*Update 6/19/13:James Gandolfini died today at the too young age of 51. His performance as Tony Soprano for 86 episodes is a masterwork and right at the top of our greatest performances of all time-in any medium.The Sopranos would not have been what it was, perhaps the greatest work of art in film history, a show that meant so much to so many, without his towering performance. Below is a scene from the final few episodes that is a favorite of mine and shows the great humanity he brought to the role. Rest in peace sir, and thank you:
And once again, this incredible, and now famous Sopranos tribute video by Lyle at exeterstreet, which now has new meaning
*Dozens of new visuals on all 4 pages and new content (“Death and David Chase”) added to Part I
**Part 1 and Part 2 have been updated with new comments from David Chase from December 2012 (look for “Update: December 2012″ marker)
***Part 1 has been updated with new Chase comments discussing his use of POV in the final scene (look for “Update: 2013″ marker)
****Check out an incredible Sopranos tribute video at the end of page 4.
*Note from author (December 6, 2010): Its been over three years since the finale of the Sopranos, yet the ending continues to be discussed and debated to this day. My piece has become more popular than I ever could have imagined but speaks to the viewer’s love of the show. If this piece has done anything, it has illuminated for many people the show’s depth and artistic vision, the true genius of David Chase and his writers, and how the show fulfilled its early promise when the New York Times called the show “The greatest work of popular culture of the past quarter century” back in 1999. I cannot tell you how many e-mails I have received from fans relaying how much this piece made them truly appreciate the artistry of the show and how they re-watched the entire series again after reading it. Those final few minutes of the final episode is truly the greatest scene in the history of the medium; a scene constructed as a culmination of 8 years and 86 hours of epic storytelling. Chase created the scene for the fans who were willing to dig beneath the surface and see exactly how much thought and creativity went into every tiny detail of this show. The final scene has solidified the show as the greatest in television history (with all apologies to “The Wire”), a show that is working on levels that could not possibly be comprehended on first viewing. Some of have complained that I have the gall to call the piece “Definitive,” but I think it has received more attention for that very fact (perhaps I should have meekly called the piece “This is what I think happened”). Of course, I know it is not “definitive” (only Chase knows, and I certainly have never heard from him) but I feel strongly that it is mostly correct. I also know that some of arguments may be stretching things a bit but that is part of the fun (those “lesser” arguments often appear later in the piece). Chase has given us a gift to be pored over and discussed forever. He has raised the bar for all shows to follow (for those looking for the current truly great series, I would recommend “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”) and for that we should all be thankful….
Part I: How David Chase killed Tony Soprano: A look at the directing and editing in the final scene and the “Never hear it Happen” concept laid out by David Chase. Plus a closer look at why the other theories about the end just don’t hold up.
This section also includes:
Part I epilogue: “It’s all a big nothing”: Death and David Chase.
Part II: What does Tony’s death mean? How the themes of the final season and all 86 hours of the show lead to a family dinner in a small diner in New Jersey.
This section also includes:
Part II subsection A: “Two endings for a guy like me”
Part II subsection B: “Holsten’s is the consensus”: Carmela in the final season.
Part III: The Symbolism of Holsten’s.
This section also includes Part VII addition: The real life inspiration for the ending.
Part VIII: Who Killed Tony?
Part IX: Kubrick’s 2001 influence on the POV pattern in the final scene.
Mr. Chase structures the final scene so that a significant portion of it is shown through Tony’s “Point of View” (POV). Chase uses this technique so that the viewer can experience Tony being murdered. Here is a basic definition (from Wikipedia) of a “Point of View” shot:
The opening shots, in sequence, of the final scene (as explained above):
B:THE PATTERN THEN BEGINS:
(1) The bell rings and Tony’s face is shown in close-up looking up to see who is coming through the door (this shot is about 1-2 seconds). The next shot is Tony’s POV of who is coming through the door: a tall woman with dark hair who enters Holsten’s. The next shot is back to Tony’s face to see his reaction.
