It was an ending that shocked the world when it aired June 10, 2007. The revered mob-centric TV series, The Sopranos, came to a close with a finish that left audiences confused for more than ten years. But in the summer of 2020, the show’s creator, David Chase, accidentally ended the debate by letting slip what the last scene actually meant.
The final episode of the series, titled “Made in America,” closed with the screen going black – so no one really knew how the last-ever scene concluded. At first, viewers were confused to the point that they assumed they had lost power or cable connectivity. They couldn’t believe that was how The Sopranos could have finished its long-running story.
And yet, ever since the series ended in 2007, the meaning of that black screen has inspired debate among first-time viewers of The Sopranos and dedicated fans of the show across the world alike. Not only that, but the people involved with creating and guiding the show’s plot had no desire to weigh in – especially the series creator, Chase.
But all of that changed in summer 2020, when Chase had an interview for a book called The Sopranos Sessions, which meant to celebrate the iconic series. However, the book’s co-authors, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, got more than they bargained for when they began to inquire about the final scene of the series.
Specifically, Sepinwall asked Chase about his vision for the end of the series, and how he had once said he had more stories to tell about the mob circle created in The Sopranos. In his response, though, the show’s creator made a slip-up – all of two words – that finally explained the show’s ending to the world.
When The Sopranos first aired in 1999 it was widely credited as being a game-changer within the genre of television dramas.As Time magazine put it – as an entry on their list of the 100 greatest-ever TV shows, no less – “This mafia saga showed just how complex and involving TV storytelling could be.”
The series follows the trials and tribulations of lead character Tony Soprano – played by James Gandolfini – and the first episode introduces him in an unexpected way. He sits in the waiting room to see a therapist named Dr. Jennifer Melfi, who has been tasked with unraveling the reasons behind his debilitating anxiety attacks.
This introduction to Tony is quite a humanizing one: he doesn’t have the all-around tough-guy persona that typically comes with an on-screen mob boss. And that was just the first of the many ways in which The Sopranos paved new ground. As Esquire’s Sam Parker put it in 2019, “Before Tony Soprano, leading male characters on the small screen were fantasies: brave policemen, perfect fathers, men whose actions and morals fit neatly into cozy story arcs…”
Indeed, Tony’s life would never fit into the idyllic mold of TV dramas past. He starts out as the capo in the DiMeo crime family, putting him a couple of tiers beneath the reigning boss, Jackie Aprile. But when he dies, Tony enters into a power struggle with his Uncle Junior as both men vie for the top spot.
But Tony’s not just a man in the mafia who suffers panic attacks – he’s also a husband to his wife, Carmela, and father to his children, Meadow and Anthony Jr. And those relationships become strained, too, when the capo deals with marital troubles and his daughter realizes that her father’s career isn’t actually in waste management.
As the seasons go by, Tony has more to contend with than his closest relatives. He loses trust in one of his best friends, Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero – and the mafioso isn’t wrong in suspecting him. That’s because Big Pussy has become an FBI informant, which means Tony and the rest of his associates have no choice but to silence him permanently.
The end of Big Pussy taught an important lesson to The Sopranos’ audience, according to Esquire’s Parker. He wrote, “Pussy’s death reverberated throughout the rest of show, and made the important point that on [series creator David] Chase’s watch, no character was safe.”
Of course, drama on The Sopranos stems from more than just FBI informants lurking within the DiMeo family’s ranks. Members also vie for leadership within the crew, especially after the death of boss Jackie in 1999. Both Tony and his Uncle Junior want to be the new head of the family.
Tensions start to rise, but Tony side-steps conflict by working out a deal with the rest of the family. He will be the de facto boss, but they will give the official title to Junior. That way, his uncle can feel like he’s in charge – and the FBI will be distracted by someone who’s a leader in name only.
Tony becomes the acting boss in the second season, at which point Uncle Junior becomes the DiMeos’ honorary leader. They hold onto these positions until the start of the sixth and final season of the series, at which point things begin to unravel for everyone as they finally face the consequences of their various misdeeds.
The series doesn’t just cover the tensions that rise within Tony’s crime family, though – his domestic dealings are a centerpiece of The Sopranos, too. In Season Three, for instance, he meets a woman named Gloria in the waiting room of his therapist’s office; soon enough, the two of them embark on a tumultuous affair.
Infidelity creates a schism in his marriage to Carmela, played by Edie Falco. Indeed, his dalliances with other women – as well as other secrets he has kept – drives a massive wedge between them. As Parker put it for Esquire, “The unraveling of the Sopranos marriage, the end of their decades of uneasy truce, is in many ways the most dramatic ‘death’ in the show.”
Although The Sopranos often portrays Tony as having a soft spot for his family – especially his children – they butt heads with their father, too. Meadow, for one, often finds her dad to be too controlling and protective.Furthermore, the mob boss is also tough on his son, Anthony Jr., who doesn’t show the same drive as his father.
All of these storylines snake their way into Season Six, the final chapter in The Sopranos’ story. As is made clear by all of the domestic drama, slayings of informants and inquisitions from the FBI, the walls are beginning to close in on Tony and the rest of his crew.
Several gory episodes give way to the series finale, in which life returns to some semblance of normal for Tony and his family. They have been in a safe house, and the boss has spoken with the FBI. But he’s still under pressure knowing that his rival and boss of the Lupertazzi family, Phil Leotardo, still lingers – and may still want the DiMeo leader dead.
