bob. Pastor Bob was extremely dualistic in his thinking, believing that one can either accept Evolution to be true or one can achieve Salvation; one cannot do both. Based on some of his political and religious statements, it’s a safe bet to say that Bob places much of the universe in a series of oppositions: God or Satan, Heaven or Hell, Good or Evil, Saved or Damned etc etc. Pastor Bob probably would not take too kindly to D.T. Suzuki’s idea that by overcoming dualism—the either/or—we gain a truer experience of reality. It is understandable, and quite reasonable, to view the cut-to-black with an either/or mindset: either Tony died or he didn’t. But I find it more rewarding to view it through the double lens of Buddhism and physics which David Chase has possibly provided to us. In this view, the differences between options are leveled, and therefore all the options are available. Tony is alive, and dead, and not-alive, and not-dead. He is me, he is you, he is the tree, he is two boxers, he is an ocean wave, he is the bell, he is the experiment at Bell Labs, he is the third verse of “The Three Bells.” All the possibilities are present and joined to one another. It’s all there. Everything is everything. Maybe Schrodinger’s cat was a Buddhist.
Before I go any further, I want to get on record that I’m not very interested in trying to “figure out” what David Chase was thinking. (I’m a Sopranos fan, not a frickin mind reader.) I’m not trying to suggest that Chase was conscientiously making a link between these different ideas, as though he pinned it all up on a corkboard and frenetically started drawing lines:
Chase is an artist, and as is the case with all great artists, his work flows organically and naturally from him. There may be some nebulous constellation of beliefs and ideas that inspired him, but I don’t think he was ticking off items on some philosophical/artistic To Do List. The possible connections I am finding and/or making are not so much the result of detective work into Chase’s interests as much as they are a reflection of my own interests and reading. I’m only sharing some of the thoughts and ideas that make sense to me. I’ve got that off my chest, now let me continue the analysis…
THE CONNECTIVITY OF COMMUNITY
Professor H. Peter Steeves writes in his essay “Dying in Our Own Arms” that in the United States, we view “the isolated individual” as the basic unit of society. It therefore doesn’t sound like a very outlandish idea to us when we hear Livia tell AJ that “you die in your own arms.” In a real sense, we value solitude over solidarity. We value the right to be left alone to do our own thing. This rugged individualism informs the Bill of Rights, the capitalist system we live in, and many of our cultural myths including those of the Old West (“whateva happened to Gary Cooper?”). But despite this overarching ideology, we still have very human communitarian impulses. We want to connect with others, whether they be relatives, neighbors, members of our church or other social groups. This is true even of selfish and self-serving mobsters. The Mafia is driven by a philosophy of radical individualism, “and yet,” Steeves continues, “the Mafia is all about community, being-together, defining one’s self in terms of one’s relationship to the group.” Prof. Steeves’ observation certainly bears out in the Season Finales; virtually every season of The Sopranos has ended with scenes of community and togetherness:
- Season One ended with Soprano family taking refuge from a raging thunderstorm at Vesuvio restaurant where friends and colleagues had gathered as well
- Season Two ended on Meadow’s high school graduation party, with friends and family all together at the Soprano home
- Season Three ended again at Vesuvio, with Corrado’s singing eliciting tears from the friends and family who had gathered for Jackie Jr’s funeral
- Season Four closed with the Stugots blaring out music toward Alan Sapinsly and his wife who were trying to to enjoy a cocktail together
- In Season Five, Tony traversed through cold weather and snow, eventually reached home, knocked on the backdoor and Carm let him in—a scene that underscored the reconciliation between husband and wife after their long separation
- Season 6A ended on a Christmas party, with guests and family members gathered close together in the Soprano living room; though Meadow could not be there, Tony wore a beret per her request
- Season 6B now ends with a cross-section of locals of all races and ages gathered together at a neighborhood eatery, Tony sitting with two of his most beloved people on earth and the third rushing to join in as quickly as she can
Only Season 4 ended with a real sense of separation: Carmela asked Tony to leave the house in Whitecaps. But Chase, notably, said on the DVD commentary track for that episode that he didn’t want to end the season on a note of estrangement, and thus we have the final shot of The Stugots and the Sapinslys. The entire series now comes to a close at Holsten’s Confectionary, a beloved and well-established restaurant in the community of Bloomfield (very close to the home where David Chase grew up in Clifton). As noted in Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men, Chase modeled certain aspects of the final scene on Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks. Many people (including wifey Denise) feel the painting conveys a sense of loneliness and isolation. But Chase doesn’t see it this way “because it’s in the light.” He continues, “In the middle of all this darkness, they’re in the light. And they’re talking to each other. There’s a little community in there. If you were walking along that street at night and you saw that place, you’d want to go in.”
(Hopper himself said that he didn’t find the painting “particularly lonely.”) We can see an analogous color-scheme between Hopper’s diner and Holsten’s—the cool blue-greens and grays outside the two diners contrasting with the warm amber and ochre tones inside. The two restaurants evoke Hemingway’s “clean well-lighted place,” the comfortable refuge against a cold and uncaring universe.
“MY PENIS FALLS OFF”
Though the final scene conjures a sense of community and togetherness, it is nevertheless true that Tony has been growing more and more isolated over the years, particularly over the course of Season 6B. Tony seemed to consider killing, at various points in the season, his old buddy Paulie, his long-time advisor Hesh, and his brother-in-law Bobby. He did finally kill his cousin Chrissie, the man he was grooming to run the day-to-day affairs of la famiglia. The famiglia itself has become amputated down to almost nothing. His friend and counselor Silvio is essentially braindead. Carlo seems set on aiding the Federal case against him. And his psychiatrist recently dropped him. This is the flip-side of the mythology that Tony has long venerated—he is “the strong, silent type” who now finds himself backed into a corner. This idea conforms neatly with Chase’s remark about the final scene which I quoted earlier: “…what I was trying to say was that we put ourselves in these positions. We put ourselves in these scenes. Nothing happens by accident. We are the engineers of our destiny.” The “unofficial flag” of the United States reads “Don’t Tread On Me,” and the philosophy of rugged individualism that informs this slogan, and which the mobsters aspire to live by, has backfired against Tony Soprano:
Tony is becoming increasingly impotent. I’m not talking about his sexual virility, though it is perhaps telling that he hasn’t had a true goomar since Valentina La Paz—and she last appeared about three years before the finale. No, I’m referring to Tony’s inability to exert any real control over his circumstances. In the Pilot episode, Tony told Melfi about a dream in which he unscrews his navel and “my penis falls off.” As he searches for a mechanic that can fix the mishap, a bird swoops down to grab the detached member and flies away with it. The nightmare scenario that Tony feared all those years ago is metaphorically coming true. Regardless of whether Tony is killed at Holsten’s or he simply pays the check at the end of the meal and returns home with his family, his life is going into the shitter—and he doesn’t have the power to stop it:
“‘In the midst of death, we are in life.’
