That Infamous, Fabulous Sopranos Ending / "There Are No Cookies for Figuring Things Out"
I watched a couple of years of The Sopranos long ago, before trailing off at some point. When the series ended, there was really no way to avoid hearing all the talk about the finale, so I had a general idea of how the series ended, but I'd never actually seen it with my own eyes. Catching up on all the years of the show I'd missed, in order to get the full meaning of the ending, just seemed like a heavy lift.
But for some reason, out of the blue the other day, it occurred to me that I could just watch the last episode, and that's it--and so I did, and have finally caught on to why everyone wanted to talk about this so much. As with many things, I finally get it--just sixteen years later and without about 98% of the context.
So the scene itself is lovely and fascinating and you can absolutely be part of the conversation without watching years of The Sopranos, if you don't want to. You can watch the last episode on its own or, if you want, you can watch just the last scene, which is the one everyone talks about. It's fantastic.
Almost as rewarding is this companion piece: a conversation in Vulture between Matt Zoller-Seitz and Alan Sepinwall, two journalists who wrote for the Star Ledger, the newspaper Tony Soprano used to pick up at the end of his driveway in the show; who covered The Sopranos as it aired; and who ended up writing a book about the series.
Anyway, the clip and the conversation both got me thinking a lot about endings, certainty, uncertainty, and our appetite for resolution, and how sometimes, knowing something one way or the other helps us settle a thing and put it aside, which feels good to us, at least briefly: ah, resolution, but also ignores all of the way more interesting questions that a piece of art might be asking. I had the conversation with a friend the next morning and she said "that ending makes it art instead of entertainment." The whole thing has shaken my brain awake about story endings, which of course are always the absolute hardest thing about a story. I'll always be a fan of work that trusts readers/viewers/consumers/audiences to take what they've been given and come to their own conclusions--or, if we go with Zoller-Seitz' point of view, to actually transcend the need to come to a single conclusion at all.
Zoller-Seitz: "If he’d said, “Yeah, I killed him,” I would’ve been deeply disappointed in Chase. Because it would’ve meant that he did the most obvious thing and then tried to hide it by making it seem as if he was creating an ambiguous or art-house type of ending. And I think I would have been equally disappointed if he’d said, “Tony is alive.” And that’s because I like not knowing, and to me, everything about this ending says, “You’re not supposed to know, you’re supposed to live in the not-knowing.”
A lot of characters live there and have to make peace with it. The loved ones who lost people to “witness protection” or because they “ran away” suspect they were murdered but can’t prove it, even though we viewers saw it happen.
This ending puts us in their shoes. We make up stories to reassure ourselves that we have control over life, and we really don’t. I’m reminded of that moment in “D-Girl” where Dr. Melfi summarizes existentialism for Tony. “When some people first realize that they’re solely responsible for their decisions, actions, and beliefs, and that death lies at the end of every road, they can be overcome with intense dread … a dull, aching anger that leads them to conclude that the only absolute truth is death.” I think the insistence on “proving” that Tony died is a means of reasserting control over the show, and over the life of the person doing the proving. Death is the only absolute truth for everyone, and if you read that ending simply as “he died,” you can wash your hands and walk away from it and not have to think about anything else that might be raised in that scene.
This is a show about either accepting that you’re not in control of anything, or making a conscious decision to deny that. The idea of presenting the ending as a thing that can be mastered and explained is philosophically the opposite of everything that led us to that point.
I know this is a minority reaction, but I like being baffled or challenged or frustrated by art. I like having to make a case for a particular interpretation or just throw my hands up. It’s fun for me. What I don’t like is any kind of conversation that seems to be leading toward, “He’s dead, end of discussion.” Because that should not be the end of the discussion when you’re talking about a show like this one, a show about psychology, development, morality, and all these other deep and tangled subjects.
The way the ending teases audiences by seeming very definite while denying us answers and closure makes it the ultimate Sopranos moment. And it throws all the other things we’ve been discussing, here and throughout this book, into sharper relief. Because it’s taking the question of whether Tony lived or died off the table."