When The Sopranos came out in 1999 I was living in the US and had TV and HBO. I watched the first two seasons and then stopped having a TV. For the past few months Caroline and I were binging on the Sopranos and last night viewed the last three episodes in succession. I’ve been thinking a lot about the final scene and what has led to it.
Throughout The Sopranos we got commentary on current and past American life, often through AJ. I’m certain, however, that Chase wanted to end it with a statement that transcended the particular narrative of the show. No one could resist that. The Sopranos did away with the formulaic episodic format and lowst-common-denominator-hand-holding of past TV and so it’s no surprise that the ending requires the viewer to think and invariably feel uncomfortable and introspective. There are no easy answers here, and that’s the whole point.
The final scene is an ordinary restaurant scene. Chase is trying to throw us off with movement and iconography. This doesn’t matter: people go to the toilet, enter the restaurant, and eat. It’s ordinary. The only unordinary thing about the scene is how The Sporanos eat their onion rings. They are too large to be eaten whole like that, and the way they put it in their mouths is more the way you’d take communion or drugs. It doesn’t matter what they are taking — pharmaceutical and other drugs for AJ and Tony, and Catholicism for Carmella — what matters is that whatever it is, it is mentally taking them to another place.
In the leading episodes Tony tries peyote and experiences a “different place”. Dr Melfi brings up alternate universes or the idea of the Multiverse, where — loosely described — there are infinite universes for every possible decision or outcome. The Sopranos’ consumption of the onion rings starts their journey to an alternate universe that’s outside the viewers’ scope. It is therefore meaningless to ask whether Tony is dead or not. He is both dead and alive; both in jail and free; both married and divorced. Or none of those. We don’t know and we cannot know. Their life continues in a universe that is not the one we live in. Even Chase himself doesn’t know. (He said that “it’s all there”, and it is.) After a climatic anticipation, Chase forces the viewers to make up their own mind.
To strengthen this explanation, a cat is introduced in the last episodes, which motivates metaphysical thoughts and discussions amongst the characters. This is an allusion to Schrödinger’s cat, a thought experiment involving a theoretical cat that’s both alive and dead at the same time. Schrödinger’s cat deals with uncertainty.
Chase is therefore telling Americans to embrace uncertainty and learn to live with it. This, in turn, is a veiled criticism of religion (and to an extent, tradition), which functions as a filler for uncertainty and focuses on the different — the diverse restaurant setting is the contrast for this. Religion is also a primary motivator for many of the show’s characters. Chase even chooses a song that explicitly tells the viewers “don’t, stop believing”. It’s subtle, but could not have been done directly.
What about Meadow? She’s late after a few bumpy attempts to “fit in”. That doesn’t make any difference as she will eat an onion ring later. Or not.