In this modern ‘golden era’ of television, thanks to the likes of Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, it feels like the humble TV show is now reaching new levels in terms of quality and magnitude.
In this writer’s eyes however, it is still David Chase’s mob masterpiece, The Sopranos, that is quite simply the greatest television show ever made. Nine years after its famous finale, it remains peerless and is now the yardstick by which all other shows are measured.
When it came to The Sopranos there was no weak link. The writing, the cast and the characters were all second to none. Together, writer David Chase and the late great James Gandolfini, gave us a character for the ages. A character whose world we entered for eight years, and whilst we might not have wanted to live in it ourselves, it was certainly one that we could not take our eyes off.
However, there is one aspect of the show that has caused more discussion, speculation and confusion than any other – the ending.
In the years since, the now infamous final scene has caused debate upon debate. What was it really all about? And of course, just what was the fate of Tony Soprano?
At first, I was as confused and unsure as most. I initially presumed Tony had died when the screen went black, but I was quite comfortable with the ambiguity and the fact it left much up to our own interpretation. If we didn’t want to think Tony had died, there was nothing really to tell us that he had. As Journey said themselves, “the movie never ends, it goes on and on”.
The sceptical and cynical part of me even wondered if they had left it open for a return and possible seventh series somewhere down the road
However, after going back recently and re-watching the whole series again with knowing eyes, and after reading a whole host of various articles and theories*, there is now no doubt in my mind that Tony died in that final scene.
The principle clue comes in the final scene of the penultimate episode, when Tony recalls a conversation with Bobby Baccalieri about what happens when you die. Bobby’s simple, yet haunting riposte’…..“You probably don’t even hear it when it happens”.
For the final scene, Chase wanted to place Tony somewhere he was more than comfortable. Somewhere where could really relax after finally doing away with rival boss, Phil Leotardo. A good old-fashioned American diner. Decorated with football memorabilia, and surrounded by couples in love, Boy Scout troops and patriotic old men. True Americana.
Such was Tony’s contentment in this environment, he negligently places himself slap bang in the middle of the restaurant, inadvertently making himself a sitting duck. The single shot of Tony sitting alone in the middle of the room, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod to the Last Supper.
Such is his instinctive wariness however, he naturally sat facing the door and with each chime of the doorbell, we see things from Tony’s point of view. As each new customer enters, the bell draws them to Tony’s attention. It’s a clockwork routine that Chase significantly maintains throughout the scene. Sometimes it’s a Soprano family member, sometimes it’s not.
As Tony selects Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” on the jukebox, the door chime rings and Carmella is the first Soprano in the door. The tempo of the song perfectly suits the busy environment.
Fittingly, the opening lines of the song serve as a metaphor for the King & Queen of the New Jersey mob set. Carmela, the “Small town girl livin' in a lonely world", and Tony, "A city boy, born and raised in south Detroit" (well, not quite, but they conveniently speak over that second bit!). Together, "they took the midnight train goin' anywhere".
It was a theory confirmed by David Chase himself in a recent interview. Chase felt that Tony, along with a willing Carmela, took the “midnight train” a long time ago and that the “midnight train” naturally heads into the darkness.
After Carmela, a couple more chimes signal further entrants, before AJ makes his arrival. Crucially however, AJ does not enter alone. AJ follows a stranger in a ‘Members Only’ jacket through the door and it is he who is the significant entry here. It seems likely that the arrival of AJ distracted Tony from the entrance of his probable assailant.
After taking a seat at the counter, we are shown the ‘Members Only’ guy taking a sly glace in Tony’s direction. We are then purposely shown him make his way to the bathroom directly to Tony’s right hand side – the perfect vantage point to take out his target. Given that The Sopranos and The Godfather will forever be compared and connected, there’s an aptness in Tony’s final moments serving as a homage to Michael Corleone’s most famous hit.
Again the bell chimes and once more raises Tony’s attention, yet rather than signifying Meadow’s arrival, just more random diners. By this point though, each chime is starting to build the tension just that little bit more.
Outside the diner, Meadow has now arrived, but is struggling to park her car and is late to the meal. As the music starts reaching its crescendo, and Meadow continues to struggle, we as viewers are now on edge. We know something isn’t quite right here; we’re just not sure what.
It is this seemingly innocuous lateness that proves pivotal. If Meadow had arrived on time, the only seat left at the table was to her father’s right, directly blocking the hitman’s access to Tony. Significantly, given that mob law dictates that the families are to be untouched during any kind of hit, Meadow’s arrival on time could well have saved her father’s life.
When Meadow finally manages to park the car and dash to the diner, her arrival is then signified by the bell, and like clockwork, Tony looks up. Yet rather than see Meadow arrive, the music abruptly stops and the screen goes black - this is because it’s the last thing Tony sees or hears. Tony is executed the moment Meadow walks in the door.
As Bobby said, “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens”.
As a mob boss, Tony Soprano played God. He had the power to give and take away life in a heartbeat. It should come as no surprise that his life was taken from him in the same blinking of an eye.
We, like Tony, always knew what fate was likely to eventually fall his way. He always had it coming - but that doesn’t mean that we want to him have his brains blown out in the last ever scene. Chase was acutely aware that this would leave a bad taste after so much time and emotion invested in a character, so he let us figure it out for ourselves.
One of the beautiful things about The Sopranos is that it always treated the audience with respect. Such was the quality of the writing, it didn’t always give you every tiny detail, it gave you the main points and then let you join the dots yourself. So why would its ending be any different?!?
We didn’t need to see Tony get whacked, the clues were all there and Chase left it up to us to fill in the blanks. Literally.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Tony was killed in the diner in the last ever episode – I’m just pleased we weren’t there to see it.
Tony Soprano. Rest in Peace.
*There is a thesis published online entitled ‘The End’ based solely on the final episode. It breaks the whole last scene down shot by shot. The author(s) is seemingly uncredited but is a truly astonishing piece of work and is highly recommended for further reading on this topic.