It's almost a Norman Rockwell scene with a group of Cub Scouts, young lovers, football hero murals, and locals enjoying the warm and homey atmosphere. Chase says time itself is the raw material of the scene as the suspense builds with pinpoint editing while Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" propels the action to its climax—a heart-stopping cut to black.
Chase was after the dreamy, chilling feeling he admired at the end of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in which time expands and contracts as life and death merge into one. And there, as in the concluding instant of The Sopranos, who knows what really happens. "When it's over," Chase offers, "I think you're probably always blindsided by it. That's all I can say."
It was my decision to direct the episode such that whenever Tony arrives someplace, he would see himself. He would get to the place and he would look and see where he was going. He had a conversation with his sister that went like this. And then he later had a conversation with Junior that went like this. I had him walk into his own POV every time. So the order of the shots would be Tony close-up, Tony POV, hold on the POV, and then Tony walks into the POV. And I shortened the POV every time. So that by the time he got to Holsten's, he wasn't even walking toward it anymore. He came in, he saw himself sitting at the table, and the next thing you knew he was at the table.
David Chase breaks down all the shots from that famous last scene of The Sopranos. Brilliant. If you watched the show, it's a must read.
One of my longstanding issues with those who claim TV has surpassed movies is that the brutal deadlines of TV often lead to the most mechanical of camera framing and shot sequencing, or very cookie cutter episode structure. It can feel, at times, like a somewhat brutish and blunt art, even if the consistent and timely output of TV inspires its own awe. 1
I suspect a lot of the shift in support from movies to TV are about the increased quality and convenience of the TV viewing experience and less about what's actually shown. With the proliferation of cable channels and streaming services and connected boxes, we have greater supply of TV than at any time in history. With high definition television sets and a surge in high definition content, the quality is better than ever. With DVRs and streaming services and mobile devices, the convenience is greater than at any time in history. Meanwhile, movies still require you to go to a theater at a specific time, find parking, fight others for good seats, and deal with all the other patrons. But all that said, if you judge movies against TV just based on the content itself, movies still reach greater peaks. It's not a fair comparison because an hour and a half movie has way more budget and time allotted for its creation than even many hours of TV, but that's just the nature of the art forms. ↩
What The Sopranos brought to TV was a higher level of craft. Movies and TV shows that are constructed with real artistic intent provide a larger surface area for analysis, and they work on you in ways both conscious and subconscious. Even more than that, they reward repeat viewing in a way that most television does not.
Chase's love of music always reflected itself in very exacting editing. The rhythm of the shots in the show had a lyrical feel. Many TV shows have a very consistent shot length and sequence of shot sizes from scene to scene. Watch your basic sitcom or medical/legal procedural with a stopwatch and verify for yourself. Shows like The Sopranos, or more recently Breaking Bad, don't follow strict templates. In their more varied cinematography they resemble movies. It helps, of course, that season lengths for shows like that are much shorter than for most network TV shows. It allowed for more time to craft each episode, and that shows through.
I love the timing of the lyric when Carmela enters: 'Just a small town girl livin' in a lonely world, she took the midnight train goin' anywhere.' Then it talks about Tony: 'Just a city boy,' and we had to dim down the music so you didn't hear the line, 'born and raised in South Detroit.' The music cuts out a little bit there, and they're speaking over it. 'He took the midnight train goin' anywhere.' And that to me was [everything]. I felt that those two characters had taken the midnight train a long time ago. That is their life. It means that these people are looking for something inevitable. Something they couldn't find. I mean, they didn't become missionaries in Africa or go to college together or do anything like that. They took the midnight train going anywhere. And the midnight train, you know, is the dark train.
Chase doesn't say whether Tony dies or not at the end. My opinion is he did die, but when you read this piece and hear Chase discuss the ending, it's clear that question doesn't really matter. Whether it's a narrative death for Tony, or just the death of the show, the greater point of the cut to black was of endings in general.
I thought the ending would be somewhat jarring, sure. But not to the extent it was, and not a subject of such discussion. I really had no idea about that. I never considered the black a shot. I just thought what we see is black. The ceiling I was going for at that point, the biggest feeling I was going for, honestly, was don't stop believing. It was very simple and much more on the nose than people think. That's what I wanted people to believe. That life ends and death comes, but don't stop believing. There are attachments we make in life, even though it's all going to come to an end, that are worth so much, and we're so lucky to have been able to experience them. Life is short. Either it ends here for Tony or some other time. But in spite of that, it's really worth it. So don't stop believing.