- There is no actual evidence that anything bad was about to happen -- just people in a diner who we suspected were bad because we watch a lot of movies.
- There is no way way that anyone with a motive to kill Tony knew that he'd be at that diner.
- The Sopranos never relied on off-screen action and secret twists. We were privy to everything. It was filmed in the third-person omniscient. The theory of a surprise killer violates the show's narrative structure.
- The show didn't romanticize violence. Violence was dirty, casual and explicit. The murder of its protagonist wouldn't be softened by climactic, artful, debatable twist. If David Chase wanted to kill him, we would've seen Tony blue and gagging on his own blood.
- The show rarely offered closure. What makes you think it would start in the final episode?
- Just desserts were not a theme.
- The makers filmed an ending implying that he was shot, then rejected it.
- The House Next Door, Sopranos Mondays: Season 6, Ep. 22, "Made in America"
- Heather Havrilesky, "The Sopranos" Goes Dark
- The comments in Midwesterner's Guide, The Sopranos Finale
- Newark Star Ledger, "Sopranos" Creator's Last Word: The End Speaks for Itself
Update II: This little post generated some traffic. Since it was a summary attempt to knock down what I think is an errant reading of the episode, my comments were pithy and conclusory. A link to my seven observations, partnered with opposing views, was published on an HBO message board and later reproduced here at Comment No. 7. My original remarks, the opposing view, and my rebuttal follow below.
I wrote, "There is no actual evidence that anything bad was about to happen -- just people in a diner who we suspected were bad because we watch a lot of movies."
Opposing view: "The evidence is the way that Chase shot, cut, and scored the scene to indicate mounting tension; it's undeniable. I won't even go into the very long list of possible 'evidence' left over the whole season (and this episode in particular) to indicate Tony's imminent demise."True on the first sentence. It was indeed shot, edited and scored in a tense way. We'll never hear Journey the same way again. Like "Sunshine of Your Love" and "Layla" (Goodfellas) or "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (The Big Chill), "Don't Stop Believing" has been commandeered.
On the substance: Literally all that happened was people going about their business in a diner. That was it. People in a diner, shot very artfully, very tensely, in utterly mundane activities. Obviously we're waiting for something bad to happen. On first view the tension was almost unbearable. I was a few minutes behind due to a mid-show phone call and I had to fight the urge to fast-forward the Tivo to see where it ended. We all had the expectation that something dramatic was about to happen (myself, I wasn't expecting a killing so much as a humiliating Henry Hill-style arrest) and it was filmed in a way to tease our expectations.
That doesn't change the fact that there was literally nothing occurring in that diner that indicated sinister doings. We expected something sinister -- that's the way these stories are supposed to end. Instead, dinner happened.
For the devotees of the murder theory: Why was it that Tony was staring up at his killer instead of an agent flashing a badge? Because of a line of dialog that Bobby uttered? (The exact line was, ""I bet you don't even hear it when it happens." Nothing about going black.) As someone noted elsewhere (I'd link back but don't remember where I read it) Bobby's death was anything but quick and silent. He saw everything and he suffered badly. (Poor Bobby.) If the penultimate episode illustrated anything -- Bobby, Sil, the innocent on the motorcyle -- it was that these acts of violence do not hit their victims that elegantly. They're not "cut to black" moments. They're ghastly and unromantic. Bobby was telling himself the kind of lie that some people need in order to live. This show was the anti-mythology; it vigorously deglamorized violence. You suffer. You don't get a cut to black. It's not that gentle.
I wrote: "There is no way that anyone with a motive to kill Tony knew that he'd be at that diner."This depends entirely on unsupported speculation. There was literally no evidence that this happened. I could speculate that Members Only Guy was the Russian after he underwent radical plastic surgery, or insist that evidence to the contrary it really was, in fact, Phil's nephew behind the counter. Rampant speculation isn't an argument.
Opposing view: "Of course, there's an extremely simple way to find Tony Soprano at the diner. Follow his idiotic son (who'd never notice) to where he's going for dinner, and then simply walk in front of him as he's close to entering the door and go in first. Then sit at the counter and look for whom the son is joining, which is exactly what Members Only guy does."
