The Sopranos Ending Explained: Tony is not Definitively Dead, but his Future Looks Bleak

Read also: The Sopranos Revisited – 200 Memorable Moments

10 June 2007, 10 years ago today, the legendary finale of the legendary HBO-show ‘The Sopranos’ was aired. It became perhaps the most discussed moment in television-history…

I remember the day after when everybody was confused as hell about it (or just pissed off). Creator David Chase said he hadn’t intended to be coy, he just wanted to entertain his audience. That may be so, but what was the audience to make of the ambiguous ending in which protagonist Tony Soprano – after having his arch enemy Phil Leotardo killed – visits an American diner with his family to have onion rings? A suspicious looking man sits at the bar and goes to the bathroom later. And Tony tells his wife Carmella that one of his crew members, Carlo, will testify against him. That’s basically it. Then the screen suddenly goes black while on the jukebox, the song ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey is still playing. At ‘don’t stop’, it stops.

For those who need a reminder, it’s right here:

One theory that quickly appeared was that the suspicious man shot Tony when exiting the bathroom and that the moment this happened, the camera switched to Tony’s point of view, indicating his death with the black screen. Others claimed that the ‘hints’ for Tony’s suggested death didn’t mean anything, and that the show ‘just ended’.

These two opinions lead to furious debate on the International Movie Database that went on for nearly ten years, until IMDb shut down the message board early 2017.

In this article I will explain what really happened, what David Chase meant (and didn’t mean), and how we are to interpret certain clues. But in advance: both of the theories stated above are wrong. Chase has said so himself. Obviously there were clues for Tony’s death – it’s ridiculous and insulting to Chase to state the show simply ended. But he didn’t intend for the viewer to interpret these clues as Tony’s definitive death either… Here’s why…

‘There are only two endings for a high profile guy like me, dead or in the can, big percent of the time.’
– Tony Soprano in ‘For All Debts Public and Private’ (SE4, EP1)

In retrospect, this quote already told us how the show would end. Except it wasn’t one or the other. Rather, Tony Soprano got both. The New Jersey mob boss ended up like physicist Schrödinger’s cat, both dead and alive at the same time.

Why did he get both endings? Well, there are certainly clues that a hitman is after Tony in the final scene. I won’t go into great detail about this, but the most important clues are several instances of foreshadowing during the final season, most notably his brother-in-law Bobby Bacala telling Tony: ‘you probably don’t even hear it when it happens’ and New York mobster Gerry Torciano being murdered in a restaurant and Silvio not realizing it till blood splattered in his face. The way the final scene is shot – moving in and out Tony’s point of view – could mean a bullet entered his brain the moment the screen goes black.

But murder is certainly not the only option, as there is also the threat of indictment. as one of Tony’s associates, Carlo, has flipped and is about to spill his guts to the FBI. That means that besides the option of Tony getting whacked, he could be indicted. I refer once again to the quote above.

Dead or in the can… Wasn’t it Carmela who – earlier during the final season – feared these two options like a piano hanging over their heads? It was also Carmela who asked Tony in the episode ‘Sopranos Home Movies’ (during the opening scène of the final season, that should not be overlooked): ‘Is this it?’, referring to the FBI ringing the doorbell.

David Chase has said about the ending: ‘There was nothing definite about what happened, but there was a clean trend on view – a definite sense of what Tony and Carmela’s future looks like. Whether it happened that night or some other night doesn’t really matter.’

It is interesting that Chase uses the word ‘it’. This could refer to Tony’s death, but it might as well be referring to Tony’s arrest. Both options would have a significant impact on Tony and Carmela’s (lack of) future. That is the explanation for the ending right there. There is a sense of impending doom, but by the time the screen goes black, nothing has happened yet, unless a bullet has entered Tony’s brain at that point, ending his life immediately. And there are certainly reasons to think that, but it remains only one out of several bleak options for Tony’s future.

