Critics, fans debate vague 'Sopranos' ending

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The mid-scene blackout that brought the final episode of "The Sopranos" to an abrupt, ambiguous halt on Sunday night left many viewers dismayed and even convinced they had lost their cable TV reception.

But a day later, the ending was the talk of the television world as fans and critics debated -- sometimes angrily -- whether series creator David Chase had pulled off one of the most surprising and unorthodox conclusions to a great drama or simply decided to cop out and leave everything up in the air.

After viewers were led to believe mob boss Tony Soprano was either about to be whacked or share a relaxing evening with family at a diner munching onion rings, the award-winning HBO series' 86th and final episode cut to a blank screen, with no picture or sound for 10 seconds until the credits silently rolled.

"It may have been the greatest double-take -- by the audience -- in the history of American television," wrote Washington Post critic Tom Shales. Daily Variety called it a "finale without finality."

"You could sue for dramatic whiplash," said TV Guide critic Matt Roush, who found the ending "a little too self-conscious" but gave Chase credit for being "defiant to the end."

"He is confounding our expectations of what a finale ought to be," Roush said in an interview on Monday. "It wasn't a finale, it wasn't an ending. It just stopped. And that I think is the revolution of this episode."

The finale, aptly titled "Made In America," will likely go down as one of the most memorably offbeat in TV history, alongside the trial of "Seinfeld" and the conclusion of Bob Newhart's second sitcom, in which he awoke from a dream in bed with the wife from his first sitcom

Fan reaction was swift.

HBO, the Time Warner Inc.-owned pay-cable channel that launched "The Sopranos" in 1999, was immediately flooded with e-mails from viewers.

The volume of feedback was about 10 times higher than normal, network spokesman Jeff Cusson said, adding HBO's Web site crashed for about half an hour due to heavy traffic on the official "Sopranos" online chat room.

Comments posted by fans ran the gamut, from those who hailed the finale as "brilliant" to others who hated it.

One called it the "absolute WORST ENDING!!!!" and threatened to cancel his HBO subscription. "It was like a French movie where the woman dies, the good guy gets killed and the villain gets elected president."

Fans also disagreed over whether hints of doom in the show's final moments, including a stranger who slips into the men's room over Tony's shoulder -- an apparent reference to Michael Corleone's first murder in "The Godfather" -- were intended to suggest an impending hit on Tony or simply the paranoia of his everyday life.

"There was no good ending, so 'The Sopranos' left off without one," the New York Times' Alessandra Stanley commented. She likened the finale to a "prank, a mischievous dig at viewers who had agonized over how television's most addictive series would come to a close."

Chase was blissfully far from all the post-"Sopranos" hoopla, spending time at his home in France and letting his final piece of work speak for itself, HBO officials said.

Speculation swirled about the possibility of a big-screen sequel, seemingly made all the more feasible by the open-ended finale.

Steven Van Zandt, who played Tony's pompadoured deputy Silvio Dante, cryptically told reporters at a special screening of the finale in Florida on Sunday, "We're not sure it's ending."
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