‘The Sopranos’ Showrunner Finally Explains His Cryptic Ending
Everything goes black
The Season 6 finale was called “Made in America,” and in mid-scene, the show cuts to black, randomly, or that’s how it seems. Poof! the Soprano family drama is gone, just like that. It was so unexpected that subscribers thought their cable connection went out.
After about 10 seconds, the credits rolled in silence. The finale created the fireworks showrunner David Chase intended. The scene was carefully crafted, but its deeper meaning was all his. The uproar continued for years. What does it all mean?
Their lips are sealed
Nobody on The Sopranos creative team would divulge a thing; details were guarded, like a vow to secrecy. And Chase, the show’s creator, was particularly protective over the meaning of the ending or of any future trajectory.
Meanwhile, fans continued discussing it like mad, dueling back and forth with hypothetical theories scrawled across various messaging boards, hoping to discern what it really meant.
The Sopranos Sessions book
TV critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall teamed up to write a book about the show featuring in-depth interviews with David Chase. It’s basically the definitive guide to HBO’s groundbreaking program. The Sopranos Sessions (2019), as they titled it, is, according to Zoller Seitz, as if “you get to put the show on the couch and be Dr. Melfi.”
Most significantly, to Soprano fans, is the interview exchange with Chase in which he appears to give away the infamous ending.
Quizzing Chase About His Original Vision
But knowing how closely Chase has guarded the secret, the savvy pop-culture writers knew the only way they could find out what happened to Tony Soprano was if his creator was cornered and unintentionally revealed something.
After the dramatic conclusion of the show, you can bet the two media critics had some questions for the showrunner. So, that’s what happened. Sepinwall asked the question and Zoller Seitz pounced on the reveal hidden in Chase’s response.
A Groundbreaking Program
The authors published the exhaustive episode-by-episode account to celebrate 20 years of The Sopranos. In the book, Sepinwall and Zoller Seitz dive into the reasons The Sopranos was such a unique program and how it affected TV shows since the 1999 premiere of New Jersey’s famous fictional mob family.
The authors say that there could be no Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones without the precedent HBO set by airing such a complex and graphic TV show.
The Very First Episode Reveals a Clue
Being a crime family boss is stressful. The show opens with James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano waiting to see psychologist Dr. Jennifer Melfi. Tony’s doctor sent him there to be cured of his relentless anxiety attacks.
Flash forward to the Season 6 grand finale Made in America. We feel his unease with each new person who walks into the diner. He’s sitting at Holsten’s in a booth waiting for his wife. He picks Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ from the jukebox, but the optimistic tune is merely a distraction to the tension.
Not Your Average TV Character
If you’ve seen the very first episode, you would have noticed that Tony Soprano comes off kind of lovable, or at least vulnerable. We find him reprimanding the squirrels in his backyard for bogarting the snacks he left out for the ducks. We don’t yet know he’s a ruthless killer and a criminal.
In short, we kinda like him and that complicates the normal script. On TV, the bad guys are never the protagonist, and the good guys always win. For Chase, Tony’s ending had to be a little different.
Set in Suburbia, Like Any Sitcom
Unlike typical Mafia stories, The Sopranos did not take place during the height of the Italian-American Mafia in the ‘40s. Instead, the show is set in suburbia, like any common sitcom. In 1999, prior to Empire and other graphic crime shows, Tony’s savage ambition to take the mob boss position made it clear that “The Sopranos” is not average TV.
It is no corporate ladder Tony climbs to clinch the title of CEO, but he tells people he has a normal corporate job working in waste management.
Just Your Average Family Man
Like a lot of American families can relate, homelife is not perfect. Tony fights with his wife, Carmela. He has two children, his daughter Meadow and his son Anthony Jr. Gradually, as they realize their dad might not be an average family guy, things get tense.
Meadow is not pleased when she finds out her father does not actually work in waste management and suspects he’s in organized crime. Meanwhile, Tony’s vying for mob president after the emphysema death of former boss Giovanni “Johnny” Soprano, Tony’s father, whose dying wish was for Tony to succeed him.
Behind Closed Doors
Tony’s life is complicated. This is no ordinary work/life balance. He is a family man, but he is also a ruthless mob boss. The close relationships he has with his crime family are just as tight and as conflicted as his domestic family’s.
