There are two questions that you can ask about the finale of the Sopranos: What â€œreallyâ€ happened and What does it mean? Most of the debate seems to be over what really happened, and specifically, whether the screen went blank because Tony was â€œwhacked.â€ The latter theory has gained a lot of currency lately, fueled by a comment made by David Chase. Chase has said that he had a definite ending in mind. When asked about Bobby Bacala’s line from an earlier episode that â€œyou probably donâ€™t even hear it when it happens, right,â€ Chase said that this was a legitimate hint that that “anyone who wants to watch it, it’s all there.”
I’m here to tell you that â€œwhat really happenedâ€ is the wrong question to ask. In fact, it’s a rather meaningless question, the realization of which leads to understanding the meaning of the finale.
Let’s start with a few simple observations that may appear overly obvious but which seem to get ignored anyway. Because the Sopranos is a work of fiction, the entire existence of its characters (including Tony) begins and ends in the filmed episodes. If it’s not in an episode, it didn’t happen, it doesn’t exist. That, by the way, is the entire meaning of Chase’s comment that â€œit’s all there.â€ Of course it’s all there, because if it’s not there, where would be it? In other words, if it’s not there, it didn’t happen.
So the question â€œwhat really happenedâ€ is a stupid question. Anybody who watched the episode knows what happened. It’s all there. So if you want to know why the screen went blank, the real question is what does it mean, or more accurately, when idea was Chase trying to convey by making the screen go blank suddenly.
â€œDid the screen go blank because Tony was whackedâ€ is a â€œwhat happenedâ€ question, and as such, it is easily answered. Tony did not get whacked. How do I know? Because I watched the episode and I didn’t see him get whacked. In fact, if you watch the ending closely, the very last frame is a direct â€œportraitâ€ shot of Tony. No bullet piercing his skull, which pretty much forecloses the theory that the screen went blank because Tony was shot. After all, the bullet would first have to enter Tony’s head before he lost consciousness. Sure, from Tony’s perspective he might not realize what was happening, but the last scene was not from Tony’s perspective. Tony was bodily intact when the show ended, ergo he was not shot.
The little lawyer inside your head is probably saying â€œok, O’Neill, stop splitting hairs. The question is whether the screen going blank was supposed to convey the idea of Tony getting shotâ€ or something to that effect. The answer is that I’m not the one splitting hairs. What is the â€œideaâ€ or â€œsymbolismâ€ of Tony getting shot, if not just another way of saying that â€œwhat really happenedâ€ is that Tony was shot and the screen went blank?
In any case, I’m not trying to win an argument, just to let you know what the real meaning of the ending was. So just bear with me, and we can re-visit that question later, if need be.
What I’m about to tell you is painfully obvious, once you get it. So obvious, in fact, that you might dismiss it as just that â€“ too simple â€“ to be taken seriously. Trust me, however, the more you think about it, the more you will be convinced that this is the only possible meaning to the last Sopranos episode.
You know that feeling you have when you finish a really good book, one with strong characters and an engrossing story? There’s a feeling of loss, an emptiness. One minute we’re all in the middle of the lives of those characters, and the next â€“ gone. Nothing. It doesn’t really depend on the ending itself, just the fact that it ended.
As a writer, Chase would be deeply interested, fascinated, maybe even obsessed, with the creative process. It only stands to reason that he has thought a lot about the show ending. I don’t mean the â€œendingâ€ in the sense of a particular storyline, but just in the fact that nothing lasts forever. The show would end, just like a book ends. And like a reader finishing a book, the audience would feel a loss, an emptiness when the show ended.
At some point Chase realized that a book does not â€œend.â€ A book simply exists. The reader passes through the book, from its beginning to its end, but the book remains unchanged â€“ it is the reader who has changed. It is the reader who leaves the book behind, not vice versa. But for the writer it is different. A writer does end his work. The book ends, or in this case, the series ends, when the writer stops creating it.
So this is what Chase was trying to convey in the series finale. It was, literally, about the show ending. Except that the show, like a book, does not really end. So more accurately, it was about Chase not creating the show any longer. Thus, when Bobby Bacala said â€œyou probably donâ€™t even hear it when it happens,â€ it was a foreshadowing of how the show would end. And when Tony’s lawyer said to Tony that it was not like we didn’t see this day coming, he was talking about the ending of the show. We all know that nothing last forever, not even the Sopranos. Do we really need a lawyer to tell us this?
The â€œnon endingâ€ ending simply represents the fact that it’s not the show that ends. We finish passing through it, we leave the show behind, not vice versa. The show is still there, you can go back and watch it all you want, and soon enough it will be available on DVD. What did end, however, is Chase’s creation of the show. Why did the show end by going blank? Because that’s the way Chase, its creator made it. It was his way of saying â€œI’m done.â€ The show remains, he left it to us, but he’s gone. It’s as if Chase whacked himself.
P. S. There has been a lot of speculation about symbolism in the last scene in the diner. It reminds me of all the â€œPaul is deadâ€ speculation of the late 60s. Despite all the compelling â€œevidence,â€ Paul was not dead. It just goes to show that you can take symbolism and interpretation a bit too far. Having said that, I am going to add what I think is an original observation. In the diner, Tony ordered onion rings for the table. Watch how Tony, Carmela and A.J. each put the onion rings in their mouths â€“ it looks just like receiving communion at church. Why are these three receiving communion and not Meadow? We had just learned that she was picking up her new birth control prescription and thus was ineligible to receive communion. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that Chase intended this.
What did he mean by it? Oh, I don’t know, you’ll just have to ask him.