This much is certain regarding the last-known whereabouts of the most iconic television character of the early 21st century: He was sitting in a restaurant booth, eating onion rings. His wife, Carmela, and son, A.J., sat with him and his onion rings as a mysterious man in a Members Only jacket walked by the booth and into a nearby bathroom. The song playing on the jukebox was Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Our last look at Tony Soprano — the father, son, brother, and New Jersey gangster who fought, with cold ambivalence, a losing battle for his own soul over six seasons of HBO’s The Sopranos — came in the song’s final 30 seconds, right in the middle of Steve Perry’s second-to-last repeat of the chorus. After that … it all went black, cutting off “believin’.”
This June will mark the fifth anniversary of “Made in America,” The Sopranos’ series finale written and directed by the show’s curmudgeonly creator, David Chase. In some ways it seems much, much longer ago. In 2007, “Made in America” became an instant pop culture touchstone; for a while, it was the “Yeah, baby!” of TV episodes, with spoofs appearing everywhere from Family Guy to The Celebrity Apprentice to a stilted Hillary Clinton presidential campaign video. Today, it’s arguably been usurped by Lost as shorthand for “great show with a polarizing, not wholly satisfying denouement” in our discussions about contemporary television.
Compared with film or music, where the past is such a constant presence that freaking silent movies can come back again and the most successful pop album in many years sounds like it was recorded in 1971, television truly is short-attention-span theater. The medium is continually eating itself. There’s a whole generation of acclaimed programs — Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Louie, Justified, Parks and Recreation, Homeland, The Walking Dead, and Community — that weren’t even on when The Sopranos left the air. Everyone who loves TV agrees that The Sopranos is a great, important show. But it’s already part of a different era; the preoccupations with psychiatry, dream sequences, and kids who listen to Slipknot seem a little dated. If recent TV history tells us anything, it’s that The Sopranos will appear even more “late ’90s/early ’00s” as it fades deeper into the past.
The genius of “Made in America” is that it exists slightly out of time, because it never really ended. As Perry sings, it goes on and on and on. Even now, there’s no definitive answer to “What happened to Tony Soprano?” and there probably never will be. Generally speaking, there are three possibilities: (1) Tony was killed, most likely by the Members Only guy; (2) Tony was not killed on this day, but probably soon after, because that’s the life he’s chosen; (3) Tony was not killed at all and is free to live on in our imaginations. I like to think that Tony, if he is alive, was thrilled that the Giants won the Super Bowl and — because of his relative tolerance during the Vito/Johnny Cakes affair — is secretly against New Jersey governor Chris Christie keeping gays from getting married.
When “Made in America” first aired, people tended to think that it was either ambiguous and totally brilliant or ambiguous and — to quote the Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan — “kind of jerky.” Then there was Chase, who declared that the ending wasn’t ambiguous at all but plainly, even dumbly obvious. “Anybody who wants to watch it, it’s all there,” he said in a morning-after interview with TV critic Alan Sepinwall. For millions of viewers, this idea was so perverse that it almost seemed criminal, a sentiment summed up by the very New York Post-sounding New York Post headline “Tony and Gang Whack Fans.”
Chase’s “it’s all there” quote inspired bloggers to do ridiculously thorough examinations of the episode’s final scene, the most ridiculously thorough of all being this 22,000-word screed that analyzed the climax of “Made in America” and seemingly parsed through every frame and sound effect.
The final conclusion? Tony was murdered.
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