"The Sopranos" haunts us still: Why we can't let go of the show's final scene

Eight years later, we *still* need to know if Tony gets popped. A cadre of psychoanalysts puts us on the couch

Published May 3, 2015 4:30PM (EDT)

James Gandolfini, Edie Falco and Robert Iler in the series finale of "The Sopranos"          (HBO/Will Hart)
James Gandolfini, Edie Falco and Robert Iler in the series finale of "The Sopranos" (HBO/Will Hart)

"Everything turns to shit."

A pet refrain of Tony's (and in many ways, "The Sopranos'" cri de coeur), the phrase neatly captures the debate that has enveloped the series since its finale and is swirling once again.

In August of last year, Martha P. Nochimson of Vox revealed the "Sopranos" creator had settled the question of his hero's fate once and for all: Tony didn't die. Chase balked at the assertion, insisting he had been misconstrued and that the diner scene "raised a spiritual question that has no right or wrong answer." Vox, in turn, accused Chase of issuing a "classic non-denial denial," all while earning the opprobrium of a host of publications (Salon included) for a literal-mindedness it hadn't quite displayed. At the time, "The Sopranos" had been off the air for seven years.

Now, eight months removed from his kerfuffle with Vox and three years after formally addressing that last scene in an interview with the Associated Press, Chase has emerged from his own self-imposed witness protection program to explain, shot-by-shot, what really went down in Holsten's diner that fateful night. And as is his wont, he has again frustrated legions of fans desperately searching for catharsis.

As a reluctant "Sopranos" truther, I confess I've fallen into Chase's trap against my better judgment, rewatching the final season for instances of foreshadowing and combing through baroque online dissertations. Whether Tony gets clipped or not has never been the question, of course. Even David Chase acknowledges as much. But what his latest remarks fail to elucidate, and what Chase himself may never adequately explain, is why we can't leave it unanswered -- why, to borrow a metaphor from the show, we the viewers can't see the forest for the Russians.

It's difficult to overstate just how unnerving David Chase's sleight of hand was in 2007. The series finale garnered 11.9 million viewers according to Nielsen, the highest rating for a final episode in HBO's history. (As a point of reference, the Season 5 premiere of "Game of Thrones" last month drew just under 8 million viewers.) What those numbers didn't capture, and what couldn't be fully known for several years hence, was that "The Sopranos" had ushered in a new entertainment epoch — if not a true Golden Age of television.

But all of that was forgotten in the moment Steve Perry's golden voice abruptly cut out.

The letdown of "Made in America" was as palpable as the series was influential. Within hours of its airing, disgruntled fans had crashed HBO's website, even as a handful of critics (Salon's Heather Havrilesky among them) hailed the episode as the finale "Sopranos" fans deserved. "People viscerally experienced it like in Greek drama," says Dr. Margaret Crastnopol, the author of "Micro-trauma: A Psychoanalytic Understanding of Cumulative Psychic Injury."  "To not have [Tony's fate] decided for us was very anxiety-provoking."

In his seminal essay "The Death of the Author," French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes argues that a text's meaning can neither be derived from its author's biographical information nor from his intent. "To give an Author to a text," he writes, "is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing." Like the post-structuralists who succeeded him, Barthes recognized the dangers inherent in this assignment, which reduces a complex work of art -- be it Balzac's "Sarrasine" or a TV series about a "fat fucking crook from Jersey" -- to two dimensions.

The ending of "The Sopranos" explicitly rejects an absolutist interpretation, and yet we can't resist the search for narrative closure. We've collected the "clues" -- Bobby Baccalieri's "you-probably-don't-even-hear-it-when-it happens" speech in "Soprano Family Movies," the allusion to the Louis' restaurant murder scene from "The Godfather," you name it -- and now we are entitled to know what happens to Tony. It's how a journalist like Nikki Finke, as good an avatar as any for man's raging id, can actually commit words like these to print:

"The line to cancel HBO starts here. What a ridiculously disappointing end lacking in creativity and filled with cowardice to The Sopranos saga...Chase clearly didn’t give a damn about his fans. Instead, he crapped in their faces. This is why America hates Hollywood."

If our desire for David Chase to "close the writing" is childish and absurd, it's also oddly poignant. "I think it's a good example of how people find uncertainty incredibly vexing," argues Dr. Philip Ringstrom, a psychoanalyst and a former contributor to Slate's TV Club. "It's like a psychological itch that's gotta be scratched. There's a need to know how [the show] ends, and it's torturous -- almost sadistic."

The answer why may lie in a thought experiment developed in the first half of the 20th century by a Nobel Prize-winning Austrian physicist named Erwin Schrödinger. The paradox very loosely goes as follows: A cat is placed in a box with some poisonous gas that has a 50 percent chance of killing it. Until we look inside the box, we have no idea of knowing whether the cat is dead or alive. The theory holds that before we look, the cat is in a superposition in which it is both dead and alive, and that the very act of looking is what determines the poor boxed feline's fate. If curiosity kills the cat, it is ours and not his.

"In a sense, Tony is Schrödinger's cat," argues Dr. Mark Mellinger, a teacher at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York and a psychoanalyst on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. "The thought experiment has the same effect on people. It goes against our sense of reality being either this, or that, and never both."

David Chase is no stranger to this theme. After slipping into a coma, Tony spends two entire episodes of Season 6 not as a notorious mobster running North Jersey but as a precision optics salesman suffering from early onset Alzheimer's who may or may not be facing a court summons from some supremely pissed-off Buddhist monks. As with the show's final scene, Chase never settles the question, instead suggesting that there are two (or more) parallel realities.

As seductive as these explanations are, the final scene of "The Sopranos" and the ensuing debate over what becomes of Tony speaks to something more primal still. Novelist and existential psychoanalyst Irvin Yalom has seen only a handful of "Sopranos" episodes, but he literally wrote the book on man's fear of death. "Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death" posits that this fear is the driving force behind much of our anxiety, and so it follows that our unease over that last cut to black betrays our discomfort with our own mortality.

"But there's another part of the formula," Yalom notes. "The actor really is dead."

Here's where the dispute over Tony's destiny dissolves into something more akin to public mourning, a distant cousin of the exaggerated, performative grief that floods our social media feeds when an artist as beloved as James Gandolfini meets his untimely demise. Our endless back-and-forth not only keeps Tony Soprano alive but the actor who so memorably inhabited him.

"Whether this is the end here, or not, it's going to come at some point," David Chase writes in his most recent essay for the Director's Guild of America. "All I know is the end is coming for all of us."

Personally, I hope Chase's are the final words on the subject -- not because they belong to him in any structuralist sense, but because each round of debate yields diminishing returns. By stubbornly refusing to embrace the finale's ambiguity, we are failing, however unconsciously, to confront our own fear of death and all its mystery.

Maybe Tony was right all along, and "remember when" really is the lowest form of conversation.

By Jacob Sugarman

You can follow Jacob Sugarman on twitter @jakesugarman.

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