On the evening of June 10, 2007, untold numbers of Americans simultaneously wondered if their televisions or cable service had malfunctioned. They had been watching perhaps the most iconic final scene in TV history, which concluded perhaps the most celebrated show in TV history.
In the decade since then, fans of The Sopranos have argued—and argued, and argued, and argued—over the meaning of that final scene, and the sudden cut to black that brought it to a close. Had Tony Soprano been killed while eating dinner with his family at Holsten’s ice-cream parlor? What about his wife, son, and daughter? Why had Sopranos creator David Chase picked Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” as the show’s climactic song? What message was he trying to convey?
I’ve never found Chase’s subsequent explanations satisfactory. On certain occasions, he has hinted that Tony may well have been shot dead (presumably by the shady-looking man in the Members Only jacket who walks past the Soprano table to visit the restroom less than a minute before the screen goes black). On other occasions, he has suggested that Tony may well have lived. In a 2014 interview with Vox, he seemed to provide explicit confirmation that Tony was not dead. But then, after Vox published its article, Chase’s publicist issued a statement to clarify his remarks:
“A journalist for Vox misconstrued what David Chase said in their interview. To simply quote David as saying, ‘Tony Soprano is not dead,’ is inaccurate. There is a much larger context for that statement and as such, it is not true. As David Chase has said numerous times on the record, ‘Whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead is not the point.’ To continue to search for this answer is fruitless. The final scene of The Sopranos raises a spiritual question that has no right or wrong answer.”
A year later, Chase told the Directors Guild of America something similar. Describing his intentions for the final scene, he made a point of emphasizing the Journey song playing in the background:
“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.”
Life is “really worth it?” That’s what the final scene is all about? Seriously? After eight-six hours of sophisticated, intense, hilarious, and horrifying drama, Sopranos fans had a right to expect more.
Amid the continuing (and probably never-ending) debate over what actually happened in Holsten’s, the meaning of the entire series has become almost an afterthought. To be sure, some critics have questioned whether The Sopranos has any real meaning. Nell Beram, for example, has written that the show “lacks a key ingredient of greatness: what I can only call, with more than a scintilla of embarrassment at the fustiness of the phrase, a moral vision.”
While Beram is correct that The Sopranos suffers from meandering and unresolved plotlines, she is wrong about its moral vision (or lack thereof). There is, in fact, at least one consistent moral theme that runs from the series premiere through the series finale. Simply put: It is impossible for a person to compartmentalize evil acts and separate them from the rest of his or her life. In the case of a gangland boss like Tony Soprano, it is impossible to maintain a real family and a Mafia family without having the latter corrupt and threaten the former.
Those may sound like rather obvious lessons. Yet during the first few seasons of The Sopranos, plenty of viewers considered Tony a sympathetic figure. After all, he struggles with many of the same challenges and anxieties facing suburban dads across America, and he initially seems to be a good father (if not a faithful husband). That’s part of what makes the show so absorbing. As Chuck Klosterman has noted, it depicts “innately bad people [operating] within a world not unlike our own.”
The Sopranos begins with Tony’s first session of therapy following a panic attack. He admits to his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, that he’s been feeling depressed ever since a family of ducks left his backyard. Indeed, his panic attack occurs immediately after he watches the ducks fly away from his swimming pool. Later in the episode, Dr. Melfi helps him understand the significance of his fixation. “I’m afraid I’m gonna lose my family,” Tony realizes. “Like I lost the ducks. That’s what I’m full of dread about.”
Despite these fears, Tony tries to convince himself (a) that he’s established a church-and-state separation between his Mafia life and his domestic family life, and (b) that his crimes are somehow justified because he provides for his children. In Season Two, he tells his teenage daughter, “Everything I do, and everything I’ve done, and everything I will do—it’s all for you and your brother.”