Sal Bonpensiero is one of his closest associates and one of his best friends. But when Sal turns FBI-informant, ratting on business dealings, Tony struggles over having to end the relationship—the mobster way.
An Ominous New Direction
Tony was tight with Bonpensiero and so was the audience. When he was killed off in Season 2, it signaled a new trajectory and dark days ahead in Chase’s Jersey. As a fan-favorite character who seemed safe, the elimination of Bonpensiero communicated to viewers that no character is safe.
Anyone could get whacked at any time. By the time the final episode played out, viewers were ready for anything, except for what actually happened.
No Rest For the Wicked
Tony Soprano’s life, like most mob bosses, is mired in conflict. He’s running a crime empire on one hand, and he is a family guy on the other. Mobsters want the stability of the family, the image of an honest man on the up-and-up, but, at the same time, he wants the status of wealth, and he needs the power. Without it, his life would be dull and meaningless.
Tony hates the anxiety attacks, but he wants both worlds—exactly where his anxiety is rooted. And now, with Uncle Junior vying for the top position too, something’s got to give.
Tony Tries to Resolve the Power Vacuum
Determining who will take the reins as the new Mafia boss is another searing conflict. Tony thinks he has come up with the perfect solution by taking the title of “de facto” boss while Uncle Junior, also next in line to the throne, is named the official mob boss.
Tony is actually in charge. He hopes it is a win-win for everyone with the added benefit of creating a decoy for police who will track mob boss Junior instead, who exerts no real power.
The Sopranos Hierarchy Begins to Crumble
Tony’s plan goes smoothly for a while, but, in organized crime, there is no job security. Uncle Junior is resentful. The crime family starts to fall apart with the launch of the tumultuous and final Season 6 and it’s time for consequences.
In episode 2, the uncle shoots Tony in the stomach sending us into the mind of Tony’s subconscious as he lay in a coma. What follows produces one of television’s finest dream sequences.
Tony’s Life Unravels on the Home Front Too
Tony and his wife bickered often about his neglect toward their marriage, of course, but that wasn’t the worst of it. In Season 3, Tony strays even further.
While sitting in the waiting room at his therapist’s office, he meets a woman named Gloria and they have an affair. But it wasn’t the first time he betrayed his wife, and Carmela is fed up.
The Downward Spiral of Tony and Carmela’s Marriage
As it falls apart, it’s like a death knell for the show. Their marriage is the central pillar in the Sopranos empire, and for Tony, it’s his cover, his life.
Carmela gradually faces the fact that her husband is unrepentant about his fidelity, a murderer, and he’s been lying to her for years. When Tony realizes the façade has been irreparably cracked, he unleashes his vicious side on her. His show playing an innocent corporate guy is gone.
The Soprano Family
Tony dotes on his kids. He loves being a family man and heading the household, but he doesn’t like to be challenged. He’s hard on his son Anthony Jr., like a normal dad, pushing him to be more ambitious, but do we really want the boy to fill his dad’s shoes?
Meadow was the first to confront Tony, quizzing him on his waste management front, yet there are tender moments too. Driving her to a college in Maine shows a very sweet side. However, when he murders FBI informant Febby on the way, we see the juxtaposition between his two lives sharply contrasted.
The Beginning of the End
Season 6 is the beginning of the end, Concluding with, “Made in America,” the walls of Tony’s crime family are tumbling down. FBI informants are swarming. Things heat up in the DiMeo Mafia. From that end, Phil Leotardo, Mafia boss of the Lupertazzi family waged an all-out war, putting a bounty on the head of everybody in Tony’s Mafia.
Heads roll one by one. Meanwhile, Tony miraculously escapes and goes into hiding. It’s no wonder fans suspected the final scene would end with a hit on Tony.
Sheltered in a Safe House
The drama simmers down with Tony and his family secured at a hideaway. Phil got his due, which is to say, he was shot. This just prior to getting run over by his own SUV.
With the rival mob boss out of the way, the Mafia war subsided, or at least seemed to.
