"The Sopranos" creator David Chase has finally — out of frustration more than anything else — answered the "Is Tony dead?" question.
Well, sort of. UPDATE: And even much less definitively than it seemed at first. See below.
In a story published on Vox this morning, Martha P. Nochimson — who has had a friendship with Chase since she interviewed him for a book about gangster films in the mid-'00s — gets to the bottom of the most hotly-debated question of the Golden Age of TV Drama.
"I had been talking with Chase for a few years when I finally asked him whether Tony was dead or alive," she writes. "We were in a tiny coffee shop, when, in the middle of a low-key chat about a writing problem I was having, I popped the question. Chase startled me by turning toward me and saying with sudden, explosive anger, 'Why are we talking about this?' I answered, 'I'm just curious.' And then, for whatever reason, he told me. And I will tell you. So keep reading."
It's a long piece, and one that gets into much of Chase's interests as a storyteller, his fondness for ambiguity (inspired by a love of European cinema), and his post-"Sopranos" work on films like "Not Fade Away." But Chase's response to Nochimson's question is considered so important that it's presented in a giant graphic that reads "Just the fact and no interpretation. He shook his head 'no.' And he said simply, 'No he isn't.' That was all."
Now, you'll note that Nochimson never actually presents how she phrased the question — and if she literally said "Is Tony dead or alive," then Chase's "No, he isn't," response is just one more attempt to elude an explanation. But Nochimson follows that graphic by writing, "Fine. Tony's not dead. But what do we do with this bald fact? And isn't Chase's flat response exactly the point?" So presumably, he was responding to a direct "Is he dead?" query.
UPDATE: After the story was initially published, the following line was added directly before the "No, he isn't" graphic: "So when he answered the 'Did Tony die' question, he was laconic." Clearly, Vox is attempting to avoid even more ambiguity about this.
I've long been in the "Tony lives" camp, feeling that Chase had no interest to a definitive conclusion to Tony's story — even if that conclusion was presented in that maddening, ambiguous cut to black during the scene at Holsten's. In "The Revolution Was Televised," I suggested that the editing of the Holsten's scene was designed to give us a sense of the paranoia and unease that Tony is burdened with, and that "Tony’s life goes on (and, as Journey’s Steve Perry sang, on and on and on), and the only punishment he has to face is continuing to be the fat, miserable fuck that is Tony Soprano."
When I interviewed Chase for the book, he declined to answer the same question Nochimson asked, but he did talk about the impulses behind presenting the final scene of his masterpiece in that way:
“It just seemed right,” he suggests. “You go on instinct. I don’t know. As an artist, are you supposed to know every reason for every brush stroke? Do you have to know the reason behind every little tiny thing? It’s not a science; it’s an art. It comes from your emotions, from your unconscious, from your subconscious. I try not to argue with it too much. I mean, I do: I have a huge editor in my head who’s always making me miserable. But sometimes, I try to let my unconscious act out. So why did I do it that way? I thought everyone would feel it. That even if they couldn’t say what it meant, that they would feel it.”
The Internet has turned the question of Tony's fate into a cottage industry, most notably in 2008's "The Sopranos: Definitive Explanation of 'The END,'" which spent 20,000 words arguing for Tony's death as the only possible explanation.
In the Vox piece, an irritated Chase simply gives a yes/no response and then moves on to other things he finds much more interesting, so I doubt we will get further elucidation on the nature of the concluding scene. Then again, I hadn't expected him to even give so much as a yes/no answer this soon, or ever.
But I think of something else he said when I interviewed him for the book:
“I think that ending so enraged some people that it affected their whole view of the show,” he says. “Why it would, I don’t know.”
As his initial anger with Nochimson's question suggests, I think he was just tired of this being the first, last and only thing people ever wanted to talk about with this great show that he put so much of himself into. Chase is not an optimist by nature, but maybe he's hoping that by giving a (mostly) definitive answer to that question, people can finally get back to discussing all the other great and fascinating parts of "The Sopranos" as a whole.
UPDATE: Chase's publicist put out the following statement:
A journalist for Vox misconstrued what David Chase said in their interview. To simply quote David as saying,“ Tony Soprano is not dead,” is inaccurate. There is a much larger context for that statement and as such, it is not true.
As David Chase has said numerous times on the record, “Whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead is not the point.” To continue to search for this answer is fruitless. The final scene of THE SOPRANOS raises a spiritual question that has no right or wrong answer.
So now we can all go back to arguing about everything. Yay!
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org