Or is it the other way around?
Either version, you’re halfway up the ass.“
THE REGULARNESS OF LIFE
The probability that Tony goes home and crawls into bed with Carmela after dinner at Holstens’s seems fairly high to me, given how important “the fuckin regularness of life” (as Christopher described it in episode 1.08) has been to The Sopranos. There is probably no single idea that I’ve promoted on this website more than the idea that David Chase fully committed his series right from the get-go to portraying the daily routines and banalities, the regularness, of everyday life. Chase’s commitment to this ethos of regularness is arguably the thing that most separates his television show from all the other TV shows out there. Many of Chase’s storylines don’t end with some highly dramatic climax. They just peter out, they die on the vine. Chase, very often, turns a narrative mountain into a narrative molehill. Even gangland tensions don’t usually lead to some kind of bloodbath. No matter what occurs or doesn’t occur, life simply drones on in SopranoWorld as it does in the real world. (“The movie never ends, it goes on and on and on and on…” sings Steve Perry.) True, there is something almost outlandishly evil about some of the characters and events of SopranoWorld. But as Hannah Arendt pointed out decades ago in her study of the Nazi regime, there is a banality even to evil. Despite its operatic name, the majority of storylines in The Sopranos do not reach an operatic ending. (Patsy’s statement to Gloria Trillo in Season 3, “It won’t be cinematic,” almost sounds like it could be the mission statement of The Sopranos.) We therefore shouldn’t deny the possibility that the members of the Soprano family simply got in their respective cars and drove home after dinner that night, without incident or cataclysm, just as they’ve regularly done hundreds or thousands of times before.
Nietzsche once described the regular, day-to-day ongoingness of life as “a solid metronome of the spirit.” This metronome, he believed, provides balance and order and rhythm to life. Without it, Nietzsche thought, we would be seeing incidents of mass-suicide every day. I myself argued on an earlier page that an acceptance of the ordinary regularless of daily life is necessary for achieving happiness and contentment. But the flipside to this argument is that getting too caught up in our daily to-do lists and weekly planners might put us into a kind of auto-pilot mode. We could lose sight of any larger aspirations and goals as we get entrenched in our routines. We may fall into a state of resignation, no longer seeking answers to our biggest questions. And then in the end, we might find ourselves full of regret, “paying anything to roll the dice just oooone mooore tiiiime.”
The writer-anthropologist Carlos Castaneda expressed a similar sentiment about the consequences of focusing on everyday life at the expense of seeing the bigger picture. David Chase has mentioned Castaneda on multiple occasions. (Castaneda was also mentioned in The Sopranos when Melfi quoted him in episode 2.06. [Tony thought she was quoting a prize-fighter.]) In his most widely-read book, The Teachings of Don Juan, Castaneda wrote about his experiences with a mystical, shamanic Yaqui Indian by the name of Don Juan. Castaneda quotes the shaman directly:
“The world of everyday life cannot ever be taken as something personal that has power over us, something that could make us or destroy us, because man’s battlefield is not in strife with the world around him. His battlefield is over the horizon, in an area which is unthinkable for an average man, the area where man ceases to be a man.”
He [Don Juan] explained those statements, saying that it was energetically imperative for human beings to realize that the only thing that matters is their encounter with infinity. [The emphasis in bold are Castaneda’s.]
For Castaneda, infinity can be encountered through a conscientious awareness and engagement with the eternal aspects of life and death. He believed psychoactive drugs could be a great aid in achieving this encounter with infinity. (I’d add that prescription drugs and medical emergencies can also do the trick, as we saw in Tony’s encounter with his avatar of infinity, Kevin Finnerty.) The final scene at Holsten’s is brilliant in how it simultaneously portrays regularness—“the world of everyday life” as Castaneda wrote—but also gives us a mystical “encounter with infinity.” Tony’s rendezvous with the eternal may come in the form of a bullet through the brain, sure enough. But the encounter may also come through a conscientious awareness and engagement with the moment. The last sound we hear in the final scene are Steve Perry’s words, “Don’t stop”—and then the cut-to-black extends that moment, without stop, to infinity. The black screen expresses the eternal, in all its infinitely mystical forms. It may sound daffy to argue that a booth in Holsten’s Confectionary is the location of a metaphysical and metaphorical experience of the infinite. But if the Virgin Mary can appear in a seedy strip joint off Route 17, then infinity can present itself at a corner-diner in Bloomfield, New Jersey.
In 2014, Vox.com published an article by Prof. Martha Nochimson, “Did Tony die at the end of The Sopranos?” The piece caused a bit of a ruckus because Nochimson claimed David Chase told her that Tony was not killed at Holsten’s:
I had been talking with Chase for a few years when I finally asked him whether Tony was dead. We were in a tiny coffee shop, when, in the middle of a low-key chat about a writing problem I was having, I popped the question. Chase startled me by turning toward me and saying with sudden, explosive anger, “Why are we talking about this?” I answered, “I’m just curious.” And then, for whatever reason, he told me. And I will tell you… He shook his head “No.” And then he said simply, “No he isn’t.” That was all.
