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Cut to Black: "The Sopranos" and the Future of TV Drama, Part 1

You're watching Part 1 of "Cut to Black," a videotaped roundtable discussion about the end of The Sopranos and the future of television drama. Participants include editor and New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz, Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan, A.V. Club TV critic Ryan McGee, and contributor Sarah D. Bunting. Shot and edited by Dave Bunting, Jr. 

This chapter talks about the shock of first seeing the Sopranos ending for the first time, and viewers' reluctance to accept that it was meant to be ambiguous. 

MZS: I think we should probably start by talking about where we were--well, not where we were, because we were obviously watching television! But what were the circumstances like when you first saw the ending of The Sopranos? What did you think about it?

Ryan: I first thought: 'This is a terrible time for my cable to go out.' That was the thought I had that I think a lot of people did at the time.

McGee: I think so. There was a sense of tension throughout the entire scene, the way the frames were shot, the way things seemed to have a lot of weight around them. And when the weight sort of collapsed upon itself, then there was confusion. And once the credits rolled, I thought, 'What an interesting way to end a series, by essentially not ending it.' I thought it was a very bold choice.

Bunting: Yeah, I agree. I think, like a lot of the rest of the country, I assumed the cable had gone out. And then I was immediately rewinding it in my mind, and literally rewinding to see what I missed. What were we told, what were we not told. I've watched it many times since then, and I'm not sure my opinion has changed, or that I have any better information. But there's definitely a sense of stopping too suddenly, like in a car, you know? But mentally.

MZS: Yes. Well, I just remember in the lead-up--and you remember this, too--to the two weeks that preceded that finale, everyone was wondering how they were going to finish the story. And there were these running lists of unfinished business. 'They haven't dealt with this, they haven't dealt with that, they haven't done this, they haven't done that. What about the war that's been going on, or that's about to go on.' And you could almost see people's stress levels rising, as we were getting closer, and closer to the one hour mark in the finale. 'Well, they haven't dealt with any of that. They've dealt with some of it, but not all of it. How could they possibly--now we've got three minutes left! How are they gonna...' And they didn't. They didn't at all.

McGee: But I like that. I like the idea of that it does confront our expectations of what the ending of a television show should be. What do we actually need out of that final hour in order to make the entire viewing experience viable? I'm not sure there's a particular answer that can be derived from it. But it did challenge that notion in one way, which was to check off all these things on a list. Because no matter how far along that list is, no show could check off everything, make everybody satisfied with the ending.

Bunting: Particularly not that show, where people are still asking, 'What happened to the Russian? Did he run off? Was he hit in the head?' No answer they're going to get is ever going to satisfy them.

But there is something to be said for, implying as strongly as possible, that things just continue. Beyond this dark scrim, we just don't get to see it anymore. Things continue--a traditional , "fi-nah-lay," as the WB announcer used to pronounce it [all laugh] does try to wrap things up. And there is this valedictory feel to it.

But then for me sometimes, that's a little sad because you're saying goodbye to these characters. And in the case of The Sopranos, you can sort of tell yourself, 'We haven't said goodbye to them.' You can just throw in the first DVD right afterwards, and they're back. I don't know, I'm really sentimental.

MZS: But the thing you were saying--it just occurs to me that it's a little bit odd that we expect television shows to end. Because television shows never actually begin. Like, there's not a big fanfare, there's not a big flourish when a television show begins: we simply begin watching the show. And the presumption is always that the characters on the show had a life that preceded the narrative, and our observing it. So in theory, it should be perfectly okay for a show just to stop. Or the show opens a window into this world, and we get to look through the window for three, or five, or seven, or however many seasons. And then they close the window, and we don't get to look anymore.

Ryan: But I think there's a really--David Chase makes a series of very conscious aesthetic choices in that scene. And just as Sarah was speaking, I was thinking of the hypothetical: they're all at Holsten's, they're all eating onion rings, and the camera just pulls away. And we fade out quietly. That's one choice he could have made, which could satisfy what you're [ie: Matt] saying, which is: we encounter this world, spent some time there, and now we're just gonna wander away from it, not be part of it. But I rewatched the finale again, and I have a more equitable distance from it now. So I don't think my view on it has evolved, and changed. My feelings were so charged going into it, what bothered me a lot at the time--or what I thought a lot about at the time--is, aesthetically, in those last ten minutes, [Chase] makes a ton of choices as a filmmaker. He knows exactly what he's doing. If you show a vaguely-menacing man, the members-only jacket guy, coming in right before AJ--we get a full view of him, we see him stirring his coffee at the counter--this is someone in the scene that he's telling us is somehow involved in something. We have that shot of him passing the table, going in the bathroom, which recalls The Godfather. And this is a classic moment in cinema.

What is stuck in my mind about that whole episode, which is a good hour, a good solid hour of TV, is Meadow is [parking the car]…

MZS: I was going to say!

Ryan: What is the point of our getting that? As a filmmaker, he cut and shot that in a certain way that amps up our tension [whispers]: 'What's going to happen?'

So what I found most aesthetically interesting about that is Meadow finally parks that stupid car, she walks in the door, and Tony--actually, you know I don't think we get to see her walk in the door.

Bunting: We don't.

McGee: We don't!

Ryan: We don't get to see her walk in the door...

McGee: We hear the door.

Ryan: But the doorbell goes, Tony looks up, and we only have a half of a moment of him looking up. So these are a series of aesthetic choices designed to provoke a specific response. And now I can look back on it and say, 'I think he was just goofing on us, just a little bit.'

MZS: Yeah.

Ryan: In what we expect. And that's something he's consistently done with the show is goofing on our expectations, or playing with them.

MZS: Yes.

Ryan: So I'm a little more okay with it than I was at the time. I think now he did it with an air of bemused detachment, not, 'I'm going to screw with these people.' I don't know, I could be wrong though.

MZS: Well, it's totally in character for the show.

That's the thing that becomes clear when you do kind of an emotionally rending ending, when you first see it. And remember, this is 2007, and no one had ended a show like that, in that way, before. So now I think we expect, when a show's a certain level of artistic ambition, for it to end in a less-than-conventional way. It sort of cleared the terrain for other show-runners to go build their houses, this particular show. And not just with the ending, just generally.

But the way that the show just pulls you away, it just pulls you away, grabs you by the scruff of the neck and says, 'You're not watching this anymore.' It feels violent, and that's why the first column that I wrote after the finale said that I felt David Chase had just whacked the viewer, that it was us that got whacked. I think a lot of people felt that way.

And then there's an entire contingent that says, 'Well, Tony got whacked.' Or his family got killed, or somebody got killed, or something violent happened in that diner.

Bunting: There's that Rosetta Stone-like document, proving--

MZS: "Proving."

Bunting: --in incredible detail--well, yeah. I’m used to a lot of true crime, most of which is bad, and some of that little cottage industry of trying to explain, 'This is why he definitely got killed,' and, 'This is why you're definitely being told. This is why you're an idiot if you don't believe that,' sort of reminded me of the lengths that JFK conspiracy theorists, and Ripper-ologists, will sometimes go to. There's this gossamer, taffy-thin thread of "proof," and I don' think it's completely outside the realm of possibility that Tony does get killed.

MZS: No!

Bunting: And if David Chase were on his deathbed, 'Fine...bastards! The Russian lived, Tony died, leave me the fuck alone. Let me die in peace.'

I wouldn't actually have any problem with that. I wouldn't feel like that was a retcon, or anything like that.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of, TV critic for New York Magazine and, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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