The DiMeos make good on their promise to get to Phil before he gets to Tony, shooting him down at a gas station. From here, life returns to normal for the Sopranos – almost. They move back into their New Jersey estate, for one thing. But Tony soon finds out that one of his associates has flipped, and he’s likely to name the boss in his testimony to the authorities.
So, Tony makes arrangements for the DiMeo family in his impending absence. He installs a new leader in his friend Paulie. And he takes his family out to dinner at a diner, where he informs Carmela that his one-time associate will, indeed, testify against him. Meadow and Anthony Jr. join their parents for the meal, too.
The last few minutes of the series prove tense for viewers who watch as the Sopranos trickle into the diner. Along with them are a handful of questionable guests – a guy in a Members Only jacket, with whom Tony locks eyes. Indeed, someone who called for a hit on his rival would always be in danger of retribution.
And, considering the amount of time that series creator Chase focused on the mundane details in the final scene – namely, Meadow’s inability to parallel-park her car – it seemed that fireworks were coming. As Matt Zoller Seitz wrote for website Slant Magazine in 2007, that was the show’s tried-and-true formula.
Zoller Seitz explained, “So often on The Sopranos, when a character or characters spend a lot of screen time shooting the breeze or fixating on some mundane bit of business, the non-drama is followed by a beat-down or a bullet in the brain.” But the series wouldn’t end the same way it had run for its 85 episodes prior.
Instead, Meadow parks her car without incident, and she enters the diner to meet with her family. As she enters, a bell dings on the eatery’s door, and the sound makes Tony look up toward the entrance. And, when he does, the screen goes black – and that’s how The Sopranos ends after six seasons of detailed storytelling.
The ending left many viewers perplexed – they didn’t know what the black screen meant. In fact, some people were so confused by the black screen that they thought their power or cable had been cut out. As Carrie Wittmer wrote for website Business Insider in 2017, “Seemingly everyone has a story about the first time they saw the screen go black.”
But once people knew the black screen was deliberate, they began to debate its significance. Many theorized that it meant that Tony had perished at the diner. Emily Todd VanDerWerff wrote for website The AV Club in 2012, “Maybe he dies at the end […], when the Members Only jacket guy puts a bullet in the back of his head (something we don’t see, because we cut to black from his point-of-view).”
But other signs pointed to Tony’s survival. For one thing, he had put a song on the jukebox before his family got to the diner: Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Perhaps the song’s lyrics were a hint to the viewer that they shouldn’t give up on the show’s imperfect protagonist, after all.
Plus, given The Sopranos‘ wider influence on the face modern TV drama generally, would the show’s creator end it in a way that viewers would expect? Would he really have the mob boss die as a conclusion to the ups and downs chronicled on such a revered program?
For his part, Chase kept mum about the ending he had written for The Sopranos. In June 2007 he gave an interview to New Jersey newspaper The Star-Ledger but refused to explain the silent, black-screen end to his show. He said, “I have no interest in explaining, defending, reinterpreting, or adding to what is there.”
What Chase did say, though, was that his 21-Emmy-winning show didn’t purposefully conclude with controversy. He explained, “No one was trying to be audacious, honest to God. We did what we thought we had to do. No one was trying to blow people’s minds, or thinking, ‘Wow, this’ll (tick) them off.’”
The only detail Chase would discuss was his choice of song in the final scene – it stirred up some on-set controversy, foreshadowing how audiences would react to the ending. He said, “It didn’t take much time at all to pick it, but there was a lot of conversation after the fact. […] When I said, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’,’ people went, ‘What? Oh my God!’ I said, ‘I know, I know, just give a listen,’ and little by little, people started coming around.”
But this information wasn’t enough to explain the ending. And, although Chase remained tightlipped about the show’s conclusion for years, he might have let the ending slip in an interview released in 2020. Zoller Seitz, along with Alan Sepinwall, wrote a book called The Sopranos Sessions, in which they highlighted the show’s best moments.
Sepinwall and Zoller Seitz couldn’t chat with Chase without asking about the finale. Specifically, the authors homed in on a comment that the series creator made about how he knew the saga would finally come to a close. He revealed that he came up with the ending two years before it came to TV screens.
Chase had long known what would happen to Tony, too. He said, “Yes, I think I had that death scene around two years before the end.” The conclusion went down slightly differently in his head than it did on The Sopranos’ actual finale. But all of the details he shared about his initial vision couldn’t distract Sepinwall and Zoller Seitz from what Chase had just said.
So, Zoller Seitz repeated to Chase what he had just said. The other inquired, “You realize, of course, that you just referred to that as a death scene.” After a long pause, the series creator retorted with an expletive, which makes it seem as though he did, indeed, give away his long-held secret.
However, Chase’s interview in The Sopranos Sessions ends with him stating that the black screen shouldn’t just be interpreted as the mob boss’s death. He said, “[The point was] that he could have been whacked in the diner. We all could be whacked in a diner. That was the point of the scene.”
That wasn’t the only The Sopranos-based promise upon which Chase had reneged. In his 2007 Star-Ledger interview, the show’s creator seemed to have no intention of making any movie based on his series. As he put it, “If something appeared that really made a good ‘Sopranos’ movie and you could invest in it and everybody else wanted to do it, I would do it. But I think we’ve kind of said it and done it.”
And yet, Chase has since completed work on a film called The Many Saints of Newark, meant to serve as a prequel to the iconic TV series. The flick should hit theaters in March 2021. And, although the series’s revered star, Gandolfini, passed away in 2013, a piece of him will live on: his son will play a younger version of Tony Soprano in the upcoming movie.