It Doesn't Matter Whether Tony is Dead or Alive, and Stop Asking

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It Doesn't Matter Whether Tony Soprano is Dead or Alive, and Stop Asking

By Corey Atad | Think Pieces | August 28, 2014 | Comments ()


I haven’t watched The Sopranos. More accurately, I’ve only watched the first six episodes of the first season of The Sopranos. I’ve also watched the last scene of The Sopranos finale several times in various contexts. You might say I’ve been spoiled. The magic, though, is that the ambiguous ending of the series has only made me more eager to fill in my shameful blind spot. Ambiguity is a quality sorely lacking in television, and it’s one of the things that makes so-called “prestige” television truly worthy of the label. The best series — the ones that can be held up as truly great works — are the ones that embrace ambiguity and complexity, and care more about character and theme than plot. When people constantly ask David Chase whether Tony Soprano is dead or alive, they shit all over what made it a great show in the first place.

Tony Soprano is not dead. He’s also not alive. He’s a fictional character. His story as we know it begins in the first episode of The Sopranos and ends with that enigmatic final scene. Those are the bounds within which the character exists and those alone. That’s David Chase’s intention, and more importantly, it’s true of most any complete story. What we get is what we get. The answer to the question of Tony’s fate is irrelevant to what works about the series or its ending, and I don’t need to have seen all 86 episodes to know that.

Plot is the thing that TV needs to escape. It can’t, not completely, but insofar as plot can become a lesser motivating factor, TV’s status as the great artistic medium will expand. Unfortunately, at the moment, even with many series reaching beyond simple narrative satisfaction, audiences are not yet trained to fully accept the idea. We still live in the “Who Shot J.R.?” mindset, where every important question is a matter of plot, and every plot requires clear resolution.

Some shows have clearly suffered for ignoring this sort of conventionality. Lost ended with a pretty clear resolution, maudlin and ham-fisted as it may have been, but it left plenty of questions open. Despite what Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse may claim, I do believe most of the mysteries of the show were thought up on the spot, and with little consideration for their explanations. It was a haphazard way to construct a series so built on mystery, but then the ultimate interest of the series — namely the redemption of its broken characters — meant those narrative resolutions bore little relevance to its greatness. If anything has impeded Lindelof’s new series, The Leftovers, it’s not the mystery of why and to where all those people vanished, but why we should care about any of the characters left behind.

It’s fun to delve into mysteries and allusions and all the intricacies of plot in a TV series. Even Mad Men has inspired plenty of contemplation and prediction over where its story might be headed. The thing about Mad Men, though, is that the narrative only matters to the degree that it elucidates the themes the show is working with. People have complained that the series is often boring, or repetitive, or that nothing happens and nothing changes. It’s almost too simple to say, “but that’s the point!” … But that’s the point! It’s a series about the cyclicality of human behaviour, self-destruction and self-improvement. Every time the story treads familiar ground it manages to say something new, or at least reveal new facets of what we already knew. That’s valuable, and it’s far more satisfying in the long run than whether or not the Manson Family will murder Megan — no matter how much fun it is to speculate on that possibility.

When Breaking Bad ended, it actually inspired the opposite complaint, which is in a way gratifying, if misplaced. Critics of the finale noted how clean and pat the episode was, and how it so neatly put a bow on what had been a show about spiraling chaos and the often messy attempts to contain that. To me, the cleanness of the plot is mitigated by the complexity of the character motivations, so it works stunningly overall. Looking back, though, on Breaking Bad and its final season, I do see other instances where Vince Gilligan and his team studiously avoid certain kinds of ambiguity, and not for the better.

In “Ozymandias,” Walt places a call to Skyler, knowing full well that the police are listening and purposely saying things to exonerate her as much as possible. The intention of the scene wasn’t too vague, but it also wasn’t completely spelled out, which led to some debate online. A week later, in the next episode, as though the writers had anticipated the debate, they had Walt explicitly state that he’d placed the call in order to help Skyler. I wish that scene wasn’t there. It’s a small thing, but cutting that explanation out would’ve left some wonderful ambiguity in Walt’s motivation, allowing the audience to fill in the gap for themselves.

For my money, the very best scene on TV this year was in the second season of The Americans. It was a brutal sex scene, bordering on rape, and it revealed the extent of the lead characters’ psychological scars. In real terms, the scene didn’t have much affect on plot, and yet it was maybe the most important thing that has happened on the series. The ambiguity of the scene makes it linger well past its immediate context. Another show might have made every part of it clearer, and many shows have in similar scenes, but that would’ve completely defeated the purpose, which was to explore sexuality in marriage. The ambiguity is key.