Chase issued a statement through his publicist the following day stating that the “journalist for Vox misconstrued” his words. Less than a month later at the Venice Film Festival, Chase said about the incident, “I don’t recall that conversation. I’m sure it happened, but I don’t recall it, and if I did say that, I believe I was probably thinking about something else.”
Regardless of what Chase did or didn’t say, or how it was construed or misconstrued, Dr. Nochimson’s article is one of the most intelligent and perceptive pieces ever written about David Chase and The Sopranos. She touches upon Chase’s family history, his interests in college, film influences, his experiences with psychedelics, his feelings on religion, the state of the television industry… Despite David Chase’s flat “No” to her question—or what she construed to be a “No”—she still made a convincing case that film and television have an inherently mysterious, ambiguous nature. (She wrote to me in an email the day after the Vox article came out, “There’s a great deal of ambiguity in The Sopranos no matter what happened to Tony. That’s really my point.”) What I find most compelling about the article, though, is how Nochimson tracks the literary influences that Chase was exposed to as a college student, and how those influences molded his mobster saga all the way through its final scene:
Tony’s decisive win over his enemy in the New York mob, Phil Leotardo, is the final user-friendly event in Chase’s gangster story that gratifies the desire to be conclusive, and it would have been the finale of a less compelling gangster story. The cut-to-black is the moment when Castaneda and the American Romantics rise to the surface and the gangster story slips through our fingers and vanishes.
If we are trying to deduce what David Chase’s intentions were in the final scene, then we should take the Romanticism that Nochimson speaks of into consideration because it may have been one of Chase’s major influences…
THERE IS A LIGHT THAT NEVER GOES OUT
The literary and artistic movement of Romanticism developed in the 19th century, partly in response to the Enlightenment period of the 18th century. The Age of Enlightenment was characterized by a commitment to reason, logic and science. Romanticism, on the other hand, was all about the emotion. As the French poet Charles Baudelaire described it, Romanticism “is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling.” Subjective emotions (coming out of each individual’s unique temperament and imagination) reigned supreme over objective data and logic. There are a couple of direct connections to Romanticism in The Sopranos. The Wordsworth sonnet, “The World is Too Much With Us,” which AJ’s class studied in “Kennedy and Heidi” (6.18) is considered to be the first English Romantic poem. Madame de Stael, who Meadow alluded to in “D-Girl,” was an early Romantic theorist and writer. And if the name “Walden” was a reference to Thoreau’s book as I suggested it was, then this too fits the bill because Transcendentalists like Thoreau were very influenced by Romanticism.
Most of us know, instinctively or from experience, that one way to heighten the significance of an emotion is by prolonging it. Much of the Romantic literature in Germany during the sturm-und-drang (storm-and-stress) period featured protagonists who chose to wallow in their feelings rather than seek relief or closure. Instead of trying to illustrate this by using a piece of literature from a bygone era, I’ll give a more contemporary example. A verse from The Smiths’ 1986 mope-hope anthem, “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” nicely captures a protagonist who does not want closure:
In the darkened underpass
I thought “Oh God, my chance has come at last”
But then a strange fear gripped me
And I just couldn’t ask
The protagonist of the song would rather continue living in a state of uncertainty by not asking his question—thereby keeping hope alive—rather than ask his question and potentially dash all his hopes. Hope is the “light that never goes out.” To extend the analogy: Chase’s cut-to-black doesn’t actually shut the light off; it keeps the light on. Viewers can continue to hope that the Soprano family members will reach whatever conclusion they each deserve. Whether you hope they will experience some sort of redemption, or enlightenment, or a comeuppance, either karmic or legal or whatever—each viewer can forever cling to whatever ending they feel is most fitting. (“Hold on to that feeling,” sings Steve Perry.)
I believe that for David Chase (the artist, not necessarily the man), emotion takes primacy over intellect. In Difficult Men, Brett Martin documents the first conversation that Chase had with HBO executive Carolyn Strauss about his idea for finishing it with a cut-to-black. Strauss didn’t seem very enthusiastic about the idea, worried audiences wouldn’t know what to think about it. Chase thought to himself, “‘It’s not what you think. It’s what you feel.’ That’s what I was always trying to go for.”
We can maybe see how important Chase believes the role of emotion to be in acts of interpretation if we look once again at the Northern Exposure episode “The Graduate” which I brought up earlier. Chris Stevens, still troubled about how to defend his Master’s thesis on “Casey at the Bat” to the two professors, takes the two men to a baseball diamond. He starts reciting lines from Thayer’s poem while pitching balls, basically reenacting the action of the poem. One of the profs gets very into the game, but then is crestfallen when he strikes out. Chris tells the disappointed man that the poem, ultimately, is exactly about that—“That feeling that’s in your gut.”
Standing between the two professors, one a Traditionalist and the other a Postmodernist, Chris essentially splits the difference between the two. One can stick close to the text of the poem, not venture far from the words Thayer wrote on the page, as the Traditionalist would do. Or one can extrapolate all kinds of meanings and analogies from the poem as the Postmodernist might do. (Maybe the poem is about the role of the hero-figure in society, or about the tensions of performing in a Capitalist system, for example.) In the end though, it’s more about the feelings in your gut than it is about the thoughts in your head. (Chris even says in the same hour: “Doesn’t art speak for itself? You analyze something too much, you end up just grinding it into dust.”) Not surprisingly, Chris Stevens is awarded his Master’s Degree at the end of the episode.
I think one of the reasons there is so much spirited debate about the ending of The Sopranos is because the Romantic approach that Chase took to his series naturally heightens our emotional responses to it. And there are very few things that get the blood of Americans up (as that Northern Exposure episode demonstrates) than the debate over traditional views versus more postmodern ones. Some Sopranos viewers want to read that final scene in a way that is, arguably, more traditional and conventional: did Tony die or did he not die? Other viewers prefer to take a more postmodern approach: the ending is ambiguous, with a multiplicity of potential meanings.
