David Chase sat in front of a crowd of around 300 restless audience members last week, wearing a benign expression. The sphinx-like television journeyman who created The Sopranos had just screened the first and last episodes of his series at the Museum of the Moving Image as five inches of rain pounded New York City (New Jersey got six). “I have to ask about the ending,” museum curator David Schwartz said, referring to that infamous finale, which finds Tony Soprano and his family eating in a diner with a few highly suspicious patrons, then cuts to 10 seconds of a black screen, leaving the mobster patriarch’s fate uncertain. “There was so much discussion about the ending and even confusion about what happened. But when you look at it now, it seems so inevitable. I mean, the shot of cutting to black was one thing…I mean, obviously, Tony had to die …”
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Mr. Chase continued to stare. “It was just an idea,” he said. And so began an Evening of Evasion, featuring the alternatively thoughtful and playfully sadistic showrunner.
There were a lot of echoes between the pilot and the finale, right? Depressed men, explosive fires, insurance issues? “I noticed that too.” Meadow’s chilling inability to parallel park? “I think everybody knows what’s going on [in that moment]…I think human beings know.” Do you think Tony may have gone to sleep with the fishes courtesy of a gunshot to the back of the head? Mr. Chase gave a shrug. He says he still thinks about doing some kind of prequel to the series.
Instead of having a “a whole career of noble failures” like so many writers with good pilot scripts, Mr. Chase has lived out a career of quiet successes. He landed with HBO and the preposterous idea that he would shoot a New Jersey-set series in–wait for it–New Jersey.
But the ending. Oh, the ending. “What is the idea?” one audience member asked in desperation. “What were you trying to say?”
“The idea was he’d get killed in a diner or not get killed…That’s an idea. In a writer’s room, that’s called an idea,” Mr. Chase laughed. He described The Sopranos writers’ room as “a long bullshit session. Day after day after day.” So, he continued, “what’s the idea? I’m not trying to be coy about this. It’s not the point for me. To try to guess ‘Is he alive or is he dead?’…Actually, here’s what Paulie Walnuts says. In the beginning [of the final episode], ‘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.’”
But did he know that his finale would spawn a cottage industry of arm-chair television criticism? “I didn’t know they’d do that. No, no. I didn’t want people to be reading into it like the Da Vinci Code…It was meant to make you feel. Not to make you think but make you feel.”
A quiet question from the back cut in. “In your mind, do you know if Tony lives or dies?”
“Maybe he choked on an onion ring,” Mr. Chase said. Which brings us to the most novel observation of the evening: the onion ring sequence. Each member of the Soprano family places one on their tongue in succession. “The last rites?” one gentleman wondered aloud. Mr. Chase froze.
“Good,” he said.