The ending is just simply showing us how Tony’s life is at this point. What has the show been about in the first place? In simple terms: a mobster in therapy. The ending shows us that Tony has made his choices. He had the opportunity to change his ways, but didn’t. So the consequences are his and are very likely going to be severe, like the monks told him in his coma dream in the episode ‘Join the Club’. A very significant scene earlier in the season was a conversation Tony had with Little Carmine Lupertazzi in which Lupertazzi (who was generally considered an idiot in mob circles) told Tony he had quit the gangster life in order to spend more time with his family in peace and happiness. If only Tony had made the same decision he could have perhaps avoided the only two endings of the mob life. Now it’s definitely too late.

That is the point the final scene makes. Death could come knocking at any time and for any reason. An indictment could come at any time as well. With Carlo in the hands of the feds, it is only a matter of time before they come for Tony….

We have witnessed the life of Tony for eight years. We have seen him steal, scheme, cheat and murder. He also reaped the benefits of his criminal life: woman, luxury, respect, money. But off course a price has to be paid. The mobster’s life is destructive, as we have seen many times during the series…

Most of Tony’s mob friends, who lived the same type of life, are now dead or in the can (but mostly dead) or in a coma. For Tony, who was always a little luckier and smarter, the consequences come a little later. David Chase didn’t want to show that crime doesn’t pay, but he also didn’t want to show that crime does pay. The ending gives us exactly that; a mosaic of possibilities, limited down to the overall negative. Logical consequences of a life in crime, but nowhere moralistic. The ending in that sense is crystal clear, but to explain it would be to diminish it. And that’s what Chase meant with: ‘there is no mystery’ and ‘I’m not trying to be coy’.

The major point is to not look at the ending as storytelling, but more in terms of the overall themes that the show was covering. David Chase has said he was inspired by ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ in creating the final scene. What did Kubrick say about that ending? “They are the areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer. In this sense, the film becomes anything the viewer sees in it. If the film stirs the emotions and penetrates the subconscious of the viewer, if it stimulates, however inchoately, his mythological and religious yearnings and impulses, then it has succeeded.”

This 2001-influence was very palpable. For example when Tony enters the restaurant, he looks at a seat and then suddenly… he is sitting there without having crossed the space in between! That is quantum-weirdness going on… Chase is telling us: this is an experience, not straightforward storytelling. Chase has also said many times that he was inspired by David Lynch in making ‘The Sopranos’. Nobody ever claimed to fully understand a David Lynch film. They are moving paintings. There are always possible interpretations, but never convey one definite meaning or truth.

Chase is making a philosophical statement about the nature of life and death rather than showing death itself. It often arrives suddenly and you’re not necessarily ready or prepared. In the case of a Mafia member it is even worse. Murders usually happen from behind, so that makes for a shitty death experience. Ironically, sudden death came for James Gandolfini, one of the greatest actors ever who made Tony Soprano such an unforgettable character.

But it doesn’t have to be a murder that ends the mobster, there is prison too. What is the point of mentioning Carlo if the scene is only about the supposed hit on Tony? Another consequence of the life of the mobster is that you can get busted at any moment, and since a made member has certainly committed crimes that can get him into prison for life (like Johnny Sack who died in prison earlier this season), he is constantly facing the end. Tony and Carmella both knew this. What a way to live…

And since death comes suddenly, it is important to enjoy the good times with your family, exactly like A.J. reminds his father to do. David Chase has confirmed the above open interpretation in an interview with The Directors Guild of America. He states:

“I thought the possibility would go through a lot of people’s minds or maybe everybody’s mind that he was killed … 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.”

He continues: “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.”

This is the end. It might not be the epic conclusion some were hoping for, but it’s a unique scene nevertheless. Chase makes an almost cosmic experience out of something ordinary like eating onion rings in an American diner. Like he said, there is nothing definite about what happened, but we do get a clean trend on view on what Tony and Carmela’s future looks like. ‘The Sopranos’ was never the show to tie up everything neatly anyway. In that sense, there is quite a lot of closure in the final season. Therefore, the ending is as fitting an ending as it can be with loads of stuff to analyze for the fans even 10 years later. Salute.


