I have never particularly cared about whether mobster Tony Soprano (the late, tremendously lamented James Gandolfini) dies in the final episode of the seminal HBO series The Sopranos, which ended in 2007 with a fade to black that left a lot of viewers wondering if their television service had cut out. The conduct of Tony's life, the moral decisions the people in his life made in relation to him and the 86 episodes of television that preceded that moment, seem far more momentous.
But the debate revived this week when a profile of Sopranos creator David Chase was published on Vox.com. No, Chase was quoted as saying, Tony did not die. (Chase later issued a statement saying that the Vox reporter had misconstrued what he said. "As David Chase has said numerous times on the record, 'Whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead is not the point.