Few moments in television have been quite as controversial as the ending of the hit HBO series The Sopranos. The moment that brought this iconic series to an end has held so much real estate with viewers that we’re still talking about it more than 14 years after the finale originally aired, and more than eight years after the unfortunate death of the series star James Gandolfini. Rest in peace. Gandolfini’s performance as Tony Soprano deserves to go down as one of the greatest displays of acting to ever grace the small screen, and the surprising way in which the series ended only adds to the lore and legacy of this infamous antihero.
As a lifelong resident of New Jersey who grew up only a stone’s throw away from many of the filming locations for the show, I regret to say that I just recently watched The Sopranos in its entirety for the first time. It’s truly quite a different experience watching the show as a New Jerseyan, seeing locations in Newark and Lodi and Kearny that you’ve actually driven through, and remembering people from your childhood who vaguely remind you of “The King of Breadsticks” Feech La Manna. The series was everything I thought it’d be and so much more.
However, as I watched the final moments of the series, I had the same reaction that anyone who has seen the show had. I was confused as all hell. Did the HBO Max app suddenly stop working? Was there just a power outage? Was there some sort of glitch in the matrix that erased these final moments that I’ve been waiting six seasons to see? But, when the credits came on and I realized that that was the ending they intended, I nearly spit out my gabagool in anger and defiance.
Major spoiler alert: If you’ve never seen The Sopranos, get on that. If you’ve seen the series but you’re having trouble remembering the ending, here’s how it went:
The Final Moments
The series ends with Tony sitting in a restaurant called Holsten’s by himself, flipping through the jukebox and then ultimately deciding on Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ (an iconic song to end an iconic series). From there, several people walk through the door of the restaurant, the first of which is a curly-haired woman who looks vaguely like Janice. Next, a guy in a “USA” hat and a vest walks in who looks like he could either be an assassin or just a humble farmer looking to wet his whistle after a long day at work.
Carmela walks in next and sits down with Tony, and it’s pretty clear that the two of them aren’t in much of a talkative mood. A boy scout troop sits down behind them. The guy in the “USA” hat is drinking coffee. Tony and Carmela scan the menu in silence. At this point, the scene has a sort of calm-before-the-storm ambiance, such that the audience is thinking, Alright, when’s Tony going to get popped?
Next, a dark-haired man walks in just in front of AJ and seems to look in Tony’s direction. Now, the audience is thinking, That’s the guy. He’s got a Beretta in his jacket pocket and he’s going to put a bullet in Tony’s head any moment. But, AJ sits down with his parents and starts scanning the menu. The mysterious dark-haired man looks over in the direction of the Soprano family while tapping his hands nervously.
The scene then cuts to Meadow in her Lexus trying to parallel park outside but failing several times in a row. At this point, the suspense is built to the point where I almost can’t take it. Is Meadow going to be late and walk in to see her whole family slain in the booth? Will she see Tony’s attacker and tackle him to the ground at the critical moment? The Sopranos get their colas on ice. The dark-haired guy looks over suspiciously again. AJ surprisingly says some optimistic stuff. Meadow is still outside trying to park.
Then, the dark-haired guy gets up and starts walking in Tony’s direction. This is it. Barrel to Tony’s head and it’s all over. But no, he just walks past their booth and goes into the men’s room. If you’ve seen The Godfather, you know that he might be stashing the murder weapon in there. Two more guys walk into Holsten’s and start looking at some pastries or something. Wait! Maybe these are the guys sent to decapitate the Soprano family!
Meadow finally parks her car. The waiter delivers some onion rings to the Sopranos and they start noshing on them. Meadow runs across the street toward the restaurant, barely avoiding a passing car. The bell on the front door rings, Tony looks up, and the scene abruptly goes black.
The audience waits an entire 11 seconds in darkness, wondering what the hell is going on, and then the credits come up indicating that, yes, this is how they’ve decided to end the series.
What Does It Mean?
