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[This story contains spoilers to The Many Saints of Newark.]
By its very nature, the final cut-to-black ending of HBO’s The Sopranos doesn’t have a solution — it’s not a mystery to be solved, exactly, but an endless void to be filled in by the viewer.
Still, there’s a rather good argument to be made for one ending in particular being — if not officially right — perhaps righter than the rest.
Creator David Chase has largely remained mum on the subject, of course. Alan Taylor, the director of the new Sopranos prequel movie out Oct. 1, The Many Saints of Newark, notes Chase has told him the idea is that “every possibility is alive in that room.”
But Taylor also points out there’s a nod in the new movie to a certain popular theory when teenage Tony (Michael Gandolfini) hears a story about a man being shot in the back and notes he wouldn’t want to die the same way. It is, at the very least, baiting viewers a bit with a potentially prescient hint.
Moreover, as far as Taylor is concerned, Tony Soprano was firmly killed in Holsten’s restaurant, which is what “caused” that cut to black.
“There’s just too many signifiers [in the final season],” Taylor notes. “The biggest one for me is, I think in the entire history of The Sopranos, there’s only one line of dialogue that has ever been played back a second time as voiceover, and that’s when Bobby Baccalieri says that you don’t hear the bullet [when you’re killed]. So the fact that was said in an earlier episode, then repeated in voiceover later, I have to go with Tony’s dead.”
Taylor is referring to the scene in the final season’s premiere between Tony (James Gandolfini) and Bobby (Steve Schirripa). The setup was that Tony heard a story in the news about a child who drowned in a swimming pool and he can’t get the story out of his head. Several times in the episode, he stares out at the lake, which is shown with very dark water on an otherwise pleasant day, a seeming metaphor for death. Out on a boat in the middle of this dark water, Bobby tells Tony, “In our line of work, it’s always out there. You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?”
In the final season’s second episode, Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt) is in a restaurant when a fellow mobster is shot to death in front of him. The sound drops out and we don’t hear the gunshot, just see Silvio’s face splattered with blood in slow motion — demonstrating the whole “you don’t hear it coming” idea.
Sil later talks about the moment at the Bada Bing, articulating the idea once again: “The scary thing was, I didn’t know what happened until after the shot was fired.”
In a later episode, this concept is hit yet another time with the echo of Bobby’s line in the premiere, in voiceover, saying again, “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens …”
So by the time the finale rolls around, this idea of a character being shot to death without knowing that it has happened has been discussed and demonstrated repeatedly in the season (not to mention the season is stuffed with foreboding death omens, both subtle and not — from the finale opening with Tony looking as if he’s laying dead in a coffin to the mobster ripping out an article from Departures magazine in the penultimate episode).
The last moments of the series, directed by Chase (and credit goes to this blog post for its breakdown of this scene), establish a clear recurring pattern: We hear the bell ring on the restaurant door, Tony looks up, then Chase cuts to Tony’s point of view and we see a person coming in the door. This happens four times in a row amid rising suspense and shots of other characters in the restaurant — particularly a shady fellow in a Member’s Only jacket going into the bathroom behind Tony — who may or may not represent a threat. The fifth bell is when Meadow enters the dinner and the pattern breaks to Tony looking up, and then the camera cuts to black instead of showing Tony’s point of view. So it’s specifically Tony’s perspective that has suddenly gone dark. Then the credits play in silence.
Given all the “you don’t hear it when it happens” breadcrumbs and during the season, Tony being shot becomes the most logical conclusion — if forever unofficial.
Previously, The Hollywood Reporter profiled Taylor and his work spanning The Sopranos, Deadwood, Game of Thrones and Many Saints.
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