So much of the contentious discourse in our country today, whether it’s about teaching race in public schools or about transgender bathroom laws, boils down to a clash between traditional and postmodern views. The Sopranos has incorporated some of these clashes into its narrative over the seasons. In episode 4.12 “Eloise,” Meadow and her Columbia U friends sat at a dinner table discussing the homosexual undertones of Billy Budd while Carmela insisted, “This stuff is pervading our educational system, not to mention movies, TV shows… I’m sorry, but Billy Budd is not a homosexual book!” In episode 1.11 “Nobody Knows Anything,” Meadow complained that “this country is light-years behind the rest of the world” because of our puritanical attitude toward sex. Tony found the conversation uncomfortable and brought it to a halt by declaring, “Out there it’s the 1990s but in this house it’s 1954!” (I won’t drag up the question of whether Tony would be a MAGA Trumper today because this was already deliberated in my “Walk Like a Man” write-up, but it’s clear which side of the political spectrum Tony leans toward.) Meadow’s left-leaning positions have been contrasted with those of her family members throughout the series, and I think it’s possible to read the final scene at Holsten’s as one last commentary on this difference between them.
Of course, we never see Meadow inside Holsten’s in the final scene. But that’s precisely my point. It’s as though Chase is asking whether there is room at America’s table, so to speak, for both Meadow’s progressivism and Tony’s more traditional viewpoint. Does the old guard have to “die off,” as it were, before the new guard can find a place at the table? This question has possibly become more relevant today than it was in 2007.
It may seem like I’m reading too much into Meadow’s absence at Holsten’s. Surely, Meadow being outside the restaurant and rushing to get in is a plot-point designed to generate tension and excitement in the final minutes. That scene is not necessarily some kind of socio-political commentary. But then I thought of the reason why Meadow is late: she had to go to the doctor to change her birth control. Access to the birth control pill in the 1960s was a catalyzing force for second-wave feminism and the Women’s Liberation movement. Though it has been argued by some feminists that the pill was used in those early days as an instrument to control women, it is nevertheless true that access to birth control has been opening up economic and educational opportunities for women for decades. In his thoughtful book with a provocative title, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat writes that the advent of the pill influenced a revolution “that extended well beyond the narrow issue of birth control to encompass the entirety of sexual ethics. Over the course of a decade or so, a large swath of America decided that two millennia of Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality were simply out of date.” The old, traditional ways of living were turned upside-down. Meadow now has a postmodern multiplicity of choices before her that her grandmother and her mother, to some degree, did not have.
Many scholars and critics have explored the postmodern qualities of the series, but particularly interesting may be Professor Ann C. Hall’s essay, “Crooked Reading: Postmodernism and The Sopranos,” which was written just prior to the release of “Made in America.” We live in a postmodern world, she writes, where “competing ideologies, theories, meanings and interpretations must battle for expression, privilege and power.” Hall continues that while other TV shows give “the illusion of stability and security…The Sopranos, clearly, offers no such security. David Chase manages to use the show’s longevity to complicate simplistic interpretations and conclusions… In the end, it will be interesting to see how he concludes the series, a series characterized by its postmodern, open-ended, structure.” Hall gave no prediction for the ending of the show, but her “non-prediction” turned out to be quite accurate; the final scene is a true expression of the “postmodern, open-ended structure” she mentioned.
Not everyone, of course, feels that The Sopranos has an open-ended structure. I recently scrolled through some of the online Sopranos forums after the release of Many Saints of Newark and was disappointed—but not surprised—to find that the debate about the cut-to-black is as ugly, if not uglier, than ever. Some viewers—truthers, I’ll call them—insist that anyone who doesn’t see the “truth” about the ending as they see it are stunads and morons. I’ve been insulted and mocked by the truthers for even suggesting that there are multiple ways of reading the final scene.
Emily VanDerWerff, in her review for the final episode, draws a link between the fundamentalist community that she was raised in and the truthers who constantly trot out the Master-of-Sopranos blog as proof-positive that Tony is killed by Members-Only-guy at Holsten’s:
…my primary objection to that reading of the final scene—which I will re-stress is totally valid, and if you think the scene says Tony dies, I’m fine with it, so long as you don’t insist that those who say otherwise are vapid idiots (as too many “Tony dies!” evangelists do)—come, ultimately, from the world that I grew up in, the world of fundamentalist Christianity. (And please let me apologize for the slight detour into personal history. I promise it will make sense.) Fundamentalist Christianity—fundamentalist religion, really—is an attempt to take something that purports to be mysterious and more about opening questions than receiving answers, then turns it into a long series of perfect answers to every little question… It’s a lacking thesis because it relies on the reductionist tendencies of fundamentalism. It robs the mystery out of a series that was always replete with it…
VanDerWerff continues that she found herself become increasingly enamored of the series with each re-watch precisely because of its refusal to give succinct answers. On the other side of the divide is author and columnist Ross Douthat. Like VanDerWerff, Douthat grew up in an environment of fundamentalist Christianity. (Douthat later converted to Catholicism, whereas VanDerWerff ultimately found a home in the more progressive Episcopalian Church.) Douthat seems to be a big fan of the series, writing several pieces about it over the years. It has been interesting to watch Douthat’s evolution (devolution?) on the topic of “Made in America” and the cut-to-black…
Writing for The Atlantic the day after the final episode aired, Douthat recognized the ambiguity of the cut-to-black. He did not feel that the question of whether Tony lived or died was the issue to focus on. The real question, he argued, was whether the Soprano family members will escape damnation or not. His verdict was that they will not, due to the continuous deal with the devil they had been making over the years. He found the sudden ending to be a fitting expression of the show’s “anti-humanistic” [his word] stance. Douthat enjoyed the series, but was glad it was over. “You can only stare into the abyss for so long,” he concluded. But years later, after reading the Master-of-Sopranos blog, Douthat no longer found the ending ambiguous. In a piece for the New York Times, he argued that the only truly reasonable interpretation of the cut-to-black is that Tony is killed. Furthermore, he wrote, any counter-theory would require a “point-by-point takedown” of Master’s argument:
If Chase wants to performs a careful exegesis of his own show explaining why the argument that Tony died is a brutal misreading of the on-screen evidence, then sure, I’d be all ears, just as I’d be all ears if Seitz or whomever wanted to actually write a point-by-point takedown of the “Tony was shot” interpretation. But absent such a convincing rebuttal or critique, whether from the creator or from a critic or anyone else, I don’t think being persuaded by the whacking interpretation reflects (to quote VanDerWerff and Nochimson) some desperate desire for “a tidy answer for everything in life” or some sort of anti-intellectual revolt against the “knowing more profound than words” that Chase allegedly wanted to convey. It’s just the reasonable response to an extremely compelling reading of an initially-ambiguous text. Not all mysteries have a solution, not all questions have answers. But some do, some solutions and answers are more compelling than others, and it’s okay to think that this is a case where one interpretation has a lot more evidence on its side than the various alternatives.