So, what happened? Does Tony get whacked right there in the restaurant in front of his family? And who kills him? The guy in the bathroom? The guy with the “USA” hat drinking coffee? The curly-haired woman? Or was all that build-up just misdirection and Tony walks out of the restaurant totally fine? Well, simply put, that’s up to the viewer to decide.
In an interview, producer David Chase said, “It’s for people to decide for themselves. I had another scene that was going to be Tony’s death, that we were going to do. That was two years or three years before we came up with the other one. So, there was a death scene. Tony drives back into the Lincoln Tunnel, he goes for a meeting with Phil Leotardo, and he’s killed. I don’t think you were going to see the death, but you were going to know that he was dead.”
While this ending would have given viewers a more definite sense of closure to the series, they never ended up filming that ending, and the ending that replaced it, as Chase says, is clearly meant to be left open to interpretation. Still, theorists on Reddit and people yelling at each other across dinner tables have come up with a wide range of theories for how you’re supposed to interpret this enigmatic ending. But, there are two basic camps: those who say Tony died and those who say it’s meant to be ambiguous. Some claim that someone in Holsten’s may have been there to arrest Tony, but it seems unlikely that they’d send one or two people to take down Tony Soprano.
Those who are sure that Tony died at the end typically cite the many allusions to death throughout the entire sixth season as substantial evidence for assuming that Tony gets whacked. The flashback that Tony has to his conversation on the boat in which Bobby says, “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?” The fact that the final episode (“Made in America”) begins with Tony waking up in a safe house and looking like a corpse in a coffin. The way that the weather changes to winter as the sixth season progresses. The allusions to death are certainly there, but does that mean that Tony had to die in that final scene?
I would argue that the answer is no and agree with those that say the ending is meant to be left ambiguous. I think that by leaving the audience on edge with no idea about what’s going to happen to Tony, the writers of the show were trying to give us a sense of what it’s like to be Tony Soprano. Anyone who walks through the door could be a hitman. Death could be lurking around any corner at any time. You never know for sure. The ending conveyed this feeling of seeing your friends die off around you one by one and knowing your time must be coming soon, but never knowing when it’s going to be.
In this way, it doesn’t really matter if Tony died in that final scene. If he died, he died. If he lived, then he’s still damned to a life of constant fear and paranoia that, as his mother says, is all “a big nothing.” This idea that none of Tony’s stress was worth a damn is reinforced by the scene where he goes to visit Junior in the hospital. Junior doesn’t remember Tony, and he doesn’t even remember being the boss of the Soprano family. All of Junior’s stress and paranoia throughout his life amounted to nothing, to him dragging out his final days alone and confused in a psychiatric facility.
Tony knows his only options are to end up like Junior, to get killed quickly and silently like Phil Leotardo, or to waste away in prison until his death like Johnny Sacrimoni. I think that’s what the final scene was trying to convey. It doesn’t matter what happens to Tony then and there because there’s no way out of “this thing of ours.”
The Cat Symbolism
One interesting theory that I’ve heard relates to the cat that appears in the safe house and then makes itself at home at the Bing in the final episodes. Some fans have posited that this may have been a reference to Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment. In the thought experiment, a cat is placed in a box with a deadly poison that may or may not be released. If the poison is released, the cat dies. If it isn’t, the cat remains perfectly alive. Since both scenarios are possible and since the cat cannot be observed, it is considered to be both dead and alive at the same time.
Obviously, this scenario relates to the ending of The Sopranos in that Tony, like the cat in the experiment, cannot be observed to be either dead or alive (since the screen goes dark before we can see what happens). So, are we supposed to consider Tony to be both dead and alive? Maybe. He may still be alive after the final scene of the show, but if he lives in the constant shadow of death, couldn’t we say that he’s essentially a dead man walking too?
I think this relates back to the corpse imagery at the beginning of “Made in America” that shows that Tony has been dead for a long time. Maybe his heart’s still beating, but he’s emotionally dead. He killed his best friend Pussy. He killed his nephew Christopher. His only son tried to commit suicide in his backyard. Tony, much like Schrodinger’s cat, is both dead and alive throughout most of the show, and so it doesn’t really matter if he gets whacked in that final scene or not.