This is, however, a microcosm for the problem with the Death Theory. It's based on pure guesswork (as well informed as it might be) rather than anything that actually occurred on screen. You buy into it, and you're required to take several leaps of faith unsupported by actual events. Leaps of faith, by nature, aren't rebuttable. If you believe that an entire subplot unfolded, wherein AJ was tailed off-screen by an assassin, it's hard to have a conversation grounded in what we know. Knock it down, and another speculative answer is always in the offing.
A note on the Members Only guy: This is a connection that I never would have made but-for the post-game commentary, but I think it's wildly off the mark to infer based on a jacket and episode title that he was an assassin. The entire closing episode had moments harkening back to earlier points in the series: the cameo by Hunter Scaglione (which I loved), specific lines of dialog ("Always with the drama."), the final act of sitting down to dinner. When the two black guys walked into the diner, and we were still anticipating some final act of violence, I of course remembered the botched hit on Tony. It never occurred to me that these were the same guys (as some initially and erroneously posited) but it certainly was an intentional nod to that episode. I'm guessing that there were many other points in this final episode that drew from past seasons that we haven't pieced together yet. This was a book-end, and it was symmetry. A guy in a Members Only jacket doesn't portend death any more than Hunter's reappearance portends a choir performance.
I wrote: "The Sopranos never relied on off-screen action and secret twists. We were privy to everything. It was filmed in the third-person omniscient. The theory of a surprise killer violates the show's narrative structure."Yes, the show often surprised us. We were surprised when Heidi and Kennedy sent Chris careening off the highway; when Tony killed Christopher; when Junior shot Tony; when the identity of Melfi's patient was outed at a dinner party; when Janice suddenly entered the world of the show; when Finn spotted Vito; etc. The show never lacked for surprise, but the surprises were rooted in on-screen human behavior. We might have seen some of Tony's paranoia as to whether someone was an informant -- but we never had a moment where a surprise informant burst on the scene, upending the story. We were in on Adrianna's machinations, for example. The one notable exception was Big Pussy back in Season 2, but that was a long, drawn out, carefully constructed, direct story line. It wasn't a jerk-the-neck twist. Contrast the way The Sopranos told its story with how Lost tells its stories. Lost (to brilliant effect) constantly keeps us guessing about (to borrow Rumsfeld's rhetoric) the unknown unknowns. The Sopranos occasionally had some known unknowns. They were rarely the fulcrum of a story. It never employed Lost-like "unknown unknowns." This is why I think that the Death Theory anchors itself to a narrative cheat not in the show's character.
Opposing view: "This is totally untrue. There were many occasions where the show surprised us about things (mostly about who was or wasn't a rat; but there are other examples as well)."
Opposing view proceeded to state: "Also, I keep hearing this argument about first (POV) versus third person shots in the final scene. Certainly the majority of the final scene is in the third person, except for two significant exceptions: when we have Tony's POV when looking at the songs on the jukebox, and an important establishing sequence of shots which occurs throughout the scene: the bell of the door rings; then a shot of Tony's face; then there is Tony's POV of who is entering the diner. This occurs 5 times in the scene; but the 5th time, where Tony's POV of the door should be, we have 10 seconds of black silence."Respectfully, I don't think this comment understands first person and third person. We see things happening, we see Tony watching things, but this description of how the sequence played does not amount to a first-person perspective.
I wrote: "The show didn't romanticize violence. Violence was dirty, casual and explicit. The murder of its protagonist wouldn't be softened by climactic, artful, debatable twist. If David Chase wanted to kill him, we would've seen Tony blue and gagging on his own blood."We're not talking about what's dramatic or climactic, but rather, how the series treated violence, depicted violence and philosophized violence. For one thing, I don't think that Chase's intention was to give us a conclusion with resolution, and Tony's prior brushes with death don't mean that his death is going to come artfully.
Opposing view: "Sorry, I don't buy this at all. I think Tony's visible death would be much more anticlimactic. Besides, we've already seen Tony shot and bloody on two different occasions; the power of the final scene is that it breaks with the show's own 'traditions', and we never see or hear it coming."
The reason that we never see or hear it coming is simple: It didn't happen, and there is no existing reason -- existing in actual events that happened in the series, as opposed to guesswork built on rank speculation -- to think that it happened.