I don’t have an interest in doing a point-by-point takedown of the theory that Tony is killed, especially because I find some of the “evidence” very compelling. The simple fact that there are so many different interpretations of the final scene out there is itself a powerful counterargument to Douthat’s claim that his take has “a lot more evidence” on its side. It’s almost impossible to provide a full list of all the various bits of evidence, both for Tony’s death and for alternative theories, that are floating around in Sopranos fandom, but here is a sampling:
- The final scene is a reference to the short story “The Lady, and the Tiger” in which the protagonist must make a choice that will lead to him either marrying a lady or getting killed by a tiger. (Tony is sitting at Holsten’s between his lady Carmela and the mural with a tiger on it.) The short story ends without letting the reader know which choice was made.
- Tony says in episode 6.05 that he can’t eat onions after his surgery. Maybe the onion rings at Holsten’s gave him a heart attack and killed him.
- The commercial for the Magic Bullet blender playing on the TV in Silvio’s hospital room is a subtle reference to the Warren Commission’s explanation of JFK’s assassination (which was dubbed the “magic bullet” theory) and thus denotes that Tony too is assassinated.
- Tony passes out from a panic attack. Perhaps the sight of Meadow coming in through the door after her doctor’s appointment for new birth control coupled with some Freudian jealousy over her new fiancé triggered an anxiety attack.
- This is the 86th episode, and Tony gets “eighty-sixed” in this hour.
- Or maybe the viewer gets eighty-sixed. The viewer essentially gets whacked—we are dead to what goes on in SopranoWorld now that the series is over for us.
- As I touched upon earlier, there is some reason to believe Paulie defected to New York’s side and set up a whacking of Tony.
- Patsy Parisi, who had thought about killing T in Season 3, now does engineer Tony’s death.
- The New York famiglia exacted revenge for Phil Leotardo’s death by killing Tony in front of his family, just as Phil was killed in front of his family.
- AJ’s friend Rhiannon was acting as a mole for NY, and she provided them the key information that the Soprano family would be having dinner at Holsten’s that night.
- Steve Else makes the argument in a YouTube video that the final episode is a dream, and points out that the title “Made in America” can be an anagram for “I am a nice dream.”
- We saw Tony get shot by Corrado in an episode titled “Members Only,” a clue that it is Members-Only-guy who now shoots Tony.
- The bathroom that Members-Only-guy goes into is to Tony’s right, and he emerges from this bathroom to shoot Tony from Tony’s three o’clock. “3:00” and the number “3” have had some significance throughout the series.
- Tony was killed in a “crime of opportunity.” Members-Only-guy (or one of the other diners) was a civilian—perhaps a contractor or Union head—who had a murderous grudge against Tony and happened to come across him that night.
- Some viewers find a physical resemblance between Members-Only-guy and Eugene Pontecorvo, leading to the speculation that they are brothers. The brother gets revenge on Tony now for not allowing Eugene to exit the Mafia. The jacket functions as a “clue” for this theory because Eugene’s suicide occurred in “Members Only” (6.01).
- Eugene Pontecorvo was wearing a Members Only jacket in “Members Only” when he killed Teddy Spirodakis (whose initials are “T.S.”) inside of a restaurant, just as Members-Only-guy now kills Tony (initials “T.S.”) inside of a restaurant.
I love all these theories, I think they are all potentially possible—though some do feel a bit wobbly. (And according to the Many Worlds hypothesis, each of these possibilities could come to fruition in one universe or another.) Ultimately, all the various theories are a form of fan-fiction, a way to engage and connect with the show we love so much.
While I’m generally not opposed to any of the theories out there, I do take great issue with how the truthers put forth their theories. They’ll often use Chase’s famous statement that “It’s all there” to justify their particular store of evidence—but then conveniently ignore all the evidence that goes against their interpretation as being the only possible truth. We can take that last bullet point above as an example. It is perfectly valid to find similarities between Eugene Pontecorvo shooting a T.S. while wearing a Members Only jacket and then Members-Only-Guy shooting our T.S. in “Made in America.” But we should also consider the dissimilarities as well:
- Eugene didn’t sit down at the counter and wait some time before killing his mark; he walked into the diner and within seconds Teddy was dead
- Teddy had some familiarity of Eugene, even giving him a word of greeting before taking his bullet—but there is no evidence at all that Tony knew who Members-Only-guy was
- Tony’s initials technically are “A.S.” not “T.S.” We had seen earlier that when Chase wanted to use duplicate initials to draw a parallel between Tony and another character, he did it much more overtly; in “Whitecaps,” Alan Sapinsly—Tony’s yuppie-doppelganger—literally referred to himself in the third-person as “A.S.” (Alan said to Tony, “You and your wife could be back together in a month, leaving A.S. here fucked in the ass.”)
Truther-theories only work when truthers cherry-pick their evidence. Chase did famously declare that “It’s all there,” as truthers constantly remind us. But then these same truthers ignore all of what is there, focusing only on those bits that support their argument.
