The Sopranos is my favorite TV shows of all time. Sure, some episodes dragged and, sure, there were episodes Tony Soprano, Jr. was a punchable little bitch. But it was perfect, from James Gandolfini’s frustrating attempts at psychoanalysis to Paulie Walnuts wisecracking about… 16 Czechoslovakians.
The show’s “Don’t Stop Believing” scene is one of the great open-ended conclusions in pop culture history. The “fade to black” curtain down while Tony Soprano and family picks at onion rings in a Jersey diner doesn’t quite feel finite for a series with larger-than-life characters so concerned with their own mortality. As a viewer, it’s both frustrating because it forces you to actually think, something you rarely had to do while watching television until The Sopranos. And, boy, does it make you think: About television. About the characters. About relationships. About Plato’s stupid shadows on the cave or whatever. About something more existential, like loss and life.
Some think it was a cop-out. Others think it’s great. In the most recent issue of DGA Quarterly a.k.a the Director’s Guild magazine, the show’s creator David Chase talked about the final scene at length. Re-watch it on Youtube if you need a refresher.
I said to Gandolfini, the bell rings and you look up. That last shot of Tony ends on ‘don’t stop,’ it’s mid-song. I’m not going to go into [if that’s Tony’s POV]. I thought the possibility would go through a lot of people’s minds or maybe everybody’s mind that he was killed. He might have gotten shot three years ago in that situation. But he didn’t. Whether this is the end here, or not, it’s going to come at some point for the rest of us. Hopefully we’re not going to get shot by some rival gang mob or anything like that. I’m not saying that [happened]. But obviously he stood more of a chance of getting shot by a rival gang mob than you or I do because he put himself in that situation. All I know is the end is coming for all of us.
I thought the ending would be somewhat jarring, sure. But not to the extent it was, and not a subject of such discussion. I really had no idea about that. I never considered the black a shot. I just thought what we see is black. The ceiling I was going for at that point, the biggest feeling I was going for, honestly, was don’t stop believing. It was very simple and much more on the nose than people think. That’s what I wanted people to believe. That life ends and death comes, but don’t stop believing. There are attachments we make in life, even though it’s all going to come to an end, that are worth so much, and we’re so lucky to have been able to experience them. Life is short. Either it ends here for Tony or some other time. But in spite of that, it’s really worth it. So don’t stop believing.
Go read the full breakdown and analysis at DGA. The shot-by-shot breakdown is everything if you’re a fan of the show.
I’ll never forget where I was when I watched The Sopranos finale: With five friends gathered in a friend’s apartment in college, all kinda melancholy to see the show go. Usually we drank a lot and recited one-liners from the show during the Sundays of that final season, but we were somber for that final episode. We ate a big Italian meal of sausage and peppers beforehand. When David Chase’s “fade to black” moment came, there was an audible and exasperated “WHAT?!” from all of us. A few wondered if the cable went out at literally the worst time in the world. And then, about a minute later, there was the iconic concluding HBO buzz.
And that was it. We sat there for silence for a few minutes, then I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. We started formulating a few theories about the ending and whether it was genius or lazy in its “make-your-own-conclusions” post-Modern bullshit. I walked back to my apartment around midnight and got kind of choked up thinking about it.
Flash forward to today. The more I’ve thought about the Sopranos final ending, the more I love it. It’s the only way The Sopranos could have actually ended. Guns and death and/or a blaze of mobster glory a la Breaking Bad or Scarface would be too flashy for a magnum opus whose best moments were its most subtle, like Chris asking the baker for cannolis mid-shakedown or Tony telling Unior Junior about that “fat fuck Bacala” on a visit to the clink. How appropriate that “I went ahead and ordered something for the table” be Tony’s last words.
Anyway, yeah. Nice to hear what David Chase had to say about how the show ended eight years later.
RIP, James Gandolfini. Don’t stop believing.