Show creator David Chase wrapped up his masterpiece television series The Sopranos in typical fashion Sunday night: with excruciating ambiguity.
In the feverishly anticipated finale to the HBO series, considered by many to be the best television show ever made, the screen suddenly faded to black as Tony, his wife and children gathered in a diner for supper surrounded by a series of shady characters who seemed ready at any moment to unveil their semi-automatics and blow the family away.
After a show that focused almost entirely on family ties— except for the vaguely comical whacking of Phil Leotardo, Tony's bitter foe— the last five minutes at the low-rent diner, as Meadow Soprano struggled to parallel-park outside, might have been the most agonizing moments in the series' eight-year run.
That's because speculation was running high that Tony, whose steady and stunning slide into paranoia and depravity during the show's final season seemed to be sealing his fate, would be gunned down in the bitter bloodbath that had erupted between his New Jersey mobsters and their New York counterparts.
Instead, it was Phil who was whacked at a suburban gas station while getting out of the passenger seat of a minivan driven by his wife. He's shot execution-style and when his horrified spouse leaps from the vehicle and leaves it in drive, his head is slowly crushed under the rear wheels as his infant grandchildren gurgle cheerfully in their car seats.
But the fate of Tony and those he's closest to— Carmela, Meadow and A.J.— was left unknown with the abrupt fade to black. Did Phil's lieutenants really turn on their boss? Or was Tony set up and deliberately persuaded to let his guard down so that Phil's hitmen could take him out with ease? We'll never know.
Some fans weren't immediately impressed.
"Is it just me, or did they forget to tack on an ending on The Sopranos?" asked one loyal viewer.
"I just wasted seven years."
But Chase has always proven himself to be a master at ambiguity, never providing neat answers or tying up loose ends the way viewers have sometimes hoped he would.
He's always said the show was primarily about family and the final episode proved he meant it: it was consumed with A.J.'s future, in particular and even though Tony fears a hitman could burst in the door at any moment and gun him down, he still manages to berate his son after he inadvertently sets his car on fire.
Uncle Junior also reappears when a newly widowed Janice tries to make a play for his stash of cash and it seems clear Tony finally believes, upon paying his own visit to his uncle, that the old man is truly lost to Alzheimer's disease.
Those hoping for a Goodfellas-style bloodbath were likely disappointed. The finale, in fact, was one of the most feverishly anticipated series finales in television history, with Las Vegas bookies taking bets on whether Tony would live or die, while Sopranos junkies voted in countless online polls on what fate should befall the deeply flawed protagonist after a lifetime of sin.
Newspapers devote their fronts to show finale
The Toronto Star devoted its section front to the finale with a full-page cartoon of a naked Tony, cigar in hand, plunging to the fiery depths of hell.
In its eight years on the air, Chase was masterful at combining weighty Shakespearean themes with brutal violence and stunning story-telling that often showed the compassionate sides of a group of sociopathic killers.
"I'm basically a good guy," Tony, a devoted family man despite his relentless philandering, often told his psychiatrist.
When Tony pulled his depressed son, A.J., from the family swimming pool after a botched suicide attempt this season, Chase masterfully laid bare the duelling facets of the mob boss's personality: he angrily cursed his son and sobbingly comforted him at the same time.
Frank Vincent, the actor who brilliantly portrayed the ruthless and bloodthirsty Phil, gave no hint of his character's fate in an interview with The Canadian Press two days before the finale aired on The Movie Network/Movie Central. He even defended the mafia's violent way of life.
"It's a business," Vincent said.
"These guys, above all else, are businessmen and certain problems have to be eliminated."