It’s been ten years since The Sopranos aired “Made in America,” its final episode, and it remains one of the most talked about episodes in television history. While initial reactions were mixed, mainly due to a mix of shock and a general sadness that the show was ending, it has come to be regarded as one of the greatest finales of all time. Regardless of what viewers think the ending means, most (not all) agree it’s a great sendoff to an amazing show… but you want to know my thoughts or you wouldn’t be reading this.
Even without the final scene of “Made in America,” it’s hard to deny its greatness. The tension is gripping throughout, we finally see the love-to-hate Phil Leotardo get popped, and we get a beautifully poignant and tearjerking final scene between Tony and his Uncle Junior. Honestly, it’s probably the greatest episode of the series next to Season 5’s “Long Term Parking.”
However, it’s that final scene people keep talking about, so today I’ll be looking at a few of the theories surrounding it, concluding with my own personal theory which I’ve been kicking around for a few years now. First, let’s take a moment-by-moment look at the very final scene of The Sopranos.
After leaving the retirement home where Uncle Junior is now living, Tony enters Holsten’s , the restaurant where he will be meeting his family for dinner. Tony picks “Don’t Stop Believin'” on the jukebox, Carmela enters and sits down, and they discuss the recently-engaged Meadow going to the doctor to switch birth controls, as well as Tony’s soldier Carlo Gervasi agreeing to testify. AJ Soprano enters, right in front of a man wearing a Members Only jacket (We’ll call him MIMOJ for the rest of the post).
Tony says he ordered onion rings for the table (“best in the state”), and Meadow arrives, having trouble parallel parking her car. MIMOJ looks over at Tony’s booth, AJ references his father’s quote from the first season finale to “remember the times that were good,” even though Tony forgets saying it, and MIMOJ walks into the bathroom. Meadow finally parks her car, Tony looks up, CUT TO BLACK.
Does the sudden cut to black mean Tony died, presumably at the hands of MIMOJ (his going into the bathroom a Godfather shout-out)? Or does this ending signify something different altogether? Although many fans look to creator David Chase for answers, it’s obvious he doesn’t intend to tell any more than what’s in the episode, giving clearly contradictory answers just to troll people. He’s the creator, writer and director of this episode—he’s given you everything he wants you to have, stop hounding him for more. Also, it’s clear that cast members have been given no definitive answer, as Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) believes Tony to be dead, while Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri) has stated he believes Tony is alive.
The most common theory held is that Tony dies in this final scene, and there is a doctoral thesis-level argument for that laid out here. One of the major points made is how the camera constantly cuts between Tony looking up towards the door when the bell rings…
Followed by a POV shot from Tony’s perspective, looking at the door.
Since this happens multiple times in the scene, the writer goes on to argue that since the last shot we see is Tony looking up, the blackness that follows is what Tony is now seeing aka death. It’s quite a compelling argument, as this pattern of shots does seem to hold true throughout. From a director’s point of view, it makes a lot of sense, but as a writer, I need more.
Every death on The Sopranos had buildup and motivation, even the most shocking, and it would be entirely un-Sopranos to kill off the main character in its final moments without some kind of explanation, at least in subtext. I refuse to buy into theories suggesting that the scene merely represents Tony’s karma coming back to bite him, or that it’s a hit from one of the other five mafia families he had dealings with that we never saw. The Sopranos was never that kind of show.
Theory #1: Tony Dies at the Hands of the Lupertazzi Family
Within the “Tony dies” camp, this is perhaps the most popular theory. The Lupertazzis were the main antagonists of seasons 5 and 6, with it all coming to a head in the penultimate episode “The Blue Comet.” Current Lupertazzi don Phil Leotardo plans to take out Tony Soprano, Silvio Dante and Bobby Baccalieri, in retaliation for the Sopranos killing Billy Leotardo and Fat Dom Gamiello, beating Coco, and ignoring Vito Spatafore’s homosexuality. After Bobby is killed and Silvio is put in a coma, Tony agrees to have a sit-down with Phil’s right-hand men Butch DeConcini and Albie Cianflone. Accompanied by George, a member of one of New York’s Five Families (the only time we see a character from one of the others) to assure that promises will be kept, Butch gives Tony the go-ahead to kill the increasingly-erratic Phil.
After Phil is located, he is taken out and things presumably go back to normal.
So why would the Lupertazzis kill Tony? When Phil was missing in action, Butch was the acting head of the family. Since he and Albie sat down at a meeting with George in attendance, they know the consequences if they were to hit Tony after a peace agreement was reached. Butchie and Albie have been shown throughout the show’s final episodes to be very level-headed, especially in comparison to Phil’s emotional behavior, so for them to put a hit out on Tony after this meeting would be the epitome of foolishness.
