Ten years ago, the screen went black on what is widely considered one of the greatest TV shows of all time. The Sopranos, a character-driven gangster epic based around a mafia family in New Jersey, had ushered in a new era of creativity in television with multi-layered narratives and a cast of increasingly complex and intriguing characters.
Over six series – winning 21 Emmys along the way – it paved the way for the greats of the modern era: without sociopathic, animal-loving “Waste-management consultant” Tony Soprano, there would be no Don Draper, no Walter White.
We had been with the family through panic attacks, suicide attempts and lots and lots of murders, and naturally, everyone had their own theories as to how it would end. Would Tony finally get whacked? As he said himself, “there’s only two endings for a guy like me, a high profile guy. Dead, or in the can”.
But as the credits prepared to roll on June 10th 2007, it turned out the show’s mastermind, David Chase, had one final trick up his sleeve.
“I remember being at a friend’s house in the Hamptons, and everybody was watching it inside” says Robert Iler, now 32, who played Tony’s son Anthony Jr (or AJ). “I was outside with one of my friends, and I wasn’t watching it. I remember hearing them saying, ‘what just happened?’”
It was the shrug felt around the world. Tony was neither dead, nor in prison. The closing scene goes like this: The mob boss, who has any number of dangerous people out for his blood, arrives in a diner and takes a seat. He flips through the jukebox leaflet, occasionally looking up whenever the front door – which triggers a bell – is opened. He could be looking out for his family, who are due to arrive, or he could be waiting on a couple of gunmen to deliver his fate. He picks Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing and it comes over the soundsystem. His wife and son arrive, while his daughter Meadow, after making a shambles of a parallel parking job outside of the restaurant, runs to the entrance. The door opens, and Tony looks up. The screen fades to black. That’s it.
Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who played AJ’s older sister Meadow, watched the final episode in a screening at the HBO offices with colleagues Dominic Chianese (Junior Soprano) and Aida Turturro (Janice Soprano).
“When the last moments happened we thought the projector went out,” she says. “We had no idea it was going to be such an abrupt cut to black. I remember all of us thinking, ‘people are either going to love it or be really pissed off…’”
She’s right. With a bit of masterful editing, Chase had deprived the world of a definitive ending. Some fans felt cheated, while others relished the opportunity to ponder the meaning behind it. Ten years later, the debate still rages.
“If the last scene was just Tony getting shot in the head that would have been it”, says Iler. “People would have talked about it for a month or two, and then it would have been over. But to have an open ended discussion still ten years later, obviously what he did was genius”.
He’s not wrong. Reams have been written about the scene. It has been dissected from every possible angle to find hidden meaning, yet ultimately, Chase handed control over to the viewer. If the showrunner does have a definitive idea about what happened to Tony, he is likely to take it to his deathbed.
For many, the meaning lies in what came before it. Throughout the show’s run, the audience was forced to constantly question each characters’ motives. One minute we’re sympathising with a man of old-school ideals getting to grips with his emotions in a therapist’s office, the next, that same man is suffocating his much-beloved cousin and protege to death.
There were no epiphanies, no simple answers. A definitive conclusion may have felt out of step.
What does Iler think about the ending, having spent the formative years of his life making this show, growing up with this dysfunctional mob family? As it turns out, not much. He still has yet to watch the show.
“Now that James [Gandolfini] has passed, just sitting there and watching 80 hours of film of him, I think it would just be way too tough,” he says.
Iler’s on-screen father and real-life father figure Gandolfini died suddenly in 2013. The two had become “like family” during the ten-year period while filming the show, and the passing came as quite a shock to his system.
“My grandmother passed away when I was 7 or 8 years old, and then I literally lost no one for 20 years of my life. And then he passed away, and it was just a crazy thing. It’s really like family. But, in some ways, even better, because you never have the bad moments…”
Gandolfini looked out for Iler even in the years after the series finished, calling his manager on at least one occasion to check up on him.
“He didn’t have to go out of his way and do that, but he did, because that was the guy he was. So I think sitting down and watching the show now would just be torture.”
Robert Iler & Jamie-Lynn Sigler
Sigler, on the other hand, has her own theories on what went down. Though, like her on-screen sibling, she has only seen a handful of episodes from beginning to end, she is acutely aware of the meaning that many fan’s took from the show.
“For me, I felt very much that, the way that scene was edited – where basically every person in that diner was a threat to Tony and his family – it was done so that we felt the tension, and we felt the fear, but we also felt sort of the denial that Carmela and Anthony Jr had when they were just living their life,” she says.
“I think the whole show could have been edited that way. This was their reality, and their potential end at any time. I think whether Tony’s life ended in that moment, or a year from then, or in ten years, it was inevitable. And the only way these people could live their lives was to do so in denial. So for me the final scene kind of represented their reality.”
But the final scene is not the one that sticks out for either of Tony Soprano’s offspring. The pair spent a massive part of their adolescence working on the show, aged 12 and 17 respectively when they began filming. They learned their trade along the way, not least from fiery familial disputes with their on-screen parents Gandolfini and Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano).
The College episode in season 1 was really my first foray into real acting”, says Sigler. “It was just me and James Gandolfini. There were these long, rich scenes, and I remember him teaching me so much about standing up for myself, telling me that if I wanted another take I deserved it, and helping me explore a character and my process,” she says.
The episode in question gives us perhaps our best insight into Tony’s relationship with his daughter. There’s a moment where the two have an honest discussion about his life of crime, but by the end one step forward becomes two steps back, as Tony pursues and murders a ‘rat’ behind her back. Their relationship is one of the many loose ends left untied as the credits rolled on the series finale.
“The scene that’s really burned into my memory is one from season six, when Tony comes to pick me up from the police station after I tried to kill uncle Junior [Tony and AJ have a fiery argument in the car park]”, says Iler, pointing to a similarly crucial moment between father and son. “It was almost like blacking out, it was so intense.”
Despite having a brief flirtation with the mob in the final season, AJ never seems to be cut from the same cloth as his father. Their only level playing field is a shared battle with mental health issues, yet while Tony believes his panic attacks to be out of his control, he sees his son’s existential depression as a sign of weakness.
But despite Tony’s archaic views, the show’s depiction of mental illness is perhaps its most overlooked quality. In an astute and heartbreaking scene late in season six, Tony has to rescue AJ from the family’s pool after a botched suicide attempt. It is a rare moment of intimacy between the two, as Tony cradles his son in his arms.
“I remember someone coming up to me and telling me that they were in a super deep depression about their girlfriend. And even though AJ tried to commit suicide, just seeing somebody else on his favourite show dealing with the same thing made him realise that he wasn’t alone.”
Such is the power of meaningful, well thought-out television, and, looking back on an incredibly important period of their lives, both Sigler and Iler are keenly tapped into what made the show so special.
“Everybody loves mob stories and the glamour and history of it all, but I think the fact that this lead man is a cold-blooded killer, and not a very good man, yet you root for him as a father, and you see him as vulnerable in a therapist’s office… It shook people to their core, and made them question things”, says Sigler.
“The Sopranos could have gone the route of going to the strip club and killing other mafia bosses all the time, right?” says Iler. It is precisely because it did so much more than that, that it is looked upon with such reverence ten years after that final, abrupt cut.