Home Sweet Home
The Soprano family moves back into their New Jersey McMansion and things seem almost normal. However, even though the top rival mobster had been wiped out, Tony still suffers from anxiety.
He’s had to deal with FBI inquisitions plus dark visions of vengeance lurking over his head. He admitted once that guys like him end up dead or in jail and that fear is lingering.
Tony and Carmela Meet at Holsten’s
At this point, Tony has appointed a new leader. At the diner, he informs his wife that one of his loyal associates is no longer loyal and is scheduled to testify against him.
The couple looks over the menu waiting for Meadow and Jr. This ll signals that the “Made in America” episode is winding down, but the tension you could slice it with a knife. Will he get whacked?
While at the Diner
Anthony finally shows up at Holsten’s and now the three of them wait for Meadow who is parking her car. A suspicious guy in a Members Only jacket meets Tony’s gaze.
Tony holds it just long enough to make us wonder if he’s an associate or a shady character out to get him. Tony knows his hit is coming. His contract on Phil won’t go unchallenged.
Waiting for Meadow
Meanwhile, the suspense only builds as Meadow tries to park the car. The scene is drawn out as she pulls up to the curb and the crunch of metal and concrete brings the car to a sharp halt.
She puts it into gear to try to straighten it out. She slowly makes another attempt, now trying to parallel park. It’s grating to watch even without the dramatic tension in the diner.
A Soprano’s Convention?
According to Zoller Seitz, co-author of the definitive “The Sopranos Sessions,” Meadow’s meticulous but strained maneuvering had every appearance of being a Chase dramatic convention that viewers had come to expect.
He said, “So often on The Sopranos when a character spends a lot of screen time shooting the breeze or fixating on something mundane, the non-drama is followed by a beat-down.” This was one more reason the tension was so high, but the writers pulled a fast one.
A Collective Exhale
As Meadow locks the car door and walks toward the diner, there’s a huge sense of relief. Especially as she steps onto the sidewalk after a close call jaywalking across. Just when it looks like she’ll walk into the diner and sit with the family, just as we’ve sighed with relief, it flips.
Tony looks to the door. We’re ready to see her walk in. Instead, the door doesn’t open and the screen flashes to black. That’s it.
As Confusion Sets In
Ten long seconds tick by while viewers stare dumbfounded at a silent, black screen, slowly processing what just happened. Only seconds earlier “Don’t stop believin’, hold on to that feeling” was rockin’ the diner, and then silence.
Credits roll on the same black screen, in the same silence. Everyone had their story. Where were you when “The Sopranos” went black?
Let the Debates Begin
The conclusion of the Sopranos drama is one of the most momentous series grand finales in all of television. Or, at the very least, it is the most debated. Ten years after the program ended, people still discussed the abrupt ending. Did Tony die in that diner?
Some argue that the guy in the Members Only jacket took him out, that the black screen symbolizes death. Screenrant goes so far as to say, “Perhaps the best way to look at it is that we the viewers get whacked, not Tony.”
Does Tony live?
Others think that the final episode points to Tony living another day. The family is together, it seems like good times. And then there’s the music.
Does Journey’s optimistic song make it seem like Tony will live?
Should We Expect a Conclusive Ending?
The Sopranos had always been ahead of the curve, avant-garde, and outside-the-box. Should fans expect a normal ending? Whether he lives or dies in that scene, both would be common, expected, and average.
On top of that, we have the creator, David Chase, saying repeatedly that he did not want a conventional ending to the show.
In 2007, the New Jersey Star-Ledger asked Chase about “Made in America.”
When the show ended, then-TV columnists Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz from The Star-Ledger questioned his choice and he said, “I have no interest in explaining, defending, reinterpreting or adding to what is there.”
Chase refused to share any information about the ending, no matter how many times journalists ask. The Star-Ledger, incidentally, is the NJ newspaper that Tony, wearing a white robe, picks up at the end of his driveway.
What Chase Did Say?
Talking to the Ledger with Sepinwall and Zoller Seitz, Chase clarified that the writing team did not mean to enrage people. They meant to entertain. He said they weren’t trying to mess with people’s minds or trigger them.
Instead, scriptwriters just did what they thought they “had to do.” The fan reaction was strong, but they didn’t expect it to be so intense.
