I ask, then, why he chose to present the final scene in the way he did, and his mood shifts abruptly. Any frustration at how he’s been depicted in the media, and by fans of the show he slaved over for seven seasons, vanishes. He is suddenly much quieter, much more uncertain.
“It just seemed right,” he suggests. “You go on instinct. I don’t know. As an artist, are you supposed to know every reason for every brush stroke? Do you have to know the reason behind every little tiny thing? It’s not a science; it’s an art. It comes from your emotions, from your unconscious, from your subconscious. I try not to argue with it too much. I mean, I do: I have a huge editor in my head who’s always making me miserable. But sometimes, I try to let my unconscious act out. So why did I do it that way? I thought everyone would feel it. That even if they couldn’t say what it meant, that they would feel it.”
Based on the reaction to the finale that he’s aware of, does he think people felt it?
“Yeah. I do.”
That said, feeling and understanding are two different things, and he acknowledges that with everyone focusing so much on that abrupt cut to black, something was missed.
“There were filmic things that I was doing there,” he says, “that I wanted to say about life, which people have not really … Only one person I read actually saw it. That’s where the center of the episode was for me, and that’s where the ending was. And people have not connected it.”
And at the risk of also not connecting it, I will say this:
I don’t think Tony dies in the finale—though if you believe that he does, I’ll understand why. Ultimately, I don’t think there is a concrete answer, and I’m no more right than the other side is.
I have read much of the commentary about the finale, up to and including the online essay “The Sopranos: Definitive Explanation of ‘The END,’” which devotes more than 20,000 words to explaining why Tony is absolutely, positively, unquestionably dead. I think there are very persuasive arguments to be made for the idea that Tony is murdered (whether by Members Only Guy or some other unknown assailant) just as Meadow runs into Holsten’s, and that the abrupt cut to an extended black screen is there to make it clear that Tony’s life has just come to an end. There was so much discussion in that final half-season about what happens when you die, about how a violent death can come with no warning. The finale features a lot of death imagery and discussion of death, and there’s no question the sequence was shot and edited in a style that was unusual for the series, designed for maximum suspense. The people in the Tony Dies camp aren’t being unreasonable in the way that, say, the people who said The Sopranos had no business doing dream sequences were.
But here’s why I would take that same ambiguous ending as Tony living: even factoring in the unusual style with which Chase shot that scene, the idea that Tony dies flies too much in the face of everything the show had previously done in terms of narrative and theme.
Narratively, this was never a show that cheated, or tried to trick its audience. This was never a show told only from Tony’s point of view. We knew most everything going on in his world: who was on his side, who was against him, who was honest and who was lying to him. If a character went to work for the FBI, for instance, we either saw it happen, or it was such a minor character (like capo Ray Curto, so obscure that most fans couldn’t tell him apart from Patsy Parisi) that it didn’t matter.
At the moment Tony walks into Holsten’s, there’s no one we know of who has murder in his heart for the guy. He’s made a deal with new New York boss Butchie; his own inner circle is mostly dead or medically irrelevant; even the one capo who promises to be trouble just sounds like a cooperating federal witness. For Members Only Guy (or someone else in Holsten’s) to be acting on the orders of an enemy we’ve never met (or whom we haven’t heard of in years, like the Russians) simply isn’t the sort of thing the show ever did, and seems too abrupt a shift for the final moments.