How The Sopranos Finale Made it a Masterpiece – And What People Miss When They Don’t Really Pay Attention

Tony Soprano is sitting alone in a booth as Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing is playing on a jukebox, and in walks Tony’s wife Carmela. They’re meeting at a diner tonight to eat, and Tony has some bad news to discuss, but before things can go further, their son AJ arrives and starts complaining about the tedium of his job. Tony assures him that he’s building contacts, that even the pointless stuff is all part of something larger for his career. Their daughter Meadow is late because she had to go to the doctor to switch birth control. AJ reminds Tony of something he was told years ago, Tony doesn’t remember it, but he thinks it sounds right. Meadow is having trouble parking her car, but she finally manages it and arrives. Tony looks up as the diner door opens – CUT TO BLACK. Thus ends The Sopranos. On its face, it’s a mundane evening with an American family, so how did it become such an iconic ending that it helped elevate this already lauded show into something of a legend?

The Sopranos is the greatest television show of all time, and maybe my favourite piece of art period. It’s ostensibly a mob show, starting out as kind of a send-up to Goodfellas and other Scorsese mob epics, with characters within the show actually referencing the stories of those films. Scorsese himself also briefly appears in an episode (an actor portrays him here, Scorsese actually found the show alienating), and every mob story cliche in the book happens over the course of the series’ run (from the FBI mole plot, to the gang war storyline). The trick to the series though, is that it’s not a simple mob story at all, not really. The truth of the show is that it’s about a modern American family living through the End of History, and all the highs and lows that come with it. The best TV shows are never truly about the genre they belong to, they’re shows that use them as a backdrop to tell stories about life and the world we live in today. The Sopranos did this better than any show ever made throughout its run, but it really solidified this with its much discussed finale, “Made in America”.

What made the finale so notable was its “shocking” ending that had critics confused about what just occured, but also what I consider to be a mass misapprehension of just what David Chase was trying to say. The true point of the finale, and the show as a whole is captured in that last scene, but many interpret the sudden cut to black as sort of a puzzle box death scene. If you’ve been in the fandom for any amount of time, or read any article from some hack journalist claiming to have gotten the REAL truth out of David Chase, you know about the Member’s Only jacket guy that went into the bathroom and emerged to shoot Tony, or how AJ’s last girlfriend was a plant sent from the Leotardo crew, or how every aspect of the season was actually just foreshadowing Tony’s death. The mob war that concluded at the start of the episode didn’t really end, and the events of the finale were really just a long build up to a shock death scene of Tony Soprano… I don’t like to be rude about people’s interpretation of the media they consume, but I feel like even basic media literacy is missing from people who subscribe to that theory so wholly. Also, it’s a huge shame that so many fans only got this from the finale, as what it’s actually about is so much richer.

The fact that the finale was mostly bereft of mob drama beyond the beginning and was almost entirely a slice of life story about Tony and his family wasn’t a fake-out, it was the show. The so-called little things, the course of Tony’s children’s lives (which was a way bigger focus in the show than any mob related storylines), meeting his dementia addled uncle at a care home (this scene was particularily resonant), and deciding where they were gonna eat that night… All these things painted a picture of the complicated lives of those living in a modern American family. The uncertainty of the future, represented by an impending FBI investigation against Tony discussed in the finale as well as the general dangers of being a criminal (though certain fans always ignore the former complication), juxtaposed with the joyful warmth of being together with your family are contrasted beautifully in the finale. The only really good thing in Tony’s life is constantly undermined and threatened by the criminal lifestyle he’s pursued.

AJ: Right, focus on the good times.
Tony: Don’t be sarcastic.
AJ: Isn’t that what you said one time? “Try to remember the times that were good”?
Tony: I did?
AJ: Yeah.
Tony: Well, it’s true, I guess.

You don’t need me to tell you these things because the show basically says it explicitely with a call back AJ makes to something Tony told him in the season one finale. You have to hold on to the good times while they’re happening, because that’s what living is. We’re all heading to the same place after all. The constant death, the funerals, and of course the murders throughout the series aren’t an end in of themselves, they all serve to highlight this point about life. What made the finale so perfect is that it rejected the impulse to reduce it to what people were excited about going into it (the mob war) and return the show to what it was ultimately about. With this ending it truly transcends the mob stories the show was originally a send-up to in its inception and becomes something vital. It’s the ultimate exclamation point, or as Matthew Weiner (a writer on The Sopranos, and the creator of Mad Men) puts it, the writing equivalent of a rockstar smashing his guitar at the end of an amazing set. Chase wasn’t here to give us what we “wanted” ( a spectacular, bloody ending), but to further underline what the show was about and what made it so essential.

It’s amusing to hear David Chase talk about the finale on the Talking Sopranos podcast, because he feels that he made the finale as explicit in its messaging as he possibly could have. He almost considers it bad writing to have a character say what is effectively “the moral of the story” right at the end, but is exasperated at the fact that most people still didn’t get it. To those who have constricted themselves to a sort of “puzzle box” ending for the show where it’s a mystery about Tony being killed that we’re meant to solve, I’d highly reccommend listening to Chase talk about the finale in this interview. Towards the end here, he asks the listeners who believe the ending to be dark and bloody to really pay attention to what he’s saying and what the show is saying. It’s right there in the title, we weren’t just watching a story about some mobster, we were watching a story about an American family. Those focusing so intensly on the mystery of Tony’s supposed death entirely miss what the finale had to say about his life, and the lives of so many other American families watching at him, whose parents and grandparents came from across the sea to settle in a wonderous and infuriating place called America. Ultimately the show ended on the only note it could ever end on to feel true: An evening with a family that’s enjoying its time together, as an uncertain and often frightening future looms ahead.

Quote of the Day:

“I don’t care how close you are: In the end, your friends are gonna let you down. Family. They’re the only ones you can depend on.” —Tony Soprano


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