The Sopranos is arguably the greatest television show of all time and has arguably the most controversial final scene of any television series.
At the core of The Sopranos’s final scene is the anti-climax.
The audience comes into the scene at Holsten’s expecting that something must happen to Tony. This is the last scene of a long-running mob show. Someone has to get shot or arrested. But if look at the scene with no such expectation, you see it is a scene of a man sitting down to have a meal with his family. His daughter is late and some unknown man continues to stare at him before heading into the bathroom. Then the scene is over as he looks up. Fade to black.
What we have here is Act One of a story with no Act Two or Three. The normal world of Tony Soprano eating with his family and then a stranger appears. What does he have in store for Tony? Why does he continue to stare at him? Does he shoot Tony after leaving the bathroom? We will never get those answers. I do not have much interest in the answers to those questions. But I do have a very vested interest in the power of the Fade to Black and the lack of finite resolution.
David Chase could have given us three other endings here. He could have had the stranger in the Member’s Only jacket blow Tony’s brains out in front of his family for the shocking ending. He could have had the cops burst in and arrest Tony. He could have had Tony’s daughter park her car neatly, join her family and send the show off on a warm message.
But he chose none of those paths. Instead, Fade to Black as a door opens. The abruptness of the ending is what gives it its lasting appeal. The audience’s expectations are shattered and it is for the better of the show. Would anyone discuss the ending to this day if Tony were shot in the head? Or arrested? I know of people who dislike the ending and thought it was a middle finger to the fans.
But it was anything but that. David Chase rewarded his audience’s intelligence with an enriching ending. I found the ending to be reflective of how events pan out in life. Often times in life, we do not get the answers that we seek. Yet we can still be satisfied with what happened.
I do not think every story should have an ambiguous ending like The Sopranos. It requires a certain build-up. Those who paid attention to The Sopranos can see why it had to end the way it did. The abruptness of death is referenced throughout the final season.
There are lazy writers who write ambiguous endings because they don’t want to spend the time to figure out what the best ending for their story. They hide behind ambiguity and use it as a shield from criticism.
The anti-climatic ending can be a powerful story-telling tool in the right hands.