I wrote: "The show rarely offered closure. What makes you think it would start in the final episode?"The violent death of the show's protagonist is maximum closure.
Opposing view: "Whether Tony died or didn't, there was no closure and never will be. How can you argue that if one of the possible outcomes of an ambiguous ending is true that this means there was closure; thus that particular outcome is not possible? Absurd logic."
And while I don't want to get into any kind of confrontational posture (we're all friends here), since a fairly open-ended remark was labeled "absurd," I'm going to make an observation about what I see as absurd: The way the Death Theory is articulated. There's a conspiracy flavor: "Oswald's shadows in the Life Magazine cover don't line up!" There seems to be a certain impulse to find support (any support, no matter how thin) for a preordained, desired conclusion. As a result, the death theories rely heavily on wild conjectures (see above) and iron faith in thoughtful but unproveable guesswork about what may or may not have happened off-screen (in a series that never relied on Macguffins or off-screen twists) regardless of observable evidence. I concede that the ending was somewhat ambiguous (that night I briefly entertained the death theory, concluded that I was clever, and then rejected it as meritless) but given that ambiguity and an interest in puzzling through what happens, there is nevertheless only one way to begin an analysis: Base it on what was depicted and what we know. There are only two pieces of evidence that support a death theory: A Members Only jacket (my own take: Urban Meyer wore a Members Only jacket after Florida won the national championship; Junior once golfed in Florida; a guy in the diner wore a Member's Only jacket; therefore, Urban Meyer and a miraculously sentient Junior arranged for Members Only guy to shoot Tony) and a line of dialog from Bobby that proved to be 1.) expliclty inaccurate and 2.) tragically naive.
I wrote: "Just desserts were not a theme."Fair enough. It is purely subjective. To me, this was a show where key villains (including not least of all Tony) literally got away with murder, repeatedly and shamelessly, while the innocents (ranging from a waiter unhappy with his tip, to a pregnant stripper, to a dude on a motorcycle, to the Buccos, to Adrianna, to a Rutgers student on a bike, to name just a few -- let alone the wives and children wrecked by immersion in the lifestyle) were the ones who suffered most. There was a very limited code of justice among these thieves, but only when honor coincided with self-preservation.
Opposing view: "Some would argue that Phil's death was 'just desserts'. Others would say having Tony live, stand trial, and serve prison time (due to Carlo's testimony) would be 'just desserts'. This is purely subjective."
But to me, this is essential in how people view Tony's fate. To some extent, it depends on whether the show saw a world that allows for karmic payback, or whether its world was dirty, random and often inexplicable.
(By coincidence, as I type this, I'm listening to a Fresh Air podcast where Terri Gross interviewed David Chase in 2000. Chase states: "I don't really believe that whacking is that endemic to -- what I want to show is his daily life." That's what he showed, and that's how the series ended.)
I wrote: "The makers filmed an ending implying that he was shot, then rejected it."This is my weakest point. I don't know that it clearly cuts one way or the other, and I shouldn't have stated this so confidently. Peter Bogdonovich has said that he filmed a scene where he comforts Melfi. Whether there is any significance to discarded footage, or whether Chase just filmed a bunch of stuff so that the actors were left in the dark about what happened, is anyone's guess. It could be that he originally intended to end with the death but found the conclusion unsatisfying or unworkable. Final sequences are recut all the time. We're left with what we have, which may be hard to swallow. What we have is people eating dinner.
Opposing view: "Actually, this could imply exactly the opposite: that Chase's own true feelings are that Tony does die, but he wants it to remain ambiguous enough to allow other interpretations. The original ending (as shot) leaned too heavily towards Chase's own 'Tony dies' suggestion, so Chase just cut it differently to leave it slightly more open-ended. It proves nothing else."
As a postscript, I should add that the fun of a great book or movie often is the ambiguity. A novelist or director finishes his project, unleashes it, and from that point forward it belongs to all of us. We intepret differently. In arguing this position, I'm not trying to deny that to anyone who loved The Sopranos (as we all seem to have) and read it differently -- it's more that I think the Death Theory is a wildcard and I'm mystified by the vehemence of its proponents.