(2) The bell rings and Tony’s face is shown in close-up looking up to see who is coming through the door (this shot is about 2-3 seconds). The next shot is Tony’s POV of who is coming through the door (same shot as (1)): an older man wearing a “USA” cap who enters Holsten’s. The next shot is back to Tony’s face to see his reaction.
(3) The bell rings and Tony’s face is shown in close-up looking up to see who is coming through the door (this shot is about 1-2 seconds). The next shot is Tony’s POV of who is coming through the door (same shot as (1) and (2)):Carmela enters Holsten’s. The next shot is back to Tony’s face to see his reaction.
(4) The bell rings and Tony’s face is shown in close-up looking up to see who is coming through the door (this shot is about 1-2 seconds). The next shot is Tony’s POV of who is coming through the door (same shot as (1), (2) and (3)): “Man in Members Only Jacket” (hereafter “MOG”) followed by AJ enter Holsten’s. The next shot is back to Tony’s face to see his reaction.
(5) The bell rings and Tony’s face is shown in close-up looking up to see who is coming through the door (this shot is about 2 seconds). According to the pattern, the next shot should be Tony’s POV of who is coming through the door (this should be Meadow as she is seen about to enter the diner a few seconds before the bell rings). Instead, the screen cuts abruptly to black mid-scene (at the exact spot where we should see Meadow from Tony’s POV) and the audio cuts off. All the viewer sees is “blackness” where Tony’s POV should be. This is Tony’s POV because he is dead. We no longer hear Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing because Tony no longer hears it. In a normal ending, the screen would simply fade to black followed immediately by the credits and the music would probably still be heard. Instead, the blackness and silence lingers for 10 seconds before the credits are shown to emphasize that the black screen is Tony’s final POV. The 10 seconds of silent darkness is a scene unto itself-as significant as any image or line of dialogue. The final shot also emphasizes the blackness, nothingness and eternal nature of death. Chase originally wanted no credits at all and the blackness to last all the way to the HBO logo (this was revealed by David Chase in the Ultimate Sopranos HBO book released in October of 2007). This would further emphasize the eternal nature of death. Tony is dead. The direction and editing in the scene suggest that he was shot from behind in the right side of his head.
..nothing, as Tony is killed in an instant.
Tony was shot by MOG (Members Only Guy) as he exited the bathroom. Just before (5), MOG gets up from his stool and walks past Tony’s table. Tony looks twice at MOG as he walks past him and eventually enters the bathroom. Chase uses a tracking shot to follow MOG walking past Tony’s table into the bathroom. To further emphasize the shot’s importance, Chase continues the movement of the camera even after the bathroom is clearly seen (the camera moves so that the bathroom, originally seen in the right upper corner of the frame, moves further to the left and is consequently more noticeable when the camera finally stops). This is only one of two tracking shots in the final scene (the other is when Tony enters Holsten’s) as all the other shots in the diner are static. Chase’s direction is clearly meant to convey the importance of MOG entering the bathroom. The purpose of the shot is to show that MOG will have a clear shot at Tony once he exits the bathroom. More importantly, the bathroom is behind Tony. Tony will not have a chance to react.
