[Spoiler alert: if you have not watched the show, stop reading and go watch it.]
In an interview with David Chase, the Hollywood Reporter reveals the truth of what happened to Tony Soprano in that much-derided (but excellent) series finale. As you will see, the revelation smells to me like sweet, sweet vindication:
The 2018 book The Sopranos Sessions was written by guys who wrote, at the time of the show, for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, the paper Tony always read, Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall. They interviewed you and asked you to talk about the June 10, 2007, series finale with of course, “Don’t Stop Believin’” and the famous cut to black. You said, “Well, I had that death scene in mind for years before.” A) Do you remember specifically when the ending first came to you? And, B) Was that a slip of the tongue?
Right. Was it?
I’m asking you.
Because the scene I had in my mind was not that scene. Nor did I think of cutting to black. I had a scene in which Tony comes back from a meeting in New York in his car. At the beginning of every show, he came from New York into New Jersey, and the last scene could be him coming from New Jersey back into New York for a meeting at which he was going to be killed.
And when did the alternative ending first occur to you? I’ve spoken with showrunners who said, “I knew at the beginning exactly how my show was going to end.” Or by season three or whatever. It sounds like when you were writing, you liked to stay six scripts ahead of where you were in the action.
Yeah. But I think I had this notion — I was driving on Ocean Park Boulevard near the airport and I saw a little restaurant. It was kind of like a shack that served breakfast. And for some reason I thought, “Tony should get it in a place like that.” Why? I don’t know. That was, like, two years before.
What did you make of the reaction to the finale? The whole episode was great, but people sort of fixated on …
Yeah, nobody said anything about the episode. No, it was all about the ending.
And was that annoying?
I had no idea it would cause that much — I mean, I forget what was going on in Iraq or someplace; London had been bombed! Nobody was talking about that; they were talking about The Sopranos. It was kind of incredible to me. But I had no idea it would be that much of an uproar. And was it annoying? What was annoying was how many people wanted to see Tony killed. That bothered me.
They wanted to see it. They wanted confirmation.
They wanted to know that Tony was killed. They wanted to see him go face-down in linguini, you know? And I just thought, “God, you watched this guy for seven years and I know he’s a criminal. But don’t tell me you don’t love him in some way, don’t tell me you’re not on his side in some way. And now you want to see him killed? You want justice done? You’re a criminal after watching this shit for seven years.” That bothered me, yeah.
In June 2007, I published a post titled The Sopranos Ending Was Good. This was not a very popular opinion on the Internet at the time. But if you know me, you know that I often reject the popular opinion in favor of things like being right, being vindicated by history . . . you know, that sort of thing. I noted at the time a character had talked about being murdered by saying: “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens.” And indeed, Tony heard nothing when he got whacked. Everything just went black.
But, as I explained at the time, this interpretation was derided as too . . . subtle for TV:
Finke’s rant has another angle, which I reject — that the interpretation can’t be right because it’s subtle, and according to Finke, TV producers are not allowed to do subtlety:
Nielsen TV-viewing data tell us that we don’t watch the tube raptly anymore, much less remember what goes on from week to week. Both are needed for such a subtle ending, if indeed subtlety was the intention, to resonate. Besides, The Sopranos was not a show that went on inside your head. It was a richly visual series whose most memorable moments were graphic and in your face and damn proud of it. Like Tony, it was defiant. This end was whimpering.
Even Ed Morrissey, whom I respect, appears to agree:
This shows clearly why the ending to the Sopranos finale was so unsatisfying. When telling a story, people expect a fairly clear conclusion. Giving them a series of teases, and very obvious teases, without supplying any kind of payoff at all not only wastes the time of the reader/viewer, it also insults them for caring about what happens.
Finke and her fellow complainers seem to have wanted to see a graphic, simple-to-understand ending — Tony’s brains splattered across the onion rings. I think that would have been a horrible, mundane ending. I think Chase should be allowed to do subtle foreshadowing on TV, and if Nikki Finke and the majority of people who watched the show don’t like it, that’s fine; some of us do.
I could be wrong about the details of the particular interpretation, but I’m more concerned with the bigger picture: is Finke right that the TV-viewing public can’t handle subtlety? It just wants simple, in-your-face storylines that everyone can understand — and if expectations are denied, we’re entitled to throw a fit?
That’s a recipe for crappy television (and movies). The best shows (and movies and books) make you think. They are subtle. If we go into a rage every time a show has an ending that isn’t immediately obvious, we’ll get easily digestible pap the next time around. And there’s already plenty of that.
When I read Chase saying of his viewers that “[t]hey wanted to see him go face-down in linguini” I could not help but think of my line: “Finke and her fellow complainers seem to have wanted to see a graphic, simple-to-understand ending — Tony’s brains splattered across the onion rings.” So you think I’m going to notice that and say nothing? Dream on.
Do I ever get tired of being right? If I do, I’ll be sure to let you know.
And by the way? In case being right about that wasn’t good enough? My conviction that viewers were able to handle nuance and subtlety and sophistication in their television shows? Well, guess what show premiered the very next year?