It’s human nature to look for patterns. Our brains are essentially pattern-recognition machines. But a problem occurs, I feel, when we allow our pattern-recognition abilities lead us to one conclusion to the exclusion of all other possibilities. The problem gets exacerbated because Chase plays upon our pattern-recognition tendencies with lots of repetitions, connections and callbacks. When Members-Only-guy goes into the bathroom at Holsten’s, many of us saw it as a callback to the scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone goes into a restaurant bathroom and then comes out armed and ready to kill. But Members-Only-guy’s trip to the bathroom may simply be a final repetition of all the times we’ve seen SopranoWorld characters go to the bathroom. As I’ve documented throughout this website, it is common to see people on The Sopranos excuse themselves to go to the restroom. Just in Season 6B alone, we’ve seen several instances of someone making a trip to the toilet:
- In 6.13, Carm says “I’ve had to pee since Glen Falls” before hurrying off to the bathroom at Bobby’s upstate house. (In the same hour, Bobby says “I should’ve taken a leak before we left” in Tony’s car.)
- In 6.14, Kelli Moltisanti tells Chris “I better pee” before they leave the house.
- In 6.15, Beansie excuses himself to go empty his colostomy bag.
- In 6.16, Hesh says “That was me, not a fireboat” as he steps out of the bathroom.
- In 6.17, Tony tells Patsy “I gotta take a leak” and leaves the room.
Sure, maybe Members-Only-guy’s trip to the bathroom is a reference to The Godfather. But the man could also just be a Holsten’s patron who needs to empty his bladder. I think both of these possibilities can be true. Interestingly, we did previously see a scene in which Tony played out the Godfather reference in a bathroom and also emptied his bladder. In “The Test Dream” (5.11), during the long dream-sequence, Finn’s dad says he could “use a nice tinkle,” so he and Tony get up from their table and head to the restaurant bathroom. Tony searches behind the toilet—a clear reference to the The Godfather scene—and then Chase cuts to Tony at the urinal:
Another reasonable possibility is that Members-Only-guy did indeed arrive at Holsten’s with a plan to murder Tony, but then he changed his mind and decided to just take a piss instead. We saw this precise thing happen with Patsy Parisi in episode 3.01 “Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood” (though Patsy decided to relieve himself in Tony’s swimming pool, not a bathroom).
And look at Patsy’s situation now, at the end of the series: he is set to soon become Tony’s brother-in-law when his son marries Tony’s daughter. If we use Patsy Parisi instead of Michael Corleone as the historical template for Members-Only-guy, then it’s entirely possible that the man will walk out of the bathroom, put away any murderous grudge—and one day he will become Tony’s brother-in-law when his daughter marries Tony’s son.
I’m so tired of truthers pissing on everyone else’s theories and interpretations. They refuse to recognize that what is meaningful and loaded with significance for one person is not necessarily going to carry the same significance for another person. Chase has expressed this fact of life to us in ways large and small. In Season 2, Richie Aprile found a certain jacket to be a Really Big Deal because he took it off the cocksucker with the toughest reputation in Essex County. But Tony didn’t find the jacket very impressive, despite its origin (or even its Corinthian leather):
(I’ve seen Richie’s half-crazed look on the faces of some of my Pentecostal relatives when they start preaching their truth at me, and I would guess my face looks a lot like Tony’s in response.)
“EVERYONE HAS THEIR OWN REASONS”
Professor of English David Lavery compiled and edited three books of scholarly essays about The Sopranos, and the first of these books opens with a quote from Jean Renoir’s 1939 film The Rules of the Game: “On this earth there is one thing which is terrible, and that is that everyone has their own reasons.” The film is often ranked among the greatest movies of all time, largely because of Renoir’s nuanced depiction of the different motivations and passions that drive each character. Prof Lavery surely chose this quote to be the epigraph of his book because he recognized that David Chase also gives a similarly nuanced treatment to his characters. Chase himself referenced this line from Renoir’s film in the early interview with Peter Bogdanovich:
“When we set out to start doing it [producing The Sopranos], I didn’t think ‘Oh let’s do an elaboration on Jean Renoir’s line.’ But now when I look at it, that’s what goes on in the Soprano house and in every aspect of the show. Everyone has reasons… Everyone thinks they’re right.”
In one of the Special Features on the Criterion DVD of The Rules of the Game, Professor of Film Chris Faulkner says, “Stylistically and thematically, Renoir has created a both/and world in this film, not an either/or world.” Chase too has crafted SopranoWorld to be a both/and world, not an either/or world. It is therefore appropriate, I believe, for Sopranos fandom to be a both/and world. Both your theories and my theories can be correct. We all have our reasons. My interpretation of the final scene may seem schematic and intricate, requiring a complicated geometry between quantum physics, Transcendentalism, Buddhism and Romanticism in order to make sense. But my take on the ending isn’t something that came out of lots of research and ruminating—not really. I have my reasons, and they are actually rooted in very personal emotions. (Please let me apologize for the slight detour into personal history. I promise it will make sense…)
In the spring of 2000, days after the original airing of “D-Girl,” I had to deal with the loss of two friends who died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. One of them was found in their backyard swimming pool, weighed down with a concrete block tied around his torso. In the weeks that followed, I found myself thinking a lot about “D-Girl” as I grappled with all the unknown circumstances and consequences of their deaths. “D-Girl” contains a reference to Albert Camus, who was by then one of my favorite writers, a writer who had devoted his career to exploring how to live in a universe filled with uncertainty. But even more than the Camus reference, it was Livia’s claim in that hour that “It’s all a big nothing” that haunted me. I found myself wondering if Livia was right. Is it all completely meaningless after all? And why the fuck does it have to be this way? That same spring, I was taking a course in Postmodern American Fiction. My professor’s main focus that semester was on the idea of uncertainty and how it has influenced postmodern American authors. It was in this class that I first read “Schrodinger’s Cat” by Ursula Le Guin, the short story I referenced earlier. I was still a newbie to The Sopranos in the spring of 2000, but I began to feel, rightly or wrongly, that the core underlying theme of the series was “uncertainty.” Seven years later—a diehard fan by now—my heart almost burst as I watched AJ Soprano drop into his backyard swimming pool with a concrete block tied around himself. The scene called back memories of those horrific crime-scene photos the police had taken back in 2000 at my friends’ home, and rekindled all the unanswered and unanswerable questions I had back then. A few weeks later, when “Made in America” ended with the cut-to-black, it seemed like the ultimate confirmation of a feeling I had been harboring deep in my bones for years: The Sopranos is grounded in uncertainty.