Chase Reveals His “Don’t Stop Believin” Choice
In general, we never expect artists to explain their creations. And neither did Chase, even though many begged him. But he did open up about that final song pick. It was a controversial choice backstage. Before “Made in America” was even taped, Chase said they all hated it.
“When I said, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ people went, ‘What? Oh my God!’ I said, ‘I know, I know, just give it a listen,’ and little by little, people started coming around.”
Flash-forward 12 years and those same Ledger reporters are sitting with Chase talking about their new book, “The Soprano Sessions.” One reason it is considered to be the authoritative account of “The Sopranos,” is, in part, because the volume contains rare and extensive interviews with Chase.
So, when they sat at a roundtable on that fated day, Chase slipped in a question by Sepinwall and then Zoller Seitz followed it up, cornering the showrunner.
Talking About the End
The writers have had many discussions and interviews with Chase throughout the run of the show and afterward. It was Sepinwall who mentioned that Chase had formerly made a comment about the ending two years before the final episode.
Sepinwall asked Chase if he remembered saying he had two years of story ideas left before what would be Tony’s death scene. This is the inquiry that caused Chase to accidentally spill the beans.
What Sepinwall Actually Asked and Chase’s Reply
It went like this. Sepinwall: When you said there was an endpoint [ie Tony’s death], you don’t mean Tony at Holsten’s, you just meant, “I think I have two more years’ worth of stories left in me.”
Chase went on to say: “Yes, I think I had that death scene around two years before the end [Wait, What?! Huge reveal?] Tony was going to get called to a meeting with Johnny Sack in Manhattan, and the screen was meant to go black there and you never saw him again as he was heading back, the assumption being that something bad happens to him at the meeting. But we didn’t do that.”
Mr. Zoller Seitz Has a Question
Zoller Seitz said to him, “You do realize, of course, that you have just referred to that as a death scene.” Chase answered, “you guys. Just like that, the secret is out.” So Zoller Seitz repeated to Chase what he had given away.
He inquired, “You realize, of course, that you just referred to that as a death scene.” After a long pause, the series creator retorted with an expletive. This makes it seem as though Chase did inadvertently divulge his long-held secret.
What Happened at The Diner?
So Tony wasn’t whacked at the diner? It could’ve been anybody. That is the point, according to Chase. As the interview continues, Chase said, “He could have been whacked in the diner…
We all could be whacked in a diner. That was the point of the scene.” He also pointed out that a black screen doesn’t necessarily signify the mafia boss’s death.
What Does Chase Say About Making a Sopranos Movie?
Years ago, talking to the Ledger, Chase says he has no intentions for making a movie based on “The Sopranos.” He said that he thought they had done it all already.
However, he did say that if others wanted to do it and there was a good movie to make, he would be in.
The Many Saints of Newark
One issue impeding a Sopranos movie is a sad one. James Gandolfini died in 2013. So, without Tony could there be a movie? Apparently, yes. Because as of September 2021 there will be a Sopranos film called “The Many Saints of Newark.”
Gandolfini’s son Michael Gandolfini portrays a young Tony Soprano in the New Line Cinema prequel that will debut on HBO and on the film festival circuit.
The upcoming movie is set in the Jersey-area hometown, but it takes place in the ‘60s. “The Many Saints of Newark” is set with the backdrop of the Newark riots of 1967. Alan Taylor, a former director of “The Sopranos” on HBO, directs The Many Saints. David Chase wrote the script.
It features Tony Soprano’s protégé Christopher Moltisanti, who, incidentally, Tony kills in Season 6. The film goes back to the beginning when Tony’s father Giovanni “Johnny Boy” Soprano served as a mafia boss.
Must All Good Things End?
Moving into production of the sixth season, HBO wanted to know what Chase was planning for the grand finale episode. At that time, Chase told the cable network execs about the Lincoln Tunnel scene situation. This was the story of NYC mob boss Johnny Sack calling Tony to a meeting in Manhattan.
Tony drives through the Lincoln Tunnel to meet Sack. When he returns through the tunnel, the show cuts to black and we assume something bad happened at the meeting. This is the scene Chase said they didn’t end up doing.