5 Must See TV-shows Before You Die

By Jeppe Kleyngeld

In this age of distraction a.k.a. entertainment, a lack of time is always a factor. There are way too many great TV-shows out there to see them all, so which ones should you pick? Many are great to watch, but which ones are truly essential and epic? I assassinated my darlings and wrote down the absolute best. Before you die, you should definitely see these shows in their entirety. I calculated this will take you about 13.263 minutes of your life (or 221 hours). Trust me, it is worth every second.

1. The Sopranos
5 TV Shows - The Sopranos
The greatest drama series of all time about a small Mafia family in modern New Jersey. While ‘The Godfather’ shows the highest level of the mob hierarchy, and ‘GoodFellas’ shows us the everyday life of street level wiseguys, ‘The Sopranos’ has the psyche of the mobster as a central theme. Brilliantly complex, layered and beyond entertaining, ‘The Sopranos’ is the best thing to ever hit the small screen. With writing and a cast you can only dream off, led by the now legendary James Gandolfini, may he rest in peace.

2. Breaking Bad
5 TV Shows - Breaking Bad
A chemistry teacher with lung cancer steadily transforms into a crystal meth kingpin… and ruthless murderer. This philosophically charged odyssey through the dark corners of the human mind is an unforgettably tense and emotional rollercoaster ride. One of the rare series that is consistently brilliant throughout its running time. Absolutely unmissable.

3. I, Claudius
5 TV Shows - I, Claudius Snake
BBC-adaptation of Robert Graves novels’ about the reign of four Roman emperors: the mighty Augustus, the bloodthirsty Tiberius, the insane Caligula, and finally the wise Claudius who lived through all periods and serves as the navigator/protagonist of the mini-series. ‘I, Claudius’ is dialogue heavy and is almost completely filmed in the studio, but… the dialogues and acting are to kill for. Watching ‘I, Claudius’ is like having front row tickets for the greatest theatre in the world. Every minute you are longing for more and can’t wait to find out what will happen next. An immortal classic.

4. The Wire
5 TV Shows - The Wire
The major problems of an American city (Baltimore) experienced through all corners of society: drug dealers, police, politicians, school staff, high school kids, junkies, dock workers and media men. David Simon’s reinvention of the cop genre is a prime example of superior storytelling that – despite of all the street legends – always feel authentic and above all… human. It’s all in the game, yo.

5. Twin Peaks
5 TV Shows - Twin Peaks
David Lynch, in collaboration with writer/producer Mark Frost, captured the imagination of audiences worldwide with one of the most legendary television series to emerge in the nineties: ‘Twin Peaks’. What starts as a slightly offbeat whodunit, evolves into a complex and superbly intriguing mystery thriller. ‘Who murdered the high school beauty queen Laura Palmer?’, is the original premise. But with all sorts of supernatural stuff going on, new and bigger questions arise, such as: ‘what is the Black Lodge?’. The plot in ‘Twin Peaks’ often takes a backseat to just let the many bizarre characters interact with each other. The show often feels like a platform for all the crazy ideas that Lynch, Frost and other collaborators could come up with.

What makes the final result so great is the seamless integration of genres. With delicious black humour and countless fantasy elements such as dwarves, giants, aliens and demons, the viewer will get hooked in no time. It is constantly absorbing, even during long stretches in which basically nothing significant happens. ‘Twin Peaks’ is an endlessly fascinating show that took dramatic television into an entirely new realm.

And good news for the fans. In 1991 when the show aired, Laura Palmer made a creepy prediction:

5 TV Shows - Twin Peaks 2

So that means that in 2016? Yes, it does. ‘Twin Peaks’ will return.