Did Tony Soprano die? Who cares? You shouldn’t. What matters is not what happens after the screen goes black, but what happens immediately before. What are the images that Chase leaves his audience with? What do they say on their own, and what do they say about the larger work they’re a part of? Those are the important questions, and the best part is, they don’t have straight answers. Chase leaves it up to us, the audience, to suss out our own feelings, ideas and interpretations. It’s wonderful that more television writers have embraced ambiguity. It’s time audiences did, too.

Corey Atad is a staff writer for Pajiba. He lives in Toronto.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • muscleman

    I loved the ending, I was afraid they would start doing movies, like "Sex and the City." Tony in Istanbul or one the kids is getting married. Thank God.

  • Dulce et Banana

    If he's both alive and not alive, that makes him Schrödinger's Mobster. Now I suppose we should develop a treatice about quantum entanglement meaning whacking one informant whacks them all.

  • 2dorky4u

    Perfectly said.

  • If Chase had ended the series without the "cut to black" but instead had Tony and his family eating a simple meal at the diner as Journey played on and then credits rolled, there'd have been no issue.

  • I agree that ambiguity is a good thing. I disagree that the ending of The Sopranos was in any way ambiguous. It has always seemed abundantly clear to me that Tony dies at the end. I get that not SEEING it is frustrating, but I don't get not GETTING that. I just don't get it.

  • JLVerde

    You can't really compare the ending of the Sopranos and the ending of Breaking Bad for one big reason.

    Walter White was marked for death from the beginning of the series (cancer, hello?) and Tony Soprano was not. Yes, Tony was in a dangerous business that probably would see him dead at an early age but it was less guaranteed than Walter with his terminal illness.

    So going into Breaking Bad, you have a very definitive beginning to the story. Walter gets his diagnosis and decides to embark on the story of how he became a criminal. We will see that storyline to whatever end (most likely death) and that will be that.

    With the Sopranos, we're dropped into an already existing tale (Tony was a criminal before we meet him) and we get a snippet of Tony Soprano's life. Like turning the dial on a radio and getting a random station. We'll listen until the signal fades, which may mean Tony dies or not.

    I like the open ending of the Sopranos. The bad guys don't always get punished and there are always loose ends.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I don't even have to read this to say: YES. Ambiguity. A little mystery is ok in life, people. Choose your own ending.

    now I shall read and enjoy.

    ETA: YES to everything in your second paragraph. That is exactly how I feel. I don't often find myself in line with your thinking, Cory, but that second paragraph is a basic argument I have made over and over again.

  • bleujayone

    So this has become the scientific paradox known as Schrödinger's Diner.

  • Todd Sikkema

    You beat me to it. Schrodinger's cat is smiling somewhere. Or not.

  • pluiedenovembre

    I honestly don't understand this obsession, I thought the ending of The Sopranos was perfect.

  • logan

    I also thought it ended some time ago and this was all old news.

  • Dove of Doom

    There's only one correct interpretation of any work of art, and any discussion of said art should be devoted to proving that those with opposing viewpoints are definitively wrong and making them feel bad about how wrong they are. Your subtlety, ambiguity, and subjective experience of the art in question are false. My obstinacy, sanctimony, and unerring logic are all the truth we need.

  • logan

    I never asked!

  • Nice post. To me, The Sopranos ending remains the most brilliant and frustrating series finale in TV history. I love the end scene as a social experiment. Beyond clever. Watching live, I thought my cable crapped out and fumbled for the phone before the credits rolled. It was like nothing else before or since, and the choice ensured generations of debate. Respek.

    But when the final scene of your magnum opus is a choose-your-own-adventure blackout, I think it fails the storytelling test. And ultimately, Chase is telling a story. No one tuned in to write their own conclusion to a moment that large. If Chase as a creator chooses to end his landmark series with the main character's potential assassination, then he needed to follow through one way or another. Ambiguity is fantastic in television, and I do enjoy when shows treat audiences like adults. But leaving something as huge as Tony's death on the table robbed audiences of a moment they earned, IMO.

  • I've got a brother who feels exactly the way you do. As he says, "if I gotta build my own ending, I'm adding robots and dragons to your modern American drama."

    To me, it's all a question of how you've built your story. If you're making Twin Peaks -- built on POVs and dreamscapes and ambiguity -- you get to be all ambiguous. If you're making The Sopranos -- a concrete in our real world drama -- you don't.

  • NateMan

    I mostly agree with you on this one. I think stories with ambiguous endings can work well when done properly. I'm also a fan of the clean ending to a story, where you might not be happy with what happened but at least you understand it. That's classic for a reason. People like clear endings. Hell, I think that's why the Bible stories end with the Apocalypse. Bad people get punished, Jesus comes back, all the good people go to Heaven. The End.

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