The Sopranos (1999) ended on a shockingly ambiguous note that polarized fans. While some loved the poetic nature of the series’ closing scene, others found the dubious outcome unsatisfying after years of watching the show. Is Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) alive or dead? What really happened? Why build up all this tension to end on a grand note of nothingness?
The scene plays out slowly in real time, building to a climax that doesn’t come. Tony and Carmela (Edie Falco) are casually chatting, discussing dinner, while Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) is outside trying to parallel park. She finally gets the car in its spot, enters the diner, and the show instantly and unapologetically cuts to black, paired with complete silence.
The clip can’t be embedded, but the scene can be watched here for those unfamiliar with how the show ended.
Since the controversial finale aired in 2007, Sopranos creator David Chase has shed some light on why the series finale concluded the way it did. He still won’t confirm Tony’s fate, but insists it’s not really important. That wasn’t the thematic resonance he wanted the scene to produce.
Layered behind the duration of the scene is Journey’s classic 80s ballad “Don’t Stop Believing,” a sony Tony himself selects from the on-table jukebox. Chase says, “Tony’s flipping through the jukebox; it’s almost like the soundtrack of his life, because he sees various songs. No matter what song we picked, I wanted it to be a song that would have been from Tony’s high school years, or his youth. That’s what he would have played. When I wrote it, there were three songs in contention for this last song, and ‘Don’t Stop Believin” was the one that seemed to work the best. I think it’s a really good rock ‘n’ roll song. The music is very important to me in terms of the timing of the scene, the rhythm of the scene. The song dictates part of the pace. And having certain lyrics of the song, and certain instrumental flourishes happen in certain places, dictates what the cuts will be. I directed the scene to fit the song. The singing gets more and more strident and more invested as the song goes along. Musically it starts to build and build into something as it’s just about to release. And when you look at the scene, you get that feeling.”
The lyrics highlight moments within the scene. “She took the midnight train going anywhere” is heard as Carmela enters the diner. “Just a city boy” plays as the camera returns to Tony. Chase continues, “I felt that those two characters had taken the midnight train a long time ago. That is their life. It means that these people are looking for something inevitable. Something they couldn’t find. I mean, they didn’t become missionaries in Africa or go to college together or do anything like that. They took the midnight train going anywhere. And the midnight train, you know, is the dark train.”
Tension is raised by the fact Meadow is outside instead of with her family. The normalcy of the setting and actions adds to the build, as it keeps the viewer waiting for what will happen. Instead, it culminates into sudden darkness.
“I never considered the black a shot. I just thought that what we see is black… [T]he biggest feeling I was going for, honestly, was don’t stop believing,” Chase adds. “It was very simple and much more on the nose than people think. That’s what I wanted people to believe. That life ends and death comes, but don’t stop believing. There are attachments we make in life, even though it’s all going to come to an end, that are worth so much, and we’re so lucky to have been able to experience them. Life is short. Either it ends here for Tony or some other time. But in spite of that, it’s really worth it. So don’t stop believing.”
As for the guy eyeing up Tony from the counter, Chase downplays it by saying it’s just another day in the life of Tony Soprano.
“I just wanted the guy to look over. I didn’t want him to look particularly menacing. And he glances off Tony so quickly. We worked on that quite a bit so he wasn’t staring at him. The guy was like looking around the place in general. Tony doesn’t acknowledge that he sees him. Tony leads a very dangerous, suspicious life and he’s always on guard. But he’s in this old-fashioned American sweet shop with those round stools and the counter and the football hero pictures and Cub Scouts. Everything that should make him feel at ease, and yet there is a slight ill at ease feeling which we bring to it because we know who he is and what he’s done. And he can never be sure that any enemy is completely gone. He always has to have eyes behind his head.”
Though directing the final moments of one of television’s most successful and highly-regarded television through the lyrics of an overused Steve Perry song is an extremely unusual thing to do, it seems clear that’s what Chase was putting into motion. The uncertainty of life is a reality for everyone. The best a person can do is maintain hope that they’ll still be around tomorrow, whether they’re a gangster or a regular joe. We don’t all live in fear that we’ll be shot due to our ties to organized crime, but the promise of another day doesn’t exist for anyone. There’s an attempt to broaden Tony’s story and apply it to every person’s life. Whether it worked or not is a matter of personal taste.
Chase finds the message within the Journey lyrics more powerful than what befell Tony in those final moments, and may very well hold onto the knowledge of Tony’s true fate until his own life cuts to black.
But as Bobby Bacala (Steve Schirripa) says of death in the penultimate episode, “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens.” If that cut to black is from Tony’s point of view, as would be consistent with the scene’s structure of switching to Tony when someone enters the door, the casual unexpected nature of the finish is little more than realistic. Cutting our the music along with the imagery is indicative of pure death. Chase may not want to acknowledge it, but the general belief is that Tony’s lifestyle finally caught up with him.
For a longer read, a several thousand-word exegesis of the final Sopranos episode (which concludes Tony is indeed dead) can be found here, complete with multitudes of screenshots examining the minutiae of every frame.