The Sopranos and Authorial Authority: Stop Believing

Have you heard? You were wrong about The Sopranos.

I had been talking with Chase for a few years when I finally asked him whether Tony [Soprano] was dead. We were in a tiny coffee shop, when, in the middle of a low-key chat about a writing problem I was having, I popped the question. Chase startled me by turning toward me and saying with sudden, explosive anger, “Why are we talking about this?” I answered, “I’m just curious.” And then, for whatever reason, he told me.

I don’t blame David Chase for this. I really don’t. It’s the critics and the fans that have pushed him to this, to revealing the “answer” behind the beautifully ambiguous ending to his beautifully ambigious masterpiece, The Sopranos. Which he did this morning, in a Vox interview. To my chagrin.

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For a showrunner or an author, the temptation to reveal The Master Headcanon can be too great to resist. (Once burned by Lost, never again, am I right?) These geniuses sucked in all of the millions, into their exquisite fictions, where their word is law. And the audience? We all want our shit solved. We want our stories tied up in a bow. J.K. Rowling had this oversharing problem, too, but she doesn’t see it as a problem (and she still doesn’t). Gay Dumbledore, indeed. When an Author-God makes a pronouncement outside the fictional universe, it’s like we’re unearthing the epilogue to the Bible.

In case you’ve been living under the biggest and heaviest rock of all time, here’s the final scene of The Sopranos. I’ve watched it probably hundreds of times, I’ve dissected it to death, I’ve read enough think pieces for a lifetime, and it still leaves me full of awe.

Before this morning, I shared a certain perspective with most of the audience: that Tony is dead. Cut short in a brief moment, in the middle of dinner, in the middle of a conversation, in the middle of his life…in the middle of his favorite song. The sudden cut to blackness and silence represented the abrupt emptiness of death in the face of a human life: both prosaic and so vivid, mundane and miraculous, until it’s just over. That’s not the only way to read the ending, but it was mine. What I found most artful about it was its audacity. It was final and decisive. And it managed to be inexplicable, too. Very fitting in the context of the series and its protagonist.

When he answered the “Did Tony die” question, he was laconic. He shook his head, “No.” And then, simply, “No, he isn’t.”

While this is very frustrating to have to read – why’d you even open your big mouth, Chase? – I actually find it easy to ignore. To rewind and tape over, mentally. Because even though Chase created Tony and his world, and the end times, none of it belongs to him anymore. I was there from Episode 1, night after night, and I was there during the final credits. So now, The Sopranos belongs to me.

As always, art must be consumed, or it’s not art. This story and these characters are not real unless I accept them and treat them as such. This ham sandwich is not “food” and it doesn’t “taste good” until I eat it. It’s not even really “a sandwich” until I eat it. Until I experience this sandwich, it’s a useless exercise in bread slicing and mustard spreading. Tony and his life and death are what I decide to experience while I watch David Chase’s show. And I decided long ago to experience death.

Even David Chase supports me on this, oddly enough. The greatest TV reviewer of all time, Alan Sepinwall, wrote a book called “The Revolution Was Televised,” and he also asked Chase about the scene:

“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.”

So I reserve the right to feel it as I feel like feeling it. A little capricola, a little provolone. Delicious ingredients that we all get to taste differently. And so it goes, on and on and on and on.

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Don’t Stop Belie-

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The passing of James Gandolfini. So shocking and so untimely. It’s hard to lose someone like this; for a television cult-watcher like me, he loomed so large that it feels like one of the Jenga blocks at the very bottom has been pulled away. He was an actor of great depth and power. Your kindhearted fat father, your gangster sex dream, your flinty-eyed killer. David Chase’s statement breaks my heart:

He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.’ There would be silence at the other end of the phone. For [his wife Deborah Lin] and [children] Michael and Liliana this is crushing. And it’s bad for the rest of the world. He wasn’t easy sometimes. But he was my partner, he was my brother in ways I can’t explain and never will be able to explain.

I’ve written about The Sopranos before, particularly Tony: here, here, and here. No matter how much anyone writes, you can’t really describe Gandolfini’s work properly, because what he did was made for quiet watching, slow cooking. I guess he wanted to get away from Tony Soprano, and I’ve seen him be great in other films and shows, but the Boss was his legacy. It was a performance that lasted years and touched every sweet and vile corner of the human experience.

Chase is right; it was all in the eyes. So tender for such a hulking beast. Even as he wreaked havoc and destruction, Tony begged for love in a million different ways. Gandolfini was a master. When he was Tony, he was in a scene, acting with his co-players, but he was also an entire history and a life, wedged through the doorway carried on those giant shoulders.

Just so sad. He was so good and I watched him so closely and for so long. If you’ve never seen The Sopranos, now is a great time to experience one of the best actors to grace the screen. Farewell, a salud.

A New Soprano Soldier

I’m rewatching The Sopranos a little bit right now, just filling in the gaps between job applications and large iced coffees. I had forgotten about this scene. This is where we first meet Furio Giunta, an Italian mobster – not quite a bodyguard and not quite a consigliere. A devoted soldier. This is when Tony’s Italian blood runs suddenly hot and he feels the thrill of power that comes with great wealth, and with great pain for his enemies.

In this show, and really in any Mafia-related piece of art, The Boss embodies the most interesting complexities engendered by “the family.” The Boss is a father. He is a protector and provider and a threat. And unless he is unseated (political outmaneuvering thus signalling his disgrace) he is a god – even when he’s old and frail.

That’s Don Vittorio in the wheelchair. A babbling little Italian geezer. The Boss. When his posse hears what first seems like gunshots, Furio doesn’t hesitate. Tony watches in awe as he literally throws his body over the Don, then beats a little boy and a woman in the street for setting off fireworks and causing the panic. This is familial loyalty, like a son to a father. Instinct. This is a guy Tony needs on his side in a practical sense, but also because he craves that devotion. A gut reaction: The Boss is the most precious cargo, he is my king. Tony’s true weak spot. I’m obsessed with watching the fear and utter intoxication play across his face.