The redemption of The Sopranos ending


Hopefully this will be my last Sopranos post, or at least until I actually watch season 6. But I’ve been thinking more about the final scene in the context of intentionality and narration. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume that David Chase intended to portray the death of Tony Soprano, choosing to do it via the unconventional method of the blackout cut to end the series. (I’m not suggesting that this is the definitive meaning, just the one I’m choosing to embrace…)

The more I think about it, the more I like this strategy for conveying Tony’s death. Assuming that Chase wanted to end the series with Tony dying, he was faced with some serious problems as to how best to show this. One of the main challenges of the series is that its moments of brutality have been received by many fans as moments of glory – Ralphie’s decapitation being exemplary. For many fans, The Sopranos has functioned as an extended action movie, focusing on the moments of bada bing rather than the moral ambiguities that seem to be more central to some (such as, me). I think Chase has catered/pandered to this constituency a bit much, and it seems that Phil’s gruesome death earlier in the finale fit this pattern.

So how best to represent the big whack? Thankfully Chase didn’t follow through on the gruesome trend and have Tony end up as a Satriale’s sausage. Instead, he avoided showing any violence or evidence of brutality (at least literally). What if we’d seen Tony’s body? What type of emotions would that have wrought? For some, moral superiority – he got what was coming to him. For others, grief – he was a good guy at heart. Even more, what about Carm & the kids? Would we feel pathos for them, or see them in complicit by living off the fruits of his crimes? All of these emotional reactions pose problems for continuing the themes of the shows – we need to feel ambiguity about this death, as the show trafficked in the uncertainty as to how we should relate to the big guy. How do you make people feel ambiguous about killing a character whom we know so intimately and find so uncomfortably charismatic?

Thus Chase’s brilliant choice was making the final shot narratively ambiguous enough that we do not feel any emotional reaction to Tony’s death – we don’t even know that it happened! For those of us who have come around to thinking that Tony was killed, we’ve invested enough intellectual energies into comprehending what happened that we don’t feel the visceral emotional impact of the death. We arrive at the realization of his death at enough of a remove that we’re not emotionally tied up in the storyworld, we’re not in the diner with the family, we don’t feel the moment of loss. We’ve already had a moment of mourning, but it’s grief over the loss of the show, not the character. Viewers experience the The Sopranos (the series itself as an object of affection) as less morally ambiguous than the character of Tony, and thus we can feel grief and loss over the end of the series without being either complicit or moralistically superior toward Tony’s crimes.

The abrupt cutting-off of the series and Tony’s life distances us from the storyworld by plunging us into the level of narration, and it is there that we grieve: we deny the ending by blaming it on the cable company; we grow angry at Chase for messing with our heads; we bargain by seeking out clues and rational explanations; we become depressed that there’s no clear answer forthcoming; we accept the inevitable that the series has ended and life (and television) must go on. Our emotions are focused at the level of Chase and storytelling, not Tony and his story. This is Chase’s ultimate victory, as he’s managed to kill off his hero without allowing the audience to fall into any conventional emotional traps, but still create a visceral and engaged emotional reaction to the finale.

For me, Tony is dead. I’ve come to terms and am ready to move on.

5 Responses to “The redemption of The Sopranos ending”

  1. 1 shaunhuston

    One nagging question I have about the “Tony is killed” explanation for the ending is who had it done and why? One can presume that the “Man in Members Only Jacket” was not acting independently or that Tony was somehow killed in the commission of a crime unrelated to his business and lifestyle (or, for that matter, of natural causes). Earlier in the episode, Phil is essentially sold out by his own family, at least that’s how I interpret the meeting with Butch et al. Not only does Butch meet with Tony in direct opposition to orders from Phil (he was told “no” when he suggested reaching out, but did it anyways), he acknowledges that Tony needs to do what he needs to do re: Phil. All Butchie really does to stand by Phil is refuse to point Tony in the right direction. Someone in Tony’s own family? The most likely candidate, Christopher, is already dead. One can spin scenarios whereby Paulie does it, but I think you would have to fill in a lot of blanks, particularly given suggestions that he isn’t really up for that kind of hard violence in the same way that, say, Silvio is/was. Notably, Bob Harris’ deconstruction of the final scene, while obsessively detailed, does not even address the who or why question except to presume that “Man in Members Only Jacket” did it. Candidates other than “MiMOJ” as the actual killer seem thin at best if they exist at all. Narratively, once Phil is out of the picture and seemingly losing the ability to control his own people, it is difficult to come up with viable suspects. Perhaps the best explanation would be that “MiMOJ” is a loose end from the war with Phil. I am left wondering why David Chase would, arguably, go to such great lengths to foreshadow and signify Tony’s being killed and not provide a clear narrative line to that eventuality.

