Wednesday morning, we published a piece in which David Chase told writer Martha P. Nochimson that Tony Soprano had survived the series finale of The Sopranos.
The finale, which ended with a famous cut to black that left Tony in a state of suspended animation, had been famously picked apart by theorists who insisted the character was dead and others who said he lived and still others who said, hey, maybe it didn't matter. It was, by far, the biggest open question in TV history.
Now, through his publicist, Chase has said:
A journalist for Vox misconstrued what David Chase said in their interview. To simply quote David as saying," Tony Soprano is not dead," is inaccurate. There is a much larger context for that statement and as such, it is not true. As David Chase has said numerous times on the record, "Whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead is not the point." To continue to search for this answer is fruitless. The final scene of The Sopranos raises a spiritual question that has no right or wrong answer.
This is something of a classic non-denial denial. Chase is not contesting that he said Tony isn't dead. He is contesting a broader, and unmentioned, context (and, indeed, Chase has tiptoed up to the edge of the line of providing a definitive answer as to the final scene numerous times before, before retreating as quickly as possible). It would not be the first time a source went a bit further than they meant to on the record. Nor would it be the first time Chase has answered a question about one of the central ambiguities of the series in frustration, just because he's sick of being asked about it.
But Chase is right that it is the context the quote is in that matters here. And the context Nochimson puts Chase's quote in is almost identical to what Chase's publicist says.
Says Chase's publicist:
"As David Chase has said numerous times on the record, ‘Whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead is not the point.' To continue to search for this answer is fruitless. The final scene of The Sopranos raises a spiritual question that has no right or wrong answer."
And writes Nochimson:
"Though you wouldn't know it from watching Hollywood movies, endings are by nature mysterious. There is the instability of loss in an ending as well as the satisfying sense of completion. American television before Chase, with the exception of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, one of Chase's avowed key inspirations for the art of The Sopranos, built a craft that dispenses with the destabilizing aspects of an ending. The true art of closure will not tolerate such a boring decision. Moreover, the art of closure forbids merely telling the audience in words that there is loss, since words can create the illusion of safety and control. Chase's art seeks a silent level of knowing more profound than words. He believes we already know if we open up to that deeper part of us."
The entire point of Nochimson's essay is that even though Chase answered her query about Tony's death, it doesn't matter. If the fictional character of Tony Soprano lives or dies is not the point, because The Sopranos itself is no more. Somewhere, the characters live on, even if Tony is not among their number. But we don't get to see what they're up to.
The story, of course, has been boiled down — even by us — to the one sentence where Chase finally answers Nochimson point blank, despite the presence of an entire piece discussing Chase's background, his influences, and our lack of comfort with ambiguity in storytelling. This makes sense, because we're in the news business, and what's newsworthy here is Chase appearing to confirm something many have long suspected.
But even if Chase had never issued a statement, or even if he had issued a statement saying, "I meant every word!" it would not have quelled the debate about The Sopranos' finale. Nor should it have. The thing about the endings of TV series is that many of us watch them with a sort of anticipation that they will "answer" the question of whether we were right to spend years and years watching the show. The thing is, however, they almost never do.
Viewers go into the finale of Lost expecting a series of answers to their queries about a mysterious Island and end up, instead, with a metaphysical rumination on life and death. Or they go into the finale of The Shield expecting a blazing gun battle and, instead, get a muted goodbye. Or they go into the finale of Breaking Bad and get more closure than a famously messy show usually provided. All of these finales disappointed at least some viewers, who found themselves lost in the ideal of an ending they would never get, one they perhaps couldn't even imagine the contours of but, instead, could sort of sense on their peripheral vision.
The Sopranos bucked against that trend by refusing to end. And it's driven many of us nuts over the years, whether we just wondered if our cable went out after that famous cut to black or got involved in lengthy arguments on internet forums about the meaning of Chase's camera angles. By leaving Tony in that state of suspended animation, The Sopranos forever left us with him. Is it any wonder viewers tried to construct an ending they were denied?
I would argue that's entirely not the point, and that's what Nochimson argues in her article as well. I fully believe that she's reported accurately what she and Chase discussed (and, selfishly, I loved the idea of a definitive answer, even if it only were present to allow people to discuss all of the other things the series did brilliantly). But nothing is proved by a one-word answer to a complicated question; instead, it only opens more questions.
To suggest otherwise is to wipe our hands of all of the unsettling questions that final scene suggests, just as much as the insistence by many "Tony's dead!" proponents that anyone who disagreed was willfully misreading the series does. To suggest otherwise is not just to pretend that we can understand The Sopranos on some definitive level but that there must be a tidy answer for everything in life, no matter how banal. And I like to think we all know that's not true. That's part of what David Chase taught us.