On the Ending of The Sopranos

I finally did it. I finished The Sopranos.

Over nine months and eighty-six episodes, I watched The Sopranos awestruck and horrified. And this weekend, I watched with curiosity at how I would react to the infamous last scene. The diner. Don’t Stop Believin’. The cut to black. The big question: does Tony Soprano live?

Having finished, what I feel certain of is this: the question misses the entire point entirely. It doesn’t matter whether he lives or dies in the diner. The ambiguity is the purpose. Life happens to us. It seems random, complicated, and occasionally cruel. The meaning of it does not stem from the resume of events A through Z. The meaning is from our examination of our internal purpose and our sense of how to live a good life.

What I loved the most about the show is that it’s not spoilable. To be precise, I mean that knowing what happens does not affect the enjoyment of what you see on screen. What happens is besides the point. For example, great things can happen. Tony can survive a bullet wound, Carmela can feel artistically moved in Paris. Christopher can get his movie produced. But without an inner compass, these fleeting moments inevitably pass and resentment at the monotonous milieu sets in. Life gets boring again. Buying, gambling, conquering, killing, controlling feel needed to mask the untamed internal chaos and guilt. Whether through repeated plot points, dream sequences, and elliptical therapy sessions, the creators tell us over and over again: look at the spiritual flame of these characters and see how it dims.

Whether Tony Soprano dies is besides the point because he and the characters of The Sopranos have already experienced a spiritual death and choose to remain there. They’ve resigned themselves to a false steady state where the center, as Keats said, cannot hold. While Tony has bested everyone at the table, but he knows he cannot cash in his chips.

Our reaction to the ending says nothing about what happens to Tony and everything about our relationship to the events in our own lives. When the show cuts to black, it’s us we see on that blank screen. The story of the Sopranos has ended. We’ve seen how not to live a life.

Now, what will we do?

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