  2. 2 shaunhuston

    BTW, I do appreciate that you are presenting “Tony is killed” as a choice that can be attached to the ending and not as a definitive reading (which makes your interpretation different from Bob Harris’, for example). I also appreciate that you are arguing that Chase’s purpose here, for the sake of argument, is to distance viewers from the storyworld of the show, while relocating them at the level of narrative itself, thereby generating a range of emotions related to the “death” of the show rather than the character(s). Still, if I had doubts about the (underlying) who and why, even if I was confident that I “knew” who actually pulled the trigger (or whatever), I would gain less satisfaction, closure, etc. from the idea that the cut to black was intended as a means of signifying Tony’s have been killed.

  3. Shaun – thanks for the comments. I’m a bit out of my depths in terms of figuring out the “who & why” without having watched the full 6th season. But here’s a potential theory: it doesn’t matter, because Tony is a sitting duck target given his powerful position and litany of enemies. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick eloquently put it, Tony’s inhabits “a world filled with unlocalizable menace, in which every moment could well be the last… [and] you don’t hear the bullet that gets you, but that if you think it’s coming, you hear it everywhere.” So the who & why seems secondary to me: our story’s over once Tony gets it, and the who & why is the beginning of a new story – a new boss, new war, new regime. There are probably a dozen people who might want to put a hit out on Tony, so I’m content to ascribe the hit to unlocalizable menace and let it rest at that. (Again, maybe I’ll see things differently in the context of the full season…)

  4. 4 shaunhuston

    Yeah – the unlocalizable, persistent threat is a reasonable thesis, and certainly consistent with the mob genre. Whether the whole of season 6 undermines, supports, or is indifferent to the argument I’ll leave to you to judge (and I apologize if I gave away too much information; I had developed the impression that you had gone back to watch the whole of the final episode and not just the last 5 minutes). However, as I think back on the whole run of the series, I come up with few moments when Tony is truly occupied with the question of his physical survival or safety. He spends much more effort avoiding being pinched by the Feds. Maybe there’s a gangster code issue here – better to die than get turned into a rat – or some such thing that leads him to accept that risk while worrying about the less lethal prospect of being arrested and sent to prison. In any event, I’m beginning to feel as if I should just be blogging about this myself instead of drafting off of your writing. Alas, I have become a poor excuse for a blogger this year.

  5. 5 Ryan

    As someone who took the opposite assumption, or choice, to yours (Tony isn’t killed), I really liked your theory. Given that there is definite ambiguity in the ending, (if we say Tony got killed) I would say I agree with you completely – I think Chase had little choice to end it without actually showing Tony’s death.
    Showing it would negate much of what he created, namely Tony: a deeply flawed individual whom we somehow, uncomfortably, sympathize with. Showing his death, would negate this by its finality for viewers no matter how they felt about Tony. He was a bastard, he got what he deserved, he was a good guy he didn’t deserve to be murdered in front of his family. Either way, showing him die would only serve to reinforce which way you leaned.
    The flip side to all this, and what I came away thinking, was that Tony wasn’t killed. That an essentially mundane scene was charged with such tension. A red neck walks in , tension, a blue collar guy walks in, tension, a couple of black guys walk in, tension…Tony looks up and on guard every time someone walks in. A reference to Godfather one, guy walks into the toilet, a reference to Godfather III daughter possibly killed, tension – but what was it really? A completely innocuous situation in which we may choose to invest meaning in. And for that scene we are Tony, suspecting danger everywhere – and when it cuts to black, well we are us and that is Tony’s life – or, perhaps, death.

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