This week, another online debate erupted among TV lovers about “The Sopranos” mysterious finale. Just when we thought we were out, they pull us back in.
Vox writer Martha P. Nochimson is claiming David Chase told her that Tony Soprano lived after the famous 2007 cut to black; “No he isn’t,” Chase reportedly said when she asked him if Tony is dead. Through his publicist, though, Chase quickly responded to the Vox piece: “There is a much larger context for that statement and as such, it is not true.”
“Not true.” Vox had a reveal; Chase erased it. Once again, “The Sopranos” finale has foiled a collective human need for closure, for a Dickensian-style denouement, for an answer to what really happens at the end of everything. As much as many “Sopranos” fans want see the ultimate fate of the show’s core family “pinned and wriggling on the wall,” as T.S. Eliot put it, with each character’s destiny told in fine detail, that knowledge continues to evade. We got an end without an ending. Seven years on, the iconic cut to black stubbornly remains a cut to black; the question remains the answer.
And, I would argue, that cut to black would remain a cut to black even if Chase’s statement about the Vox story had read thusly: “It is true, Tony Soprano and his family are still alive and thriving in New Jersey, and Carmela has not trimmed her nails.” Chase created the ending of his TV-altering opus, and he put it out there for our consumption. He let it go. At this point, his opinion about what might have gone down after the family sat at Holsten’s diner with Journey on the jukebox is only about as valid as your opinion and mine. The story ended on June 10, 2007, and, as Chase himself said the next day in a reluctant interview about the ending, “It’s all there.”
Executive producers have gotten into the habit of telling viewers what to think about their storylines, with Matthew Weiner and Shonda Rhimes spinning the material in the media after significant plot twists on their shows. But they’re just recappers, in a way. They’re post-game analysts.
I still feel the way I felt in the minutes after the screen went black on “The Sopranos,” as I sat writing anxiously for the front page of the Globe. With his finale, Chase was inviting us to fill in the blank, to decide for ourselves if Tony ought to pay for a life of murder and cruelty, or not. Do you believe Tony’s about to be killed for his sins? Do you think he’ll dodge punishment and retribution again? Do you still feel he can be redeemed? Are you willing to accept that you’ll never get an answer? Whatever you choose to believe reveals something about you and your own moral and religious makeup.
The series had challenged our moral codes all along, pushing us into sympathizing with a sociopath rather than giving us a clearer, more old-fashioned take on good and evil. That was one of the groundbreaking aspects of “The Sopranos,” the way it put viewers in an uncomfortable position. The ambiguous ending works along the same lines, with the black screen serving as a moral mirror of sorts.
But the afterlife of controversy and conjecture of that cut to black has been fascinating. Sometimes, the endings that stay with us the longest are the ones that refuse to offer a traditional sense of resolution. By leaving the story open to interpretation, Chase kept the conversation and the thinking about Tony alive. The end of “Lost,” with its forced, oblique answers, closed the door to some extent on further analysis of everything that came before it. But the ending of “The Sopranos” only continues to fire our imaginations about the show and keep us reaching for some kind of certainty.
I suspect there’s something provocative about a black screen, or a thoroughly unresolved plot, that extends beyond the borders of pop culture. We have a gnawing hunger to know what happens at the end of the big story, too — our own story. As humans, we spend significant amounts of time wondering about death, about what will become of us after the end. We build religious constructs in response to that great mystery, with themes of reincarnation and heaven and hell and resurrection. We work to find our own version of peace in the face of terminal ambiguity.
Perhaps “The Sopranos” finale pushes those same buttons. I think that’s what Chase was alluding to when, in his statement, he said this: “The final scene of ‘The Sopranos’ raises a spiritual question that has no right or wrong answer.” Can you accept and maybe even embrace the unknowable? Can you let the mystery be?