MOG is deliberately framed by Chase as a threat to Tony once he enters the diner and there is a clear effort by Chase to show that MOG is different from any of the other patrons. MOG is the only patron ever seen outside of the door of Holsten’s before the bell rings (he is seen opening the door just before Chase cuts to Tony and the bell is heard). However, the pattern set out above in (1)-(5) is never disrupted because once the bell rings, Chase cuts to Tony looking up and the pattern continues accordingly. Chase also has MOG and A.J. enter at almost the exact same time (they almost touch). This may imply that MOG followed A.J. to Holsten’s. Once MOG enters, he seems to be looking straight to the back of Holsten’s (looking for Tony?). This seems strange in light of the fact that he immediately sits down at the counter to his left (which we would think he would have seen right away when he walked in). MOG enters in front of A.J. and continues straight toward the camera where he almost fills the entire frame (Chase has neither Carmela, A.J. or the other patrons enter in such a fashion). MOG almost completely obstructs the viewer’s view of A.J.; this seems unusual considering A.J. is a regular character rather than just an extra in the scene. Chase’s purpose here is to signal the importance of MOG. Once A.J. sits down, MOG is seen in the background sitting down at the counter. MOG is then seen in “soft focus” in the background between A.J. and Carmela. Chase then cuts to a full shot of MOG apparently looking in the direction of Tony’s table (and apparently tapping his fingers nervously against the counter) which is confirmed by the next shot of A.J. and Carmela as MOG is seen looking in their direction in a “soft focus” background shot between them. Later in the scene, there is a second full shot of MOG looking over at Tony’s table. Finally, there is a full shot of MOG getting up to go the bathroom. MOG is looking down as he gets up from the counter to avoid eye contact with Tony. He also walks awkwardly as his head turns to the left away from Tony while his body seems to stay straight. MOG seems to be going out of his way to avoid eye contact and is clearly not oblivious to the presence of Tony Soprano. Also note that none of the other patrons (including the “trucker in the USA cap”) are ever shown looking at Tony (more on this later). Chase makes it clear that the viewer should be paying special attention to MOG over any of the other patrons. As discussed earlier, Chase has set up Tony’s easy kill from behind; furthermore, the shots establishing the geography of Holsten’s and the tracking shot of MOG walking towards the bathroom logistically establish that MOG has an easy, unobstructed passage to exit Holsten’s after he shoots Tony.
Meadow’s problems parallel parking and being late for dinner also confirm MOG’s actions and Tony’s subsequent death. Practically, it creates suspense in the scene. However, it has much more meaning than the viewer may initially think. If Meadow was on time then she would be sitting next to Tony in the aisle seat. In other words, she would be obstructing MOG’s clear shot at Tony from outside the bathroom (Chase clearly shows this when MOG walks to the bathroom). Secondly, her lateness gives the excuse for Tony to look up at the door one last time which Chase needs to set up the last shot of blackness from Tony’s POV (as explained earlier). It also serves the purpose of distracting Tony to give MOG an easier shot.
Mr. Chase covers all the angles and his POV pattern and Tony’s murder hold up under close scrutiny. There are other Tony POV shots in the scene including numerous Tony POV shots of the songs on the jukebox and Tony POV shots over his shoulder when A.J. talks in the frame (the point-of-view taken over the shoulder of a character who remains visible on the screen is another traditional POV shot in film).
Chase reinforces that we are seeing things from Tony’s POV by using separate POV shots of Carmela and A.J. walking towards his table. Tony’s eyes follow them as they come toward him. Carmela walks screen left as she enters from the front door and, in Tony’s second POV shot of Carmela, is shot at an angle illustrating Tony looking at her slightly to his left as she walks past the desserts. The second Tony POV shot of A.J. has him already much closer to Tony’s table at an angle illustrating Tony looking at him to his right. Since Tony’s straight ahead view is to the door (established by the early “jump cut” when Tony walks into Holsten’s and the subsequent close ups of Tony looking straight ahead when Tony hears the bell ring), the camera must move at an angle to illustrate that Tony continues to follow them as they approach him (Carmela and A.J. cannot continue to walk straight towards Tony to reach him as they would have to walk directly through the tables in front of Tony). These shots occur after (4) and (5) respectively and are among the numerous Tony POV shots in the final scene. However, as discussed earlier, of most importance in the scene is that when Tony hears the bell ring, Chase always uses the traditional technique to establish the Tony POV shot: after Tony looks up at the door, Chase always cuts to the same shot of someone entering in a clearly subjective “tunnel vision” (from a character’s eyes) shot. This is done four times prior to the final bell ring thus creating the pattern that suggests that the black screen is Tony’s final POV (as laid out earlier in this piece). Also of note is that POV shots are usually not 100% subjective (as clearly we would see some of the tables block Tony’s vision if they were). Here is another important point about POV shots (once again from Wikipedia):
