‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Mad Men,’ and How Our Obsession With Series Finales Is Hurting TV

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A “dek,” for those who aren’t in the news business or acquainted with the jargon, is what they call that summary of an article that runs between the headline and the text itself. It’s a handy way to hook readers; it can also save time, as in the case of “This Magic Moment,” a new article for the Directors Guild of America’s DGA Quarterly, in which Sopranos creator David Chase discusses that show’s last scene, yet again. “What he won’t say is what happened at the end,” concludes the dek, which should effectively put off the kind of numbskull who’s still hung up on a literal interpretation of the show’s conclusion, eight frigging years after it aired.

If you’re not digging for that exasperating decoder ring, the piece itself is a good read; Chase eloquently deconstructs how he used music (“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”), composition, cross-cutting, and especially point-of-view camera to create the iconic sequence. And frankly, the takeaway of his article is what a terrific scene it is — beyond the subtextual deconstruction and bullshit literalism, it’s just a really well-crafted piece of dramatic tension.

But that, unsurprisingly, is not the takeaway that’s making its way across the ol’ World Wide Web today. “David Chase Breaks Down the ‘Sopranos’ Ending, Talks Tony Soprano’s Death,” goes one headline. “David Chase breaks silence on Sopranos’ final scene,” goes another. That entire premise is hilarious; if there’s one thing Chase hasn’t been “silent” on, it’s the ending of The Sopranos, because people won’t shut the fuck up about it.

In fact, we went through this whole business less than a year ago, when Vox ran a massive, thorough, 4000-plus-word David Chase profile, and then headlined it “Did Tony Soprano die at the end of The Sopranos?” Their dek was, “David Chase finally answers the question he wants fans to stop asking,” but the better question would’ve been, “And why are you still hung up on it?” The piece went viral, thanks in no small part to a clever design flourish that replicated the episode’s famously jarring cut-to-black with this money quote re: whether Tony’s dead:

And, of course, within hours of the piece’s publication, Chase was objecting to its simplification. His publicist released a statement, noting, “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.” But the fact that it doesn’t have an answer — and that the episode so deliberately and so provocatively chooses not to answer it — only seems to guarantee that people are going to keep posing, and posing, and posing the question.

What’s worth wondering at this point, as you imagine Chase letting out a heavy sigh and rubbing his eyes and shrugging that he never thought his ambitiously ambiguous ending would be “a subject of such discussion,” is the degree to which the ending of The Sopranos has affected and will continue to affect how other iconic television series close out their runs — that is, both the definitiveness with which they close the book, and the degree to which the people behind them want to spend the rest of their professional lives explaining them.

That question is top of mind as we close in on the conclusion of Mad Men, the current program most directly linked to The Sopranos. This isn’t just about creator Matthew Weiner’s three seasons as a writer and producer for Chase, nor the charismatic antiheroes at the two shows’ centers; Mad Men has always been a show that just felt like The Sopranos, tonally and stylistically, a series where ambiguity and unease and narrative cul-de-sacs were not only present, but part of the modus operandi.

And that’s why it’s so infuriating to read clueless inventories of “loose ends we hope Mad Men wraps up” and “what needs to be resolved in the final season” (yes indeed, what needs to be resolved), as though this is a show that’s ever been about tidy conclusions and clean resolutions; that’s why complaints about recent episodes not going exactly where we think they “should” (from websites or fans or, worse, websites aggregating fans) are so headache-inducing — because Mad Men has never been about fan service. This fan, for one, doesn’t presume to know better than Weiner and company how this show should end, except that it shouldn’t end the way stupid people want it to: with someone falling out of a building, or Don parachuting out of an airplane with millions of dollars, or Bob Benson murdering him, or whatever.

The one thing that seems safe to assume is that Mad Men isn’t going to end in a nice clean package with a big, pretty bow on top, and that’s an assumption based on not only the show we’ve been watching for seven seasons now, but also Weiner’s own statements on the subject. “Resolution in itself is a mystery in this world,” he told THR, when discussing the show’s conclusion in 2013. And because, in this sequel and prequel-laden, explain-everything-to-me pop culture in environment, ambiguity has gone the way of the dinosaur, people will be pissed. In fact, the only thing that might cause Weiner to end his show otherwise is the realization that, thanks to the endless and deafening inquires of literal-minded dopes, he might still be talking about the damned thing in 2023.