So everybody is talking about the Sopranos. I might as well weigh in. Personally, I thought the ambiguous ending was pretty brilliant. The Sopranos is always being compared to literature, but the engineered vagueness of that final scene is perhaps its most literary act. As the literary critic Frank Kermode famously pointed out, classic literature is defined not by the certainty of its meaning, but by its linguistic instability, its ability to encourage a multiplicity of interpretations. What makes a novel or poem immortal is, paradoxically, its complexity, the way every reader discovers in the same words a different story.
That’s precisely what happens at the very end of the Sopranos, when the screen abruptly cuts to black. Nobody knows whether Tony is dead or alive. (Perhaps this ambiguity also explains the strange appearance of that cat. Reminds me of Schrodinger.) And while this uncertain conclusion might be unprecedented in television history, many literary works have realized that the best ending isn’t really an ending. The last scene of the Soprano’s actually reminded me, in some very oblique and silly way, of the last scene in Mrs. Dalloway.
In that classic novel, Virginia Woolf deliberately leads the reader to expect some sort of grand conclusion (“What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?”) but then ends with a glimpse of Mrs. Dalloway doing nothing particularly important. Likewise, the Sopranos ends with a banal family meal, the same sorta thing we’ve seen enacted dozens of times before. The text (or episode) ends, but life goes on. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da.
And this kind of ambiguity isn’t confined to modernist texts. For example, many readers find the ending of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, in which Dorothea elopes with Will, to be a traditional happy ending, in which marriage triumphs over evil. On the other hand, some readers – like Virginia Woolf – see Dorothea’s inability to live alone as a turn of plot “more melancholy than tragedy.” The same book manages to inspire two completely different conclusions. But there is no right interpretation. Everyone is free to find their own meaning in the novel. Props to David Chase for imitating George Eliot.