Like most true-blue fans of the show, I feel like I can relate to many of the moments and events on The Sopranos on a deeply personal level. And this is why I recoil from all those shitbirds who insist that any interpretation that doesn’t fully jibe with their own is flat-out wrong. These fucking fascists want us to toss out our own deeply-felt experience of the series in favor of a theory they stumbled across on some blog or YouTube channel. They expect us to reduce our own deep-seated sentiments and thoughts into ashes, into meaningless dust, so that we can adopt their point-of-view. And then they get outraged when we refuse. Well, despite their overbearing protests, I’m going to stick with the interpretations that make the most sense to me—and I think David Chase would be perfectly fine with that:
Chase has made certain statements over the years that have become fodder for Tony-is-dead truthers. During a conversation with Seitz and Sepinwall about how the plan for the final scene came about, Chase said, “I think I had that death scene around two years before the end.” He went on to say that he had discussed with writer Mitch Burgess about ending The Sopranos with a scene in which Tony would be driving through the Lincoln Tunnel to a meeting with Johnny Sac where he would ostensibly be killed. It’s not at all clear from the context whether Chase’s phrase “death scene” is referring to the scene in Holsten’s Diner or this never-filmed scene in the Lincoln Tunnel. Attempting to get more clarification, Seitz offered, “Clearly the diner is an extension of that idea in some way.” Chase responded, “No, it’s not, because I went away from that.” Despite his clarification, online forums lit up with all the usual suspects insisting that David Chase inadvertently revealed Tony died at Holsten’s. I found all the hubbub a bit amusing because Brett Martin had already discussed this issue years earlier, in his 2013 book Difficult Men:
One early idea was that Tony would be last seen heading off into Manhattan for a meeting with New York boss Johnny Sack (who would have been left alive, rather than felled by cancer). As the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” played, Tony would descend into the same Lincoln Tunnel from which we had seen him emerge at the very beginning, on his way to who-knew-what fate.
I know that many truthers will now glom on to the title of that Rolling Stones song. And they’ll point out that Chase didn’t make mention of a “death scene” in Brett Martin’s book, whereas he did in the Seitz/Sepinwall book. But I don’t think that really matters much anyway because Chase “went away from that.”
In November 2021, just a few weeks ago, The Hollywood Reporter published a piece by Scott Feinberg with the clickbait headline, “Sopranos Creator David Chase Finally Reveals What Happened to Tony (Exclusive).” Discussing, once again, how the plan for the final scene came about, Chase mentioned that about two years before the Finale, he was driving past an eatery—“like a shack that served breakfast”—and thought to himself, “Tony should get it in a place like that.” Even though the phrase “get it” is not as revealing as the phrase “death scene,” all the online forums lit up once again. The usual suspects predictably ignored the fact that we don’t know with certainty if the idea that Tony “should get it” at a breakfast shack extended to the scene at Holsten’s, or if Chase—once again—“went away from that.”
In this same interview, Feinberg asked Chase if his mention of a “death scene” to Seitz and Sepinwall was “a slip-of-the-tongue.” Chase responded that it was not…
Because the scene I had in my mind was not that scene. Nor did I think of cutting to black. I had a scene in which Tony comes back from a meeting in New York in his car. At the beginning of every show, he came from New York into New Jersey, and the last scene could be him coming from New Jersey back into New York for a meeting at which he was going to be killed.
Once again, it’s a little difficult to decipher or diagram Chase’s statement. (It’s almost like we’re forever locked in a “Who’s on first?” comedy routine with him.) Was “death scene” not a slip of the tongue because Tony does get killed, or because he was referring to the never-filmed Lincoln Tunnel scene? I’m going to take some liberty here and rewrite Chase’s answer in a way that I believe expresses his meaning more clearly:
The phrase “death scene” was not a slip-of-the-tongue…
Because the “death scene” I had in my mind when talking to Seitz and Sepinwall was not that scene at Holsten’s Diner. Nor did I think of cutting to black as I did do at Holsten’s Diner. I had a scene in which Tony comes back from a meeting in New York in his car. At the beginning of every show, he came from New York into New Jersey, and the last scene could be him coming from New Jersey back into New York for a meeting at which he was going to be killed. But I went away from that!
Apologies to David Chase for putting words in his mouth—I’m just having a bit of fun with this. Many fans, including the interviewer Scott Feinberg, kept insisting that The Hollywood Reporter story did finally put the question to rest. So, Matt Seitz directly asked Chase whether that Reporter story settled it once and for all. Chase asked Seitz to release a quote in response: “Everybody who believes I said Tony is dead in a Hollywood Reporter article: works for me. Now you’ll stop fucking asking me.”
Christ, more confusion. Is Chase saying that that interpretation “works for me” because Tony is dead? Or because he’s just fucking tired of the question? Chase seems to be getting more and more irritated by the issue. (Who can blame him?) Remember that when Martha Nochimson popped the question some years ago, “Chase startled me by turning toward me and saying with sudden, explosive anger, ‘Why are we talking about this?'” I think David Chase no longer has any more fucks to give about it. We may see future interviews of Chase increasingly turn into a blood-sport as he explodes at anyone who dares ask him again.
But I will say, I think some of the statements Chase has made over the years may have revealed a little bit of his own take on Tony’s fate. My feeling now is that Chase personally leans toward the idea that Tony was killed at Holsten’s, although my instinct about his intentions have not changed: I think he wrote, shot and edited the final scene in the way that he did in order to leave room for other, equally valid interpretations. This is where Chase departs from the proselytizing of the truthers—they won’t give you room for another interpretation. (I think that Chase almost literally gives us room to formulate our interpretations; the 10-second “pause” between the final frame at Holsten’s and the scroll of the credits is, to me, a televisual representation of the space we need to construct our formulations.)
