It was perhaps inevitable that David Chase’s appearance at the Museum of the Moving Image, which followed a screening of the landmark drama’s first and last episodes, would, as the Daily Beast’s Alex Suskind reports, would turn to a discussion of the series’ famous smash-cut ending.
“Well the idea was you get killed in the diner or not killed,” Chase responded, somewhat incredulously, to a fan who was “disappointed” by the ending. “And what’s the idea? You know I am not trying to be coy about this. It’s not trying to guess if he’s alive or dead. That’s not the point for me. I don’t know how to explain this. Actually, here’s what Paulie Walnuts says. In the beginning of that episode he says, ‘In the midst of life, we are in death, or is it, In the midst of death we are in life? Either way we’re up the ass.’ That’s what’s going on there.”
Like so many shows that have followed in its wake, “The Sopranos'” ending prompted an endless sifting for clues, with the undefeated champion being “The Definitive Explanation of the End.” Last year, Matt Zoller Seitz convened a panel of TV critics to discuss the show, which began, ignoring “The Sound of Music’s” sound advice, at the end:
It’s unfortunate but telling that the self-proclaimed “Master of Sopranos” who posted the “definitive explanation” has never devoted that level of scrutiny to any other aspect of the show. But then what fun is a puzzle you can’t solve? He — and I’m not going out too far on a gender limb here — shows evident skill in breaking down the final sequence in terms of structure, camera placement, editing and so on, but devoting that skill to a single sequence in search of an answer he’s predetermined exists is a profound waste, especially when there’s so much more show to savor.
As with “Mad Men,” “The Sopranos” is not a show that was meant to be “solved,” and treating the ending as such misses the one thing about it that is indisputable: If David Chase had wanted to give us a definitive answer, he’d have given us one. If we were meant to know, we’d know. As he told the Moving Image audience, “
I didn’t want people to be reading into it like ‘The Da Vinci Code’
or something. I was amazed when it happened. It wasn’t meant to be like ‘Wow, the Walrus was Paul.’ It wasn’t meant to confound anybody. It was meant to make you feel.”
There’s a paradox at work here, or at least a kind of willful obduracy. People ask Chase to explain the ending, and he does — but because it’s just not the answer they want, they act like he never answered at all. He says it was meant to be ambiguous, that he meant for the series to end on an open chord rather than a resolved one, and they say, “Yeah, sure. But did Tony get whacked?”
For the record, I rewatched “The Sopranos'” ending on a whim a few weeks ago, and to me, it sure looks like Tony gets one in the back of the head, “Godfather”-style, from the man in the Members Only jacket. Otherwise, I don’t know what that guy is doing in the sequence, or why the camera keeps cutting away to him. But that’s my decision, one that Chase gave me the tools to come to on my own before he walked away from the table.
It’s not surprising that, seven years after the fact, Chase’s ending, which he envisioned years before the fact, still prompts questions from viewers. But David Chase is not going to answer them. David Chase is never going to answer them. He’s not avoiding the question; it’s the wrong question.