Einde van een tijdperk (over Boardwalk Empire)

Let op: bevat spoilers voor seizoen 5 – het laatste seizoen

‘Boardwalk Empire’, de serie die een 10 scoort voor productieontwerp en een drie voor emotionele impact is voorbij. Na ‘The Sopranos’ en ‘The Wire’ had HBO de vrijwel onmogelijke uitdaging een nieuw misdaaddrama te ontwerpen om de harten van serieliefhebbers wereldwijd te veroveren. Ze trokken het grootste schrijverstalent aan dat ze in huis hadden. Tim van Patten en Terence Winter verdienden beide hun sporen met ‘The Sopranos’. En Martin Scorsese ging produceren. De kaarten van ‘Boardwalk Empire’ waren meer dan uitstekend. Toch is het eindresultaat niet het ‘Once Upon a Time in Atlantic City’ geworden dat het had moeten zijn.

Tot zover het negatieve, want met een bevredigend laatste seizoen is er toch veel goeds te schrijven over het droogleggingsdrama. Alhoewel nee, er is toch nog wat te klagen. Arnold Rothstein, het beste personage uit de show (ja, Richard Harrow is ook cool), is al dood bij aanvang van de eerste aflevering van het laatste seizoen! Dat komt omdat er een sprong van zeven jaar gemaakt wordt van seizoen 4 naar seizoen 5 en de echte Rothstein in de tussenliggende periode was vermoord tijdens een pokerwedstrijd. Historisch correct dus, maar wel eeuwig zonde. Acteur Michael Stuhlbarg vertolkte Rothstein perfect. Nooit was een glimlach zo bedreigend als van A.R., zoals hij door zijn vrienden in de serie genoemd werd. Sinds zijn speech in aflevering 2 ben ik gefascineerd door hem geweest. Voor de liefhebbers:

Arnold Rothstein: ‘There was a man once – I don’t recall his name – frequented the billiard parlors downtown. He made a comfortable living wagering whether he could swallow certain objects, billiard balls being a specialty. He’d pick a ball, take it down his gullet to here, then regurgitate it back up. And one evening I decided to challenge this man to a wager. Ten thousand in cash for him to do the trick with a billiard ball of my choosing. Now, he knew I’d seen him do this a dozen times, so I can only surmise that he thought I was stupid. We laid down the cash and I handed him the cue ball. He swallowed it down. It lodged in his throat, and he choked to death on the spot. What I knew and he didn’t was that the cue ball was one-sixteenth of an inch larger than the other. Just too large to swallow. Do you know what the moral of this tale is, Mr. Yale?’

Frankie Yale: ‘Don’t eat a cue ball?’

Arnold Rothstein (smiles): ‘The moral of this story is that if I’d cause a stranger to choke to death for my own amusement, what do you think I’ll do to you if you don’t tell me who ordered you to kill Colosimo?’

Voor de historische personages is de afloop bekend, maar haalt Nucky het einde van het laatste seizoen?

Voor de historische personages is de afloop bekend, maar haalt Nucky het einde van het laatste seizoen?

Geen Rothstein in seizoen 5

Geen Rothstein in seizoen 5

Symbolisch einde van de drooglegging?

Symbolisch einde van de drooglegging?

Dit citaat illustreert ook meteen het beste schrijfwerk van de serie, want hoewel de recreatie van het tijdperk authentiek voelt, mist het soms de scherpte en de humor, die in HBO’s eerdere misdaad meesterwerken te vinden was. Dat lag ook aan de personages (nu gooi ik alles er maar uit). De protagonist Nucky Thompson is nogal een dode pier in de eerste seizoenen. Misschien is dat ook logisch, want gangsters als Nucky zijn nu eenmaal vrijwel gevoelloos. Toch weet het laatste seizoen middels flashbacks over Nucky’s jeugd enige kleur aan dit personage te geven. Maar wie is die verschrikkelijke acteur die de jonge Nucky gestalte geeft? En is dat een gebitsprothese in zijn mond om hem meer op Steve Buscemi te laten lijken? Daar zal de goede ouwe Steve wel om gelachen hebben.

