Ambiguity versus intention: The Sopranos keeps going


For a show that tried to aggressively stop, The Sopranos refuses to die. As reported in the New York Times, word is leaking out from the producers about the famous final shot of blackness. According to the article, it would seem that David Chase had a particular narrative meaning in mind as to what happened in the finale rather than open-ended ambiguity, and clues are pointing toward the argument I made previously: Tony getting killed is the probable explanation (a position explicated at greater length & depth than probably necessary by Bob Harris). Especially amusing is that Chase initially wanted the 10-second black show to be even longer, closer to 30-seconds (imagine how many cable companies switchboards would have jammed after that!).

What interests me about this continued speculation and attempts for confirmation is not what the “right answer” might be (although I admit that I’d naturally rather be right about my interpretation than wrong), but how the search for authorial intent rubs up against some people’s celebration of the show’s ambiguity. As I understand what many fans of the ending have claimed, the beauty of the final moment is by cutting it off before anything of significance happens, Chase makes everything significant through its open-ended possibilities. But what if that’s not what Chase was trying to do? What if he was trying to clearly convey Tony’s death, albeit with oblique and subtle cues? What if his intent suggests that it’s wrong to imagine “life goes on” as the show’s final message?

I have a mixed mind when it comes to the role of authorial intent. I don’t think the meaning of a text is foreclosed by what creators intend, nor by what they say about their creative goals (which can be different from actual intents) – if meaning can be found in a text through a reasonable interpretation & analysis, then I think that’s a legitimate way to look at it even if it’s not the intended meaning. However, intention (both actual and assumed) matters in framing our interpretations, comprehension, and appreciation – an understanding of a text that matches what the creator intended (or seems to intend) feels much more justified and satisfying than reading against the grain (or at least it does for me). Especially in a piece of art that we respect and admire, we want to feel that direct communion with the creator that “getting it” entails – and this sense of understanding is even more important when facing questions of comprehension (what happened?) over interpretation (what did it mean?).

So what happens to all the people proclaiming Chase’s genius for ambiguity and uncertainly if he says that Tony died? Do they turn on the artist for dispelling his own myth? Do they reject the intent as irrelevant to the ambiguity they embrace? Or does the finale’s value diminish in light of what it was meant to mean? Stay tuned, as the show keeps on going…

7 Responses to “Ambiguity versus intention: The Sopranos keeps going”

  1. Good questions here, Jason, about authorial intent. The Times article very much challenged my own certainty that Tony lives. I think we have to take Chase at his word that he intended a very specific ending for the show and that his intent matters.

    But in terms of your final questions, I don’t think “Chase’s genius for ambiguity” and a precise event taking place at the show’s conclusion (whether Tony lives or dies) are mutually exclusive. The event itself may be concrete, but the ambiguity lies in how we read it (no matter whether Tony lives or dies, the meaning of the final act is open to interpretation–why the Journey song!?!). I may be misreading your questions, but I would argue that Chase’s “ambiguity” is located elsewhere, even while I’m willing to acknowledge that what happens in the final shot remains open to debate.

  2. Chuck – thanks for the comment. I agree that there’s ambiguity for interpretation of what the events might mean, but the ambiguity I’ve seen celebrated by critics/commenters this past week is more about the events themselves (referencing the Journey b-side “Any Way You Want It”). I’ve seen many comments saying, “if you want Tony to live, you’ve got it; you want him to die, fine – Chase let’s you decide.” But what if he didn’t want us to decide, but rather dig a little deeply to realize that he was signifying Tony’s death in a subtle manner? Then the “you decide” camp is a “misreading” (at least based on intent). So can you attribute genius against his will?

  3. 3 Cole Moore Odell

    If Chase as much as admits his intentions were to kill Tony, what else can I say but “whoops”? It wouldn’t be the first thing I’ve misinterpreted. (Excuse me while I kiss this guy.)

    Assuming Tony’s been assassinated, it’s still a smart, fitting ending, in that he is distracted by one of his families to be killed by another, exploding the central tension that has driven the whole series–and he finally gets to fulfill his romantic longings for the imagined old days of the mob by re-enacting a scene straight out of The Godfather…but of course he can’t know it. Even then he’s not face down in a plate of linguini but a basket of onion rings.

    One of the best things I’ve read this week in relation to the Sopranos finale was the Orson Welles quote: “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

  4. 4 shaunhuston

    This is an interesting issue and I agree that an author’s intent is never irrelevant, if for no other reason than we are all always intrigued by the question and there is, as you note, a certain pleasure in “getting it.” I also like the distinction between intent and creative goals, and I would add to it creative execution or expression. Regardless of what David Chase’s goals were with the ending and what he intended it to communicate to the audience, his means of giving expression to those goals and executing his intent is one that lends itself to a variety of alternate interpretations. To me, the knowledge that Chase wanted the moment of black to extend for 30 seconds only underscores this point – it isn’t at all clear to me why an additional 20 seconds of black would have signified death any more clearly than 10 seconds (or maybe I didn’t read the NYT article carefully enough). While there may not be value in reading a text against the grain just to do it, or in direct contradiction to an author’s intent, I do think that author’s/artists can and do make choices that encourage readings that maybe contrary to their own. And, of course, sometimes this encouragement is part of an author’s intent, and sometimes it isn’t. In the latter case, it seems like a fair question to ask is whether the author “failed” or “succeeded” in achieving their goals and conveying their intent. Perhaps failure is an unwitting invitation for others to find their own meaning in a text because the intended meaning is obscured or lost in translation.

  5. 5 elpanek

    If the pleasure of interpreting art comes from “communing” with someone, perhaps that someone can just as easily be another fan or critic. I’m not sure if Ford intended all that the legions of film theorists have found in The Searchers, but I’m willing to bet that if critics and fans can find enough validation from other people (and lord knows the internet supplies plenty of that), then maybe that can outweigh claims of authorial intent. Once a large group of people agree that a text means something, it doesn’t matter what the author says. And let’s not forget, claims of authorial intent are just claims – couldn’t the author just be screwing with us when he tells us what the work means? Or maybe we’re aware of a subconscious desire the author has inscribed in his work that he isn’t aware of. Like you, I’m conflicted by it – authorial intent matters, and yet it seems increasingly unknowable.

  6. 6 paullev

    You’re absolutely right that The Sopranos is going on and on, and that’s testament that Chase’s ending is working … The Sopranos and the Closure Junkies

  1. 1 Iso kasa Sopranos-luettavaa » A Heartbreaking Blog of Staggering Genius » Blog Archive

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