Beyond the issue of who did it, the mere idea of Tony’s dying in (or immediately after) the final seconds of the show simply doesn’t seem like the kind of thing Chase would do.
This is a man whose opinion on the idea of story arcs was probably well expressed by Big Pussy, who once told Christopher, “You know who had an arc? Noah.” People kept expecting the series to function like a TV show with a traditional narrative structure, even as the evidence kept piling up, hour after hour, season after season, that this show didn’t work like that. The amount of mental energy expended solely on theories about when and how the “Pine Barrens” Russian would emerge from the woods to rain hell down on Paulie and Christopher—even well after that season ended and it was clear he was never, ever coming back—was so huge it could have solved Fermat’s Last Theorem under other circumstances.
Again and again, the show zigged when we expected a zag. Every cooperating witness would die before they could provide anything of value to the FBI. Seasons would frequently build to what seemed like a huge crescendo, only to offer resolution out of left field. Before Richie Aprile can go to war with Tony, Janice murders him over a punch in the face. Melfi never tells Tony about her rapist. Furio runs back to Italy. And still people expected a familiar narrative.
At the start of the fourth season, Tony confesses to Dr. Melfi that there are really only two ways a guy like him can end up: “Dead, or in the can.” Viewers took the comment as foreshadowing the only two ways the series itself could end, yet whenever I would bring the line up to Chase, he would wince. His view of the show was both too iconoclastic to believe that there were only two possible fates for Tony, each of them a kind of punishment for his misdeeds. Tony had clearly become the villain of his own story by that point; his getting killed in the finale, regardless of who was doing it or why, would be far too predictable an ending, even if the way it was presented (with viewers left to infer the murder based on editing choices and conversations from previous episodes) was unconventional.
Chase doesn’t change his mind often, but if he were to surprise us all one day by publicly admitting, “Yeah, I killed him. Duh,” I would accept that. But barring word from the boss’s mouth, I’m comfortable with my take: Tony’s life goes on, and the only punishment he has to face is continuing to be the fat, miserable fuck that is Tony Soprano. His children won’t be involved in organized crime themselves, but they also aren’t who and what he hoped they would be, and he sees in lonely, penniless, senile Uncle Junior that even a long life for the boss of New Jersey is no great reward.
But the very fact that we’re still having these debates—about both the quality and the content of that final scene—speaks to the boldness of The Sopranos and the mark it left on not only television, but all of popular culture. That Chase would present a scene so open to interpretation—even if, as he insisted to me the day after the finale, “It’s all there”(*)—as his closing statement isn’t something anyone would have expected from a TV show prior to this one.
(*) “It’s all there” could have meant “All the little clues pointing to Tony’s death are there if you look carefully for them,” or he could have meant, “What you saw is what happened, and anything after that is up for you to imagine.” I believe it’s the latter.
American TV viewers had seen great series finales prior to June 10, 2007, and terrible ones, wholly satisfying wrap-ups and cliffhangers that never got resolved due to cancellation, but we’d never seen ... this. No one had challenged his audience not only up to the last frame of footage, but for many seconds beyond that. (The most common complaint I still hear about the finale is that it made some people think their cable had gone out.) Chase not only never worried about having a likable main character; he didn’t need a likable series. He didn’t care about giving his audience what they wanted, didn’t need to give them the warm fuzzies in the finale. Instead, he took a kind of scene (Tony gathers the family for a meal at the end of the season) that had been familiar from throughout the show’s run, turned it on its head through music and editing, and either went away by pulling the rug out from under his viewers one last time, or by killing his main character in a way that (barring some kind of deathbed confession or other abrupt change of heart) could fuel arguments from here to the end of Western civilization.