So, that was why everyone was so hung up on the end of The Sopranos. Did Tony die or did he not (he, did if you ask me)?. And, the oddest thing, I felt so sad when I realised that. A man who cheat, stole, murdered and much more - it did me in. The idea, unseen, of his death, of his family’s grief, actually made me upset in a way little other, if no, literary or cinematic work that attempts to manipulate that in you has before.
Of course, 83 episodes of following a character around and you’re bound to reach a state of like, respect even, for them – even if they are the head of a ruthless mafia crew in the suburbs of New Jersey. You can’t make a character that’s nothing but evil: the character has to have empathy, understanding, insights, abilities (to take control, to save the day, to outsmart all his rivals) that endear you towards them, and be set up in a situation where you at least understand the way they behave, even if it’s abhorrent.
Tony spends his life surrounded by grief, by misery, stuck in a world where an emotional response is lower than a murderous one – Johnny Sack never recovers respect after crying at his daughter’s wedding when the feds come to take him back to prison having spent just six hours at the event. The hook for The Sopranos comes by sticking Tony in counseling to see the toll a life in the mob can take and its impact on a standard family, while countering this with the extreme violence of the 'work' he's in.
Life is a stress of unimaginable strain, one that obviously causes human responses to close down: horror, fear, respect for life all seems to be dulled, or missing. It reaches like tentacles, the wives seems unaware - although clearly aware - of where the wealth comes from, the children too aspire to the status of their fathers (mostly) fully aware of the awe they too could command in that position: but most end up dead.
Come the end in that amazing final scene, Tony is sat, back with his family again, having presumably won through again, this time a civil war between the families of New Jersey and New York, to retain his status, but he has learnt nothing, never realized it can never end without death or jail, and it looks like death for our hero.
It’s bleak, relentlessly so: family members are killed off for behaving incorrectly, for being stuck in impossible positions between loyalty to loved ones and the FBI demanding information or the risk of jail, for aspiring to a position already occupied.
Tony cheats death once, but he will not do it again. We know this, we cannot see a way out for him, we will it – why, he’s despicable? – but we know it will not work. Then, the end, nothing, blackness, a shock cut to black, the music abrupt, ending, dead.
The realisation of what Meadow sees as she arrives, of what the others must experience: it’s setup and foreshadowed with wonderful writing, setting and camera work: sat in a glorious boat on a beautiful lake discussing the end, which comes as is expected.
Writers’ know what they’re doing, it’s premeditated, planned and executed like a hit.