Dear Brian and Jeff,
We haven't discussed the possibility that what Chase showed us in the final episode's last moments were Tony Soprano's last moments of life. A Slate colleague suggested that interpretation to me Sunday night and I pooh-poohed it. But it seems to have gathered a following. The idea is that the screen goes black not because Chase is messing with his audience, but because someone has clipped Tony, and when somebody clips you everything goes … black. The most elaborate expression of this theory appears in a phantom e-mail that's been making the rounds. I must have received 12 copies of it Monday. Here's what it says:
The guy at the bar is also credited as Nikki Leotardo. The same actor played him in the first part of Season Six during a brief sit-down concerning the future of Vito. That wasn't that long ago. Apparently, he is the nephew of Phil. Phil's brother Nikki Senior was killed in 1976 in a car accident. Absolutely Genius!!!! David Chase is truly rewarding the true fans who pay attention to detail.
The phantom e-mail goes on to say that two others in the restaurant had reason to kill Tony, one of them a trucker who got robbed by Chris-tuh-fuh in Season 2 and the other … actually I'm a little unclear who the third potential assassin is. The e-mail is not especially lucid. But let's back up a little bit. How does our phantom e-mailer know that the guy at the bar is "credited as Nikki Leotardo"? I don't have access to an instant replay, but surely the credits would show either the character's name ("Nikki Leotardo") or a description of the character ("Guy in Bar") paired with the name of the actor who played him. It wouldn't show both a name and a description. Anyway, the actor who played the guy at the bar (which on reflection, given Brian's description of the place, isn't a bar at all but merely a counter) has never appeared in any previous episode of The Sopranos. I know this because he was profiled in a June 9 news story in the Bucks County Courier Times. He isn't, in fact, an actor at all. His name is Paolo Colandrea, and he was chosen for The Sopranos by a casting agent who frequents his pizza shop in Penndel, Pa. Colandrea "has no previous acting experience," on The Sopranos or anywhere else, the Courier Times reported.
It may still be plausible to conclude that Tony Soprano died. But that phantom e-mail is a hoax.
Brian: I didn't much like the final episode, but unlike you, I did rather like the cat. Perhaps you're more of a dog person. (I have both.) The puss brought to mind the man-sized Ginger Cat that appears in a fancy-dress ball in Shipwreck, the first installment of Tom Stoppard's trilogy, The Coast of Utopia. Perhaps you saw the plays during their recent run in New York. Brendon Lemon, a New York-based theater critic for the Financial Times, asked Stoppard what the Ginger Cat signified. "Essentially," Stoppard replied,
the Ginger Cat is an arbitrary purposeless malign or mischievous force/fate which deflects the individual life within the overarching Hegelian Law of History … to which populations are subject.
I figure that if I managed to get up from Washington to Lincoln Center to see The Coast of Utopia (it won Best Playat this year's Tony Awards, whose broadcast had the bad luck to coincide with, yes, the final episode of The Sopranos), then there's a decent likelihood that David Chase caught it, too. Even if he didn't, it works. The cat that caught Tony Soprano's fancy was ginger, after all, and malign fate was lurking in every corner of that final episode. Why was Paulie so spooked by the cat? Slate's editor, Jacob Weisberg, shared with me his hypothesis that if Paulie is indeed a rat, then he wouldn't likely feel comfortable in the presence of a feline.
Jeff: I agree with you that David Chase is a genius, but he still puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like us scribblers for The New Yorker and Slate. I don't find it implausible that he would have difficulty figuring out a non-gimmicky ending to The Sopranos. As I've written earlier, the Final Episode is a deeply troubled television genre, one capable of stumping even the big-brained creator of Silvio Dante's hair (with no small assist, I must add, from the show's hairstylist). "Sure, he played a trick on us," you write. But it didn't strike me as an especially playful one. I find myself comparing Chase's blackout to the scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy in which a serial killer enters the apartment of his next victim. The door shuts and the camera starts winding slowly down a staircase as the audience waits for her scream. The camera reaches the ground floor. No scream. It backs out the front door. No scream. The sounds of the old Covent Garden (back when it was still a vegetable market) come up. No scream. Then Hitchcock cuts away. But Hitchcock isn't saying, "I'm not going to tell you whether the woman was killed." He's saying, "I don't need to tell you whether the woman was killed, because you already know. Of course she got killed. He's a serial killer, for Pete's sake!" Frenzy was Hitchcock's second-to-last film, and his last great one, and that tracking shot is the distillation of a half-century's experience crafting suspenseful narratives. By comparison, Chase's final blackout conveyed no sense of mastery or fun. It was just a trick.
Moreover, my friend Bill Barol points out, it wasn't a very nice trick to pull on John From Cincinnati, the new HBO show whose producers thought they'd snagged a dream lead-in, only to discover that their would-be viewers believed HBO's signal had gone abruptly dead. You think the Mafia is tough? Then you don't know show business, my friend.