The geography of the diner set up by Tony’s first POV shot and the “jump cut” to Tony sitting (*The two shots also illustrate that Meadow will have a clear view of her father’s murder):
Tony POV shots of the jukebox:
Further Tony POV shots as he watches Carmella approach to his left:
Tony POV shots of AJ as he approaches to Tony’s right:
Chase also deliberately differentiates when we are not seeing things from Tony’s POV to reinforce when we are seeing things from Tony’s POV. Chase shows us a shot of two young black men by the front door looking at the desserts. This shot is not from Tony’s POV (and the door opening behind the men is somebody exiting the diner)as the bell is not heard and Tony is shown looking down at his menu just before and just after this shot. More importantly, the black men are shown at a different angle and are clearly, and deliberately, shot from a camera that is low to the floor; here Chase is differentiating the Tony POV shot from a regular third-person shot. Chase also uses sound to tie the viewer to Tony’s POV. Tony twice takes notice of MOG as he walks past Tony’s table. However, Tony then returns his attention to his menu. The next scene is the black men looking at the desserts by the door as it appears they just entered Holsten’s. The editing suggests that they entered as MOG was walking past Tony’s table. This explains why Tony (nor we) did not hear the bell ring when they entered the diner as Tony had turned his attention to MOG. Furthermore, Chase shows us a full shot of a teenage couple at a table. The second time they’re shown, Chase increases the volume so that we hear them laughing. At the exact moment they laugh, a muffled sound of what appears be a bell is heard. The very next shot is the second close up of MOG staring in Tony’s direction with the door closing in the background (which may confirm that the bell did ring). The next shot shows Tony looking down. Apparently, if the couple did not laugh, Tony (and us) would have heard the bell and looked up. Had Tony looked up at that moment, he would have seen MOG staring right at him, a delicious irony that could only be orchestrated by David Chase and also illustrates how Tony is able to get hit. The bell is only clearly heard during the Tony POV pattern (besides when Tony walks into the diner himself). There are two background shots of the door opening. However, these shots are never shown from Tony’s POV and only show patrons exiting Holsten’s. The first is when the door opens behind MOG as he stares at Tony for the second time (clearly not the standard Tony POV shot and, as explained previously, follows a second or two after the young couple laugh). The second shot is a patron, only slightly opening the door, (which may explain why the bell is not heard) exiting Holsten’s behind the black men (not a Tony POV shot as explained earlier in the paragraph). Furthermore, Carmela and A.J. are shown looking down at their menus just before Tony looks up for the last time. Here Chase is relaying to the viewer that Carmela and A.J. have no chance to warn Tony when MOG comes out of the bathroom.
Connecting Tony’s POV with the viewer through sound: In the next 5 shots (in sequence) Tony looks up at MOG as he passes the table. It appears Tony was distracted while the black guys enter which explains why the bell isn’t heard when they enter the diner. The scene also refutes the “Tony is paranoid and eyeing everyone” theory about the ending (discussed later in Part I):
A closer look at the scene reveals exactly how Tony is able to get hit and dispels the other most popular theory about the ending: that the scene represents Tony’s paranoia and how he will have to live the rest of his life. The scene actually suggests the exact opposite, that Tony is too relaxed and too comfortable. First, Tony takes a table in the middle of the restaurant, leaving his back exposed, which sets up “Man in Members Only Jacket’s” easy kill from behind. Tony looks up when the bell rings not because he is overly wary, but because he is expecting his family.Tony goes right back to scanning the songs on the jukebox after the first woman enters and after “trucker in USA cap” enters. In fact, “trucker in USA cap” lingers by the door (perhaps checking the desserts) but the next shot shows Tony simply returning his attention to the jukebox. The direction and editing clearly establish that most of the other full shots of the patrons are third-person shots suggesting that the patrons are not meant to be seen by Tony. There is one full shot of “trucker in USA cap” stirring his coffee and reading his paper (he does not look dangerous or interested in Tony or anybody else in the diner). He is never shown looking in Tony’s direction and is never seen again after this shot. More importantly, Tony is never shown looking at him. The shot of “trucker in USA cap” stirring his coffee is directly in between shots of Tony looking down. Thus Tony cannot be “eyeing” him (further refuting the “Tony’s paranoid” theory). Tony is not “eyeing” the gray haired man with the boy scouts because they are seen behind Tony’s left shoulder and Tony is never shown turning around to see them. The laughing teenage couple are in front of Tony to his left as they are seen behind Carmela’s right shoulder. The couple is never shown looking at Tony or vice versa. Besides, the gray haired man with the boy scouts and teenage couple in love cannot be seriously considered threats to Tony. Tony is not, either literally or symbolically, “looking over his shoulder,” as many fans believe.