Als maffiakenner wist ik natuurlijk al hoe het historisch correcte ‘Boardwalk Empire’ zou aflopen. Tenminste met de echte personages, zoals Al Capone, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, Meyer Lanski, Salvatore Maranzano en Joe Masseria. Maar zou Nucky het einde van de serie gaan halen? En Chalky White? En Van Alden, de ex-droogleggingsagent en moordenaar die in Chicago verstopt zit? Ik vroeg me laatst af of Nucky überhaupt echt bestaan heeft. Het antwoord staat op Wikipedia (waar anders?): Nucky is loosely based on former Atlantic City political figure Enoch Lewis ‘Nucky’ Johnson.

Maar omdat het ‘gebaseerd op’ is, zegt het lot van de echte Johnson niks over het lot van de fictieve Thompson. En dat lot is uiterst toepasselijk: Thompson wordt doodgeschoten door Tommy Darmody, zoon van de door Nucky vermoorde Jimmie Darmody op het einde van seizoen 2. Er vloeit nog veel meer bloed. In aflevering 6 van het laatste seizoen leggen maar liefst twee memorabele hoofdpersonages het loodje: Van Alden en Chalky White. En het er wordt daarmee eindelijk – zeker met de dood van laatstgenoemde – ingespeeld op het gevoel van de kijker.

Het gangstergeweld in seizoen 5 doet ook denken aan de verbeten strijd tussen HBO en het steeds machtiger wordende Netflix. Geen goede overwinning zonder vijanden, dus HBO zal de creatieve capaciteiten moeten aanwenden om prominent op het toneel te blijven. Ze hebben sinds ‘The Sopranos’ begon in 1999 een gouden decennium beleefd, maar lijken nu net niet die draai terug te kunnen vinden. Het ambitieuze vlaggenschip ‘Game of Thrones’ nadert ook een climax, en met ‘Boardwalk Empire’ ten einde is er op misdaadvlak ook nog geen opvolger in zicht. Ik wacht in spanning af met een herkijk van HBO’s excellente ‘In Treatment’ op het programma.

The 10 Greatest TV-Show Covers

10. Banshee – Season 2
Banshee - S2
The ultimate capture of small town violence. Too bad the show aint half as good as this poster.

9. Breaking Bad – Season 3
Breaking Bad - S3
Unstable. Volatile. Dangerous. Those words couldn’t ring truer for any programme. ‘And that’s just the chemistry’ it adds. Exactly, chemistry is the metaphor for everything going on this show. Different combinations of elements can lead to explosive results.

8. Homeland – Season 4
Homeland - S4
Carrie Mathison, one of the finest TV-characters of our time, finds herself in a tight spot by the looks of it. This promises high tension in this season of ‘Homeland’, a show with a highly actual central theme – the threat of fundamentalist Islam – that is already charged with hyper tension.

7. Game of Thrones – Season 1
Game of Thrones - S1
That Iron Throne is really something… And that’s Sean Bean sitting on it, an actor that our (un)conscious minds immediately connect to the fantasy genre. This promises to be one hell of a show.

6. The Walking Dead – Season 1
The Walking Dead - S1
A full blown zombie apocalypse visualised in one beautiful image. Stunning.

5. The Sopranos – Season 5
The Sopranos - SE5
‘Hell’ in modern New Jersey has always been a theme of the complex and mysterious ‘The Sopranos’. For its fifth season, this theme is captured perfectly in a painting-like cover that could be the work of Leonardo Da Vinci himself.

4. Mad Men – Season 1
Mad Men - S1
For a show that is all about design (and big ego’s), they managed to completely nail the art direction. Simplicity never worked better than in this small masterpiece of a cover.

3. Breaking Bad – Season 5
Breaking Bad - S5
This is brilliant for how much it tells. Being a king in the meth world is so not appealing; the emptiness, the loneliness… You can tell from Walter’s face how he feels and it’s not so good either. But he can’t stop. Not any more.

2. Treme – Season 1
Treme - S1
The perfect New Orleans photo. Immediately throws you into the mood of the show. And that green is truly entrancing.

1. The Wire – Season 3
The Wire - SE3
The show with the best faces on television present four of their best – Avon, Stringer, Kima and McNulty in a fabulous composition. The cops are going after the players again and this promises to be one hell of a showdown. It’s all in the Game yo.