Whether or not Tony really believes that, he uses it to rationalize both his behavior and his sense of self-pity. In Season Three, for example, he complains to Dr. Melfi about the volatile personality of his latest mistress, and then—without any trace of irony—falls back into his beleaguered family-man routine. “Why does everything gotta be so hard?” he asks. “I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I do the right thing by my family. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
The reality, of course, is that Tony has utterly corrupted his family—especially his wife, Carmela, who expresses momentary pangs of guilt about her Mafia-princess lifestyle before retreating into a comforting web of lies and self-deceit. Carmela knows who Tony is and what he does (“You’re going to Hell when you die!” she barks at him in the series premiere), yet she persistently excuses or ignores his brutal criminality. In Season Five, she briefly pursues a divorce from Tony and warns him that it could “get ugly.” To which Tony replies: “You don’t want it to get ugly? Too late.” The couple eventually reconcile after Tony agrees to help her finance a spec house.
The best and most honest advice Carmela ever receives comes from an elderly, no-nonsense psychiatrist named Dr. Krakower, whom she visits in Season Three. (She is referred to him by Dr. Melfi.) When Carmela tries to persuade him that Tony is actually “a good man” and “a good father,” Dr. Krakower has none of it. “You must trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him,” he tells her. “You’ll never be able to feel good about yourself. You’ll never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talked about, as long as you’re his accomplice.” Dr. Krakower also informs Carmela he will not charge her for the session, “because I won’t take blood money, and you can’t either.”
If Carmela had followed his advice—“Take only the children, what’s left of them, and go”—things might have turned out differently for her daughter, Meadow, and her son, Anthony Junior. Meadow is a precocious overachiever who attends Columbia University and, until about halfway through the series, resents her father’s criminal activity. Yet during her freshman year at Columbia, she chooses to date a wannabe gangster named Jackie, who is the son of a deceased mobster. Jackie later gets killed, on Tony’s indirect orders, for shooting up a mob-run card game.
On some level, Meadow understands that her father’s crime family is responsible for Jackie’s death. Following his death, however, she slowly becomes an apologist for the Soprano crime family. By Season Five, she has entered full-blown denial mode, telling her new boyfriend that Jackie was murdered by African-American drug dealers, which she knows is a lie. When the new boyfriend sees one of Tony’s underlings viciously beat another over a stupid joke, Meadow assures him that the man who administered the beating is “so sweet.”
She also attempts to explain away the violent behavior of Tony’s gangland comrades by resorting to cheap moral and cultural relativism. “They bring certain modes of conflict resolution from all the way back in the old country,” Meadow insists, “from the poverty of the Mezzogiorno, where all higher authority was corrupt.” When The Sopranos reaches its finale, she’s planning to marry the son of yet another mobster, and she’s come to view Tony as a victim of FBI persecution.
As for Tony’s own son, Anthony Junior, he gets expelled from his first high school, flunks out of community college, gets fired from a job at Blockbuster, and makes a half-hearted attempt at suicide. After the suicide attempt, he initially seems poised to transform his life and join the U.S. Army—until his parents intervene. Fearful that Anthony Junior will be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, Tony and Carmela bribe him to stay at home with a new BMW and a job at a mob-connected film-production company.
In the show’s single best episode, from Season One, Tony takes Meadow on a tour of colleges in Maine, during which he recognizes a Mafia turncoat now living under a new identity. While Meadow is interviewing at Colby College, Tony tracks down the turncoat and strangles him to death. Shortly thereafter, while sitting outside the admissions office at Bowdoin College, the alma mater of Nathaniel Hawthorne, he sees an abridged quote from The Scarlet Letter displayed on the wall: “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.”
By the end of the series, Tony’s true face is clear—and it’s the face of a monster. Whether or not he is gunned down at Holsten’s, the mere fact that he could have been killed there, while sitting with his family, confirms just how wrong Tony is when he tells Carmela that, in Mafia conflicts, “families don’t get touched.” As The Sopranos demonstrates time and again, everyone gets touched in one way or another.