Because Chase denies us explicit sight of anything that goes on in SopranoWorld after the cut-to-black, the only way to reach a state of absolute certainty about it is by making a leap of faith. There are plenty of bits of “evidence” that logically lead to the possibility that Tony was killed. But they don’t logically lead to the certainty that he was killed. Even Master-of-Sopranos recognizes this, as seen in a reply that he (she? “they”…) posted on their blog’s comment-section:
First off, many readers are hung up on the title of the piece. Well, “Definitive Interpretation…” is a catchy title and will get the “asses in the seats,” so to speak. Of course I don’t think it’s “definitive.” The bottom line is Tony wasn’t shown getting shot so I can never be 100% certain he was killed. However, I am 99% sure that Tony dying is Chase’s personal interpretation of the end of the show. That’s not as catchy of a title but the actual text of the essay makes that point. I’m not David Chase, so the title means nothing. On the other hand, I am highly confident my interpretation is correct.
Pretty reasonable statement by Master. The irony is that many of Master’s most ardent fans do make the leap of faith to reach 100% certainty while Master themself is not willing to. True-believers will find the face of Jesus on a piece of toast, while the rest of us see only the random markings of radiant heat on a slice of bread. (“Abstract shapes or somethin’,” as Tony said to Paulie.) We all see what we want to see, but only truthers and fundamentalists insist that everyone must see what they see. It makes me wonder: where do they get the balls!?
I’m not knocking people of faith, nor faith itself. I think there is certainly a place for faith and mysticism in the world, including within Sopranos fandom. My favorite way of thinking about the Sopranos ending is best expressed in the words of Karen Armstrong (though she wasn’t referring to the show whatsoever). In her beautiful book A History of God, Armstrong writes, “There is a linguistic connection between the three words ‘myth,’ ‘mysticism’ and ‘mystery.’ All are derived from the Greek verb ‘musteion’: to close the eyes or the mouth. All three words, therefore, are rooted in an experience of darkness and silence.” An experience of darkness and silence. This is precisely how Chase closes his series, and it is rooted in the myth, mysticism and mystery of The Sopranos.
A part of the reason why my write-up has taken the form that it has, drawing on various “-isms” and esoteric ideas, is to show that it’s possible for anyone to go through a work of art with a fine-tooth comb and reach whatever conclusions they’re inclined to reach. Tony-is-dead truthers don’t have a monopoly on this type of analysis. (And yeah, I know that some of the people I’m calling “truthers” are really nothing more than online trolls…) I would love to live in a world where my entire take on the final scene could simply consist of the sentence, “I think the cut-to-black is ambiguous and perfect and beautiful,” and everyone would totally respect and appreciate that—no further elaboration needed. But that’s not the world we live in. Ross Douthat, in that New York Times piece he wrote after reading Master-of-Sopranos, says that any critic who doesn’t answer the question, one way or the other, of whether Tony lived or died, is committing “an abdication of critical responsibility. From those critics who reject it, I want reasons to doubt the whacking reading, not lectures about the ineffable mysteriousness of art.” I genuinely don’t understand why Douthat and the truthers cannot respect me enough to take me at my word if I just simply said that I find The Sopranos to be ineffably mysterious. Chase himself has said that “to explain it would diminish it.” And I—despite this 30,000-word essay—agree with him. But I would add: the demands that some people make of others to explain themselves diminishes us. It diminishes all of us.
I think Chase gives us room to construct our own interpretations and then pushes us to be self-aware of these constructions, which is quite fitting given that The Sopranos is often aware of itself as something constructed. I won’t haul out my entire breakdown of “Stage 5” (6.14) here, but that most self-reflexive of episodes truly pointed out the constructed nature of The Sopranos (as well as the constructed nature of Cleaver, Born Yesterday, Billy Bathgate…) Even the title, “Stage 5,” pointed to the series’ constructed-ness by evoking a soundstage where a TV show or movie might be filmed. But more than anything else, it was the whacking of Gerry Torciano in that hour that pulled back the curtains and revealed the staged nature of The Sopranos. As the first bullet tears into Torciano and the blood starts spraying out of him, Chase slows the footage and warps the sound. This type of manipulation of imagery and sound cannot not occur in real life, it is something done in the film-editing room. Chase reminds us that his fiction is a constructed product.
The cut-to-black, too, was done in the editing room. It is not something that occurs in real life. (I would guess the phrase “cut-to-black” didn’t even exist in any of the world’s languages until the advent of filmmaking.) Chase reminds us, in the final moment of his series, that his fiction is a construction. And any interpretation we may have of that fiction is likewise a construction. John Schwinn said in “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” that “the shapes we see exist only in our own consciousness.” We make our reality—it’s something we construct inside our own heads.
Maybe the reason why this final episode contains so many images of TVs and monitors is to remind us that the show is a construction, fabricated specifically for television:
Perhaps this is too obvious to mention, but even the title of the episode points to its own construction: the show is something that has been “made” in America. What America, in turn, makes of the show—our opinions and interpretations—should be as diverse as the country itself.
The Sopranos, I think, is a true reflection of America and could only have been made in America. This is the golden Land of Opportunity. Over the years, we saw Tony Soprano make the most of some of his financial opportunities, but we also watched him squander the opportunities he had to reform himself and change his ways. Arguably no country more than America affords her people such a full breadth of opportunity and possibility: the possibility to succeed but also to fail; to do right by others but also to do wrong; to reinvent oneself but also to coast through life unchanged. “America, this is still where people come to make it—it’s a beautiful idea,” AJ said at the top of the hour. David Chase’s own grandparents seemed to believe in this idea, making their way here from the old country about 150 years ago. Chase has mentioned on occasion that he views The Sopranos to be an “immigrant story.” I sometimes wonder if my own deep interest in the series has something to do with me being the son of two immigrants, a man and a woman who crossed two continents and an ocean to build a better future for themselves here in the New World. With his final, ambiguous black frame of the series, David Chase isn’t shutting the door closed on us. He is throwing it wide open to a wealth of possibilities. What could be more American than that?
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– Meet me back here in a couple of weeks (probably months) for a review of The Many Saints of Newark.