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.