Chase’s editing in the scene, and his direction of “Man in Members Only Jacket” and Tony, further proves this point. “Man in Members Only Jacket” enters with A.J. directly behind him. Consequently, Tony’s eyes will naturally focus on A.J. without taking notice of MOG. In the next shot after they enter the diner, Chase confirms where Tony’s attention is as he is shown in close up smiling as he sees his son. “Man in Members Only Jacket” has not registered with Tony. However, he has registered with us because he is the only patron seen outside of the door before the bell rings and because he enters in front of A.J. The first full shot of “Man in Members Only Jacket” looking at Tony comes immediately after Tony is looking down while he grabs A.J.’s hand. Just after MOG’s first look at Tony, Chase does not cut to Tony seeing him. Instead, Chase cuts to a medium shot over Tony’s shoulder (suggesting Tony’s POV) of A.J. checking out the menu while “Man in Members Only Jacket” is seen in the background out of focus in the middle of the frame. This exact same shot is repeated several times when A.J. speaks and MOG always lingers at his stool directly in Tony’s point of view, but he apparently never registers to Tony as he talks to A.J. (MOG is kept out of focus to further reinforce this point). “Man in Members Only Jacket” looks over again, and Chase cuts to Tony looking down at his menu. Again, “Man in Members Only Jacket” does not register with Tony. Chase has at least six shots of Tony (with only his face in the frame) looking down at his menu (you would think Tony was studying scripture!!). This does not include multiple shots of Tony looking down at his menu in shots that also include Carmela and A.J. The directing and editing in the scene emphatically establish that Tony is not paying enough attention. There are multiple shots of Tony smiling and his expressions are of happiness, not paranoia. Finally, there is a full shot of “Man in Members Only Jacket” getting up from his stool. He walks towards Tony’s table and Tony finally looks up at him but then quickly returns his attention to his menu as MOG heads towards the bathroom behind Tony. Tony then does a quick glance at MOG behind him as he is about to enter the bathroom but then goes right back to looking at his menu. The very next shot is the two young African American men looking at some desserts which then cuts to Tony looking down at his menu. Tony never sees them, once again dispelling the myth that Tony is eying everybody and is paranoid. The editing suggests the exact opposite. Chase has given the audience more information than Tony has: Tony is not aware MOG looked twice in his direction before he got up to go to the bathroom. If Tony knew this, would he so easily return to looking at his menu after MOG enters the bathroom? The scene suggests exactly how a normally wary Tony is able to get hit. The “Tony’s paranoid” theory is a fallacy, it is actually the viewer who is paranoid because of all third person shots of the other patrons and MOG staring at Tony. Furthermore, for the viewer, this is the final scene ever; for Tony, he’s just having dinner with his family. Consequently, the viewer is projecting their feelings onto Tony when the evidence in the scene itself essentially shows a relaxed Tony. Even Chase’s words seem to rebut the “Tony’s paranoid” theory. Chase in the “HBO Ultimate Edition Sopranos” book says he had the idea for the ending for years and further states:
*[As will be discussed in Part 2: What does Tony's death mean?, the most significant thematic point that Chase was making was that Tony lost everything that truly meant something to him when he was killed. In setting up that thematic point, Chase shows Tony having a rare, happy moment with his family. Tony being "paranoid" or ill at ease would have completely undermined the ultimate point of the scene].
These three shots in sequence reveal that Tony never sees MOG staring at him. The over the shoulder shot (shot #3) shows MOG staring in the background, yet he is out of focus suggesting Tony doesn’t see him:
MOG looks over again and Chase cuts to Tony smiling and looking down:
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