When pressed by “The Sopranos Sessions” authors about whether the diner scene is another version of the Lincoln Tunnel idea, Chase responded in the negative. “No, it’s not, because I went away from that.” Explaining, Chase continued, “If you were producing that [tunnel scene], you’d say, ‘Well, obviously, he’s a mobster, and his death means the end of the show, so he should die . . .
But in the end, we decided that we didn’t want to do that. Otherwise, I would’ve filmed him going to the meeting with Johnny.” Chase refused to stick to the bad-guy script.
Adriana’s Final Scene
Talking to Sepinwall and Zoller Seitz, the creator admitted that Adriana’s murder occurred off-camera because he didn’t want to see it. When Adriana gets shot in the Season 5 episode “Long Term Parking,” it was the crime show’s only off-camera death. Chase said her character was innocent, trusting, a little “sobbing-prone,” but she had suffered enough.
However, as an FBI informant, she could not live. Terence Winter felt the same. He said that he subconsciously scripted the death scene off-camera, but realized later it was because he, like the rest of the writing team, fell in love with Adriana.
“The Sopranos” Produced a GOAT Episode?
“Pine Barrens,” written by Terence Winter and Tim Van Patten, is the eleventh episode of Season 3. It is one of “The Sopranos” best-ever and it has been declared TV’s all-time best episode. “Pine Barrens” won a Writers Guild Award and an Emmy nod. It’s darkly humorous, a classic Sopranos sampling.
In “Pine Barrens,” hit team Christopher and Paulie, in between whacking targets, chat mundanely in a hilarious exchange about movies and whatnot. Pulp Fiction-like, the hit team plugs an informant with bullets, but not before Paulie finishes a whining rant about getting exposed to poison oak.
HBO’s President Objected to Tony’s Violence
Five episodes into HBO’s new series, Tony takes out Fabien “Febby” Petrulio, the rat who had escaped to the witness protection program. The episode, “College,” starts out as one of Tony’s most sincere family guy performances. He’s a mafia boss calling contracts, but he’s likable.
Driving Meadow to visit colleges, he happens to find Febby and brutally strangles him to death with his bare hands. HBO president Chris Albrecht objected. He warned Chase not to ruin “The Sopranos” barely halfway through the first season by going dark with Tony’s character. Obviously, he was wrong.
Paranoid About Rats on the Film Crew
Just like the FBI informants, Tony obsesses about on the series, Chase was riddled with suspicions about leaks getting out. Somehow, stories featuring photographs that had been taken on the set made it into the “National Enquirer.” Chase suspected everyone backstage.
He says the leaker was raking in thousands of dollars spilling spoilers to the paparazzi. He drove himself nuts trying to figure out who it was. It turned out to be someone he never suspected, a senior crew member.
The Show Won Many Awards
And it picked up a couple of nominations as well. In all, “The Sopranos” was nominated 112 times for a Primetime Emmy. After the dust cleared, the show took home 21 Emmys. In every year of every season, “The Sopranos” was nominated for the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy, finally winning the prize in 2004 and in 2007.
No other premium channel network had won the best drama series until then. The show also garnered 23 Golden Globe nominations and took home five. It won 7 SAGS and 16 Directors Guild of America awards.
Carmela Draws the Line
Carmela was enabling Tony’s infidelity all along. She whimpered and complained about it occasionally, and then he would buy her something pretty, like an emerald ring. This time he’s ready to buy her the upscale, Jersey shores Whitecaps estate. They meet there and Carmela almost takes the bait.
Instead, the TV marriage fight of the decade unfolds. She triggers him saying she’s in love with his driver Furio. He responds with his fist, punching through beautifully treated drywall in a fit of rage. The marriage is over, Carmela stood up to Tony. Both James Gandolfini and Edie Falco who plays Carmela won an Emmy for that episode.
“Long Term Parking”
Closing out the fifth season, Tony is free to park his car in the garage again and the family reunites. Next, the final season launches with Tony clinging to life in ER because, of course, Uncle Junior popped him. The near-death experience brings Carmela closer to Tony.
Meeting at Holsten’s as a family unit, “Made in America” suggests a happy ending. It’s like the good old days. The show only exists with the family unit intact and with Tony alive to direct the drama.
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