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The end of The Sopranos is one of the most famous and divisive finales in the history of television. Tony and his family gather in a diner, share some dope onion rings, and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” plays. Meanwhile, specific attention is paid to the guests coming in and out of the restaurant, the implication being that one of these people might off Tony. And why wouldn’t they? The mafioso just had crime boss Phil Leotardo whacked, and will likely spend the rest of his life in a state of paranoia, just waiting for the all-too-inevitable bullet. “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?” his deceased brother in law Bobby Baccalieri once told him, and if it does happen to Tony in that booth, neither does the audience: Tony hears the door to the diner open, looks up, and the screen cuts to black.
Cue one of the most heated discussions in modern TV. Did Tony die, finally gunned down by one of the countless people he enraged over the course of the show? Was it just the arrival of his daughter Meadow, who has spent the entirety of the Journey song so far on a Herculean quest to parallel park properly? Was it simply another patron stepping into the diner, ready for their own plate of greasy food? Or was it Paulie, here to tell Tony more about the weird cat that keeps hanging around? Fourteen years later, series creator David Chase would settle it during a podcast discussion with The Hollywood Reporter: Yep, Tony got whacked.
However, and no disrespect to the people that have been arguing about this thing for the last decade and a half, but I don’t think it matters whether Tony dies or not. Not one bit.
The Sopranos is a series about ghosts. More specifically, it’s a series about being haunted—by the deceased, by the living, or otherwise. We see it from the very first episode, as Tony rants about the relationship between his bitter mother and late father, the latter of which still hangs in Tony’s head as the idolized emblem of masculinity. He’s been gone for years by the time the series starts, and Tony’s psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, even later hints to Tony that his Dad wasn’t the close and aspirational figure in his memories. Tony won’t hear it.
But despite Tony’s eventual claim that “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation,” no one in the cast of characters can prevent these specters from warping and returning to them in an outsized fashion. We don’t just remember those from our past—they exist amongst us still. In The Sopranos, no one is ever actually gone. Their death or absence simply replaces them with something grander, or in some cases, more horrifying. When Carmela and Tony temporarily break up in Season 5, Carmela soon finds a large black bear roaming around her house, leaving her feeling as fearful and trapped as she did when Tony was physically around all the time. When Melfi is sexually assaulted, she has dreams of a large dog, once again a symbolical representation of Tony, viciously mauling her attacker.
Tony Soprano is often regarded as the Patient Zero for the modern TV antihero, the now well-worn trope of the middle-aged white guy in the prestige drama who sacrifices his morals in order to get the job done. The Sopranos excels, though, in detailing just how much damage is done by this hurricane approach to a lead character—no one is unaffected, to the extent that when he is gone, the immovable wreckage remains. This kind of “psychic damage” prevents anyone from actually growing up or getting over things or finding anything other than the barest semblance of comfort from their grief.
This extends beyond everyone who doesn’t carry a handgun with them. Tony’s own crew of weathered mobsters and wannabe tough guys are terrorized by the supernatural manifestations of their own deeds and anxieties. Gretchen Felker-Martin, author of the wonderful Manhunt, once wrote in detail about The Sopranos’ horror elements, particularly when it comes to the beloved Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri. Bearing interminable guilt, Paulie can’t stop the nightmare waves from crashing into him.
The aforementioned cat, an animal that has had anagogical ties to the dead through countless ages and cultures, stares at a picture of the late Christopher Moltisanti that’s been hung in the crew’s meeting spot in the meat store. This frustrates Paulie to no end, himself unable to reconcile with his former relationship to Chris, and the last we see of Paulie is the cat now staring at him. It’s a fitting end for Paulie, a man who once ruined a session with a medium by panicking over the idea of spirits from his past and slinging a chair into a wall.
Flashbacks and visions abound in The Sopranos, from slight appearances of the deceased to overt metaphors (“Big Pussy” Bonpensiero is murdered for being a rat, and Silvio Dante sees him violently caught in a giant mouse trap in a dream). Even if you don’t know someone is dead, they still take on the role of phantasm. Tony has Adriana La Cerva murdered for being an FBI informant, but Carmela, not knowing the truth, spends the first half of Season 6 enraptured by the thought of her potential disappearance. When Carmela goes to Paris, she sees an apparition of Adriana, only to be told by an officer in the same daydream something that might as well be the tagline for the series: “Your friend—someone needs to tell her she’s dead.”
All of this amounts to a show where life and afterlife are blurred, and the proverbial “dead man walking” is an omen of the present. It does not matter if Tony Soprano is killed in that diner, or on the way home that night, or at any other time. The world in which he and every other character exists is a land of the dead, a place where “Remember when” means nothing because everything and everyone you can recall is a shadow in the corner of the room. When the ghosts live with you, what good is memory at all?
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Daniel Dockery is Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. You can follow him on Twitter.
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