Some have argued that perhaps they could not track down MIMOJ, the supposed assassin they’ve hired, in time to call off the hit, but in previous episodes, hits have been called off at the very last second. Just look at Season 4’s “The Weight,” where John “Johnny Sack” Sacrimoni has his contact call off a hit on Ralph Cifaretto as the assassin is looking right at him. To suggest that the Lupertazzis could not reach the hit man in time is ridiculous, as days pass between the meeting with George and the final scene of the episode.
I suppose a thin argument could be made that Phil personally put out the hit while hiding out from everyone. He is very angry and losing it a bit at this point, however even he is not dumb enough to put out a hit that would cripple his own family that much. He obviously cares about the well-being of the Lupertazzis, and even if he were to die, he would not want them to be in straits that dire. I just can’t see a practical theory for the Lupertazzis being the ones who put out the hit.
Theory #2: Tony Dies at the Hands of One of His Own Men
Over the course of the show, Tony sure has wronged a lot of people, often in his own family, but would any of them go as far as to kill him? For the most part, I still argue that from a storytelling perspective, it’s a cheat to claim something like “Oh Furio Giunta hired a hit man to take out Tony,” when 1) Furio felt terrible guilt and blamed himself for ever considering this in Season 4 and 2) His story ended seasons ago. To end the show on an ambiguous note implying someone who has left the show is related to Tony’s death is too far. Sure, the Members Only jacket is a callback to the Season 6 premiere “Members Only” in which out-of-focus soldier Gene Pontecorvo hung himself after being denied early retirement. However, it is a stretch to suggest that MIMOJ is a relative of Gene’s, as Gene was really only a minor character outside of this episode. Ending the series on one of his actions would just leave viewers shrugging and trying to remember who he was.
The only member of the Soprano crew past or present that could possibly have a motivation and a plot-relevant reason to kill Tony is Pasquale “Patsy” Parisi. In season 2, Patsy’s twin brother Philly is killed on Tony’s orders by Gigi Cestone. In the premiere episode of season 3, a heavily inebriated Patsy comes this close to shooting Tony in revenge, opting instead to pee in his pool.
Over the course of the next few seasons, he remains in the background, always being a presence but rarely doing much. He does get in a fight with Christopher at one point, and he coldly threatens Gloria Trillo, but for the most part, he’s out of focus. However, he seems to rise to prominence in the last few episodes of The Sopranos. Now this may be simply because the other main characters are no longer around due to death, illness or injury, but all of a sudden, Patsy is getting a promotion around the same time his son Patrick is engaged to Meadow.
Meadow seems concerned as she arrives at the restaurant. Something seems to be on her mind as she nervously parks her car and runs into the restaurant, a worried expression on her face.
Has she just put the pieces together on the way over or is Meadow simply concerned because she’s late? Has Patsy’s son only shown interest in her so Patsy can have inside information on where Tony is? I’ll admit that this was the theory I held for a while, but there just isn’t enough evidence.
Patsy is obviously working his way up the ladder, so is he seizing his opportunity while things are hot with the Lupertazzis? If he is in fact climbing the ladder, what good would it do to take out Tony now? He might be able to frame the Lupertazzis, but as shown above, it would be hard to believe that they would have any interest in taking out Tony. The focus on Patsy in the final episodes probably exists to show just how many characters have fallen by the wayside, and this is the kind of character who has finally caught a break.
Theory #3: Life Just Goes On
So if Tony doesn’t die, he just lives life as normal right? Like the song says, “The movie never ends, it goes on and on and on and on.” Well I refuse to buy into this theory too (I’m difficult, I know). Watch the way the scene adds upon itself, with the pattern of cuts (as described above) and the building of the Journey song. If in fact this is a “Life Goes On” ending, why does it cut early?
I also refuse to buy into the more bizarre theories like 1) It’s all a dream (the episode or the whole series, either way) or 2) It’s all been a documentary and the cameraman gets whacked (OK that one makes me laugh). Instead, I believe there is one more interpretation of the ending…
My Theory: Tony Thinks He’s Dying
To properly understand this final scene, we need to take another look at the scene in The Godfather which inspires it. The obvious inspiration is one of the reasons I refuse to believe this ending is without meaning. In the final scene of The Sopranos, MIMOJ simply looks in Tony’s direction and walks into the bathroom. Viewers who think the final shot represents Tony’s death assume MIMOJ walks into the bathroom, picks up a gun and comes out shooting, killing Tony before he knows what hit him (perhaps a reference to “Soprano Home Movies” where Bobby talks about not hearing death when it comes.)
In the classic restaurant scene of The Godfather, Michael Corleone is meeting with rival gangster Virgil “The Turk” Solozzo and corrupt police chief Mark McCluskey, who were both behind the attempted assassination of his father. Since Michael is frisked before dinner, Peter Clemenza has a gun planted in the bathroom inside the toilet tank. Although Clemenza has advised him to leave the bathroom and come out shooting, Michael instead sits back down, has one last think about it, murders McCluskey and Solozzo, and leaves the quiet restaurant.
However, this scene is just not practical in a modern-day setting. Even while the Corleones are planning the murder in 1945, Salvatore Tessio says the special kind of toilet tank is “old fashioned.” By 2007, no restaurant would have that kind of toilet tank, especially not a modern eatery like Holsten’s. Second of all, why would the MIMOJ need to walk into the bathroom to get the gun at all? He came in by himself and was not frisked at any point. If he had come armed, no one would have known or cared.
Also, if the MIMOJ plans to kill Tony, he should have walked into the restaurant, shot him and left. Instead, he sits at the bar for a few minutes, drinks coffee and looks over at Tony’s table more than once.
This is all in addition to the fact that AJ entered the restaurant right behind him. There are multiple people in the restaurant who could positively ID this man if he committed murder, and the bartender has heard his voice (even though we the audience have not). Even if he broke protocol and took out all four Sopranos, it is still unlikely he would get away with it. I suppose I could understand him not shooting right away just to be sure he has the right person, as a similar mix-up happened in the previous episode with Phil Leotardo. If MIMOJ is a hire assassin from Italy or something, maybe he is trying to verify that this is Tony Soprano, but sitting down just feet away from your intended gangster target and constantly without subtlety looking in his direction is the definition of idiocy.
Also, what happens if the hit is successful? It worked in The Godfather, because it was a quiet restaurant in the 1940s. People understood that the mob did dealings like this and is best to just not get involved. However, Holsten’s is a busy restaurant, with people constantly entering. Heck, it’s implied that Meadow is entering right as the show ends, meaning MIMOJ has no easy way out. What if there’s someone in the restaurant with a gun? If the door is blocked, he could get tackled. It is anything but an ideal situation for a whacking.
In fact, we get a restaurant murder in “Stage 5,” where Gerry Torciano is taken down in front of Silvio Dante and their dates. It’s a quiet, fancy Italian restaurant and mass hysteria still ensues. Most of the guests run out of the large dining room, while a few hide under their tables, and the killer makes his escape by running through the kitchen.
But… MIMOJ is constantly looking over at Tony right? If he’s not eyeing up his target, what is he doing? Well, Tony has been in the news a lot over the course of the show, especially the last season. Perhaps MIMOJ realizes he is sitting across from one of New Jersey’s biggest criminals. That answers half of it, but why does Tony constantly look over at MIMOJ? Because Tony Soprano believes he is about to get whacked.
It has been mentioned before that the restaurant scene is Tony’s favorite scene in The Godfather, and AJ mentions in “The Second Coming” that his father is ecstatic every time he watches Michael kill the two men. Of course a show that constantly subverted the tropes of mob movies wouldn’t end with a scene straight out of one, but a character in this kind of show thinking he’s in a mob movie? Does it get any more postmodern?
This theory even ties into the pattern of Tony looking up at the door followed by a POV shot from his perspective. The final shot of pure black doesn’t represent death, but rather Tony having a panic attack. In addition to the nerves Tony experiences due to thinking he’s about to die, AJ has started at a new job, Meadow is getting engaged and Carlo has agreed to testify.
The reason Tony’s panic attacks began in the very first episode were because of his family life changing. It is even established that the therapy sessions were really what helped keep the panic attacks under control, not just the medication. Even though Melfi has been a main character since episode 1 (Heck, she’s listed in the credits before Edie Falco), she is intentionally written off in the penultimate episode “The Blue Comet.”
Without the benefit of therapy, Tony’s panic attacks are much more prone to make their return, especially at a moment like this. The scene and song selection might be a call back to Season 2’s “House Arrest,” when Tony has a panic attack to the tune of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” a classic rock song that builds similarly to “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Ultimately, ending the series with the same panic attacks that began it create perhaps an even bigger downer ending than Tony’s death. If Tony was whacked in this scene, he died for something, and perhaps even in a way he would have liked (if he had to pick one). To put Tony right back where he started makes it seem like all the dead bodies that piled up over six seasons are completely for naught. Tony is as helpless as he was at the beginning of the show, but now almost all of his friends and associates are dead. Like his mother Livia said in “D-Girl”, life is “all a big nothing” … or as Steve Perry would say, “The movie never ends, it goes on and on and on and on.”