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David Chase Speaks About ‘The Sopranos’ Ending

And offers nothing but more darkness

Jason Kempin/Getty Images

This post contains several minor spoilers, not counting an extensive discussion of a scene you have, “irregardless,” already seen.

Following a sold-out screening of the “Sopranos” pilot and finale Wednesday night at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, David Chase, the “Sopranos” capo di tutti capi, inevitably addressed how the show ended. Specifically, chief curator David Schwartz as well as many audience-questioners gamely tried to get Chase to answer the question—does Tony die?—that has provoked a million conversations, at least one strangely compelling 40,000-word Internet essay, and several dismissals from Chase. And Chase offered more of the same: Some sly koans, a decent dose of sarcasm, and no definitive answers. 

“Well,” Chase responded to one questioner, “the idea was he would get killed in a diner, or not get killed, or somebody would try to kill him, or there’d be an attack.” He added: “I’m not trying to be coy about this. I really am not. It’s not like we’re trying to guess, ‘Ooh, is he alive or dead?’ It’s really not the point—it’s not the point for me. How do I explain this? Actually, here’s what Paulie Walnuts says in the beginning of that episode. He says, ‘In the midst of life, we are in death. Or is it: in the midst of death, we are in life? Either way, you’re up the ass.’ That’s what’s going on.” The audience applauded. “I didn’t say he’s dead,” Chase clarified at one point.

If you’re anything like the audience Wednesday night, you want more of this, so here you go:

* “I wanted to create a suspenseful sequence, and, no, I didn’t want people to read into it like The Da Vinci Code,” he said. “It wasn’t meant like, ‘Wow, the walrus was Paul.’ I mean, what did that mean?” He added, “It was meant to make you feel. Not to make you think, but to make you feel.”

* Chase searched his coat pockets—he looked slightly haphazard in un-tucked white patterned shirt and gray jacket, those corpse-like cheekbones under mischievous eyes—for a passage by the author Carlos Castañeda that he said he had read recently, and which he felt had summed up what the ending means to him. The passage goes: “Warriors don’t venture into the unknown out of greed. Greed works only in the world of ordinary affairs. To venture into that terrifying loneliness of the unknown, one must have something greater than greed: love.” Chase seemed to be in earnest about this ridiculous passage.

* Was there any resonance, Schwartz wished to know, between Christopher’s murder of the “Czechoslovak” waste-management rival by shooting him in the back of head, in the pilot, and Tony’s ostensible murder from the guy in the Members Only jacket shooting him in the back of the head? Nope. “They always go behind, down in their linguine,” Chase shrugged.

* Chase said: “Maybe the most important shot in the [finale] is Tony looking at the sun at the end, toward the end. He’s leaning on the rake. That to me is the key to the whole concept. And that ties back to the ducks and the bear and life on the planet and him taking peyote and seeing the sun come up. And it’s not all negative at all.”

* “I don’t like easy solutions. But the world is a pretty spectacular, amazing place. Both good and bad.”

* On Meadow trying to parallel-park the car: “I think everybody knows what’s going on there in that scene….They may want a rational, verbal answer, but I think human beings know what’s happening there. I hope. I’m pretty sure.” (Me? I’ve always thought of it as an allusion to one of the show’s most important scenes, between Tony and Meadow, at the end of season three.)

* Chase seemed to confirm one of the key points of those who believe that the ending does depict Tony getting whacked, namely, a pattern identified in which a bell rings, signaling the diner’s door is being opened; then the camera shows Tony looking up; and then the camera assumes Tony’s point-of-view. The fade-to-black comes right when we would have assumed Tony’s point-of-view. The bell, Chase explained, is an allusion to a scene between Tony and Bobby Baccala on a lake, in which a bell also rings. (He didn’t mention that this is the same scene in which Bobby says, “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens,” a line Tony remembers in the penultimate episode and which is basically Exhibit A for those who believe that Tony gets killed.) “I had read that very often in Zen ceremonies they ring a bell like that, and what it’s supposed to do is bring you to the present, to keep bringing you to the now—the right now,” Chase said. And he went on to explain the camera-shooting structure: “It would come somewhere, see the person he was going to talk to, cut back to him, and then cut to him walking into his own point of view.”

* “Maybe he choked on an onion ring, I dunno. No, I’m being facetious. But he could’ve choked on an onion ring.”

I was disappointed by just how much so many seemed to care about five minutes of an approximately 80-hour series. I was also disappointed a little bit by Chase, never more than when he disclosed that he identifies with A.J.—“everybody hates that kid. I never did! He was a sweet little chubby kid. Okay, so he was spoiled. I just thought he was a typical, might even be like a Millennial.” But many artists are smaller than their greatest works. And it would be a very great artist indeed who is not smaller than “The Sopranos.”

I believe that both Chase and some of his fans have breached the artistic contract they had entered into. If Chase wanted his thoroughly narrative show to end on a decidedly un-narrative note, then it would be better simply to refuse to comment rather than to spout pseudo-Buddhist nonsense. (Dr. Melfi: “Your thoughts have a sort of Eastern flavor to them.” Tony: “Well, I’ve lived in Jersey all my life.”) And if his narrative show actually concludes with the final plot point of Tony’s murder, well, there’s no harm in saying that.

At the same time, the angered fan who told Chase Wednesday night, “However you made it turn out I would live with, but I feel like I was cheated from knowing how it turned out,” totally misunderstands the autonomy of works of art. The thing exists! It’s even on YouTube for easy perusal! While not straying from the thing itself, make of it what you want! (Disclosure, but really, just something people should know: New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier appears in a “Sopranos” episode.)

There were a few other highlights from Chase’s talk:

* He seemed most gratified to hear that viewers find the series hilarious (which it is) and that the musical choices are impeccable (which they are). Sometimes, he said, the writers would write scenes with specific music in mind. One example? The Tindersticks’ “Tiny Tears” was paired with the failed assassination of Tony in season one:

* The first three seasons of the show feel unusually perfect and self-contained. Chase confirmed that an event that happened before season four had a major impact on him. “I’ve read—it was Emily Nussbaum? Heather Havrilesky?—somebody was doing an overview and said, ‘It was this, it was that, Chase this, Chase that. And then, something in his mind went dark. Chase’s mind went dark.’ Well, yeah. It was 9/11.”

* Chase insisted he had not viewed the pilot since it first aired on HBO 15 years ago in January 1999. “I was floored tonight to see how good he was,” he said of the late, great James Gandolfini.

* I asked Chase what he thinks about TV dramas that have succeeded “The Sopranos” and the recap culture that probably dates to Alan Sepinwall’s “Sopranos” work in The Newark Star-Ledger (e.g., the paper Tony ambled down the driveway to retrieve every morning). Probably betraying my own views, I specifically mentioned “Mad Men,” which is the creation of former “Sopranos” writer Matthew Weiner. Here was Chase’s response:

My personal opinion of “Mad Men” is I think [Weiner]’s done an amazing thing. Without killing people every five minutes. You try writing a show without killing people, fires, stuff like that. He doesn’t do that. I mean a guy got his foot cut off in a lawnmower. I think that show is really special. I really like it….In terms of the recaps—I don’t get it. I don’t know why you would read that stuff. You read what you just saw? That’s one thing. And then picking apart every—it’s like, “I really loved the way Sally Draper walked from the car to the house.” Alright. She walked from the car to the house. “The flip in her step.” Okay. I guarantee you that they just tried to get her from the fucking car.

* Most people who saw the script assumed Chase would shoot the first season around Los Angeles. But he wanted to do it in Jersey. Former HBO head Chris Albrecht agreed, and so the show’s exteriors were shot in north Jersey, while the interiors were done at Silvercup Studios—20 blocks from the Museum of the Moving Image.

* When Chase had to tell actors that their characters were getting offed, he couldn’t help but think of himself like Tony. Al Sapienza, who played Junior’s henchman Mikey Palmice, “really did plead for his life,” Chase said. “The guy who died on the toilet didn’t like it, either,” he added.

Guess what the best part of the evening was? The first two hours, during which the actual episodes were screened! The finale, which I had seen perhaps two or three times, is a little bit rushed and plot-heavy—I was not surprised to learn that Chase had wished he could do one more episode. The pilot, which if I’m being honest I’ve watched a couple dozen times, really is just a very, very special hour. On the big screen, each one of Tony’s pores stood out, and you could read the titles of Dr. Melfi’s books. You notice the introduction of recurring motifs, such as Tony’s justifying savage acts of violence by referring to the victim’s status as a “degenerate fucking gambler.”

“I think the pilot is the series,” Chase observed. “The series is just the recapitulation of the pilot—a longer version of the pilot.” It is true. The very first scene, after all, consists of Tony staring at a mawkish statue of a naked woman in Dr. Melfi’s waiting room. He is in therapy because human beings do things like make statues that have no immediate utilitarian purpose and go to therapy because we aspire to something greater. “A.J.’s trying to figure out what his life is gonna be,” Chase said at one point. “Tony is kind of always figuring out what his death is going to be. Tony’s trying to figure out bigger issues than how you’re going to make money.” As the rest of us figure out bigger issues than how we’re going to make money, we have one advantage over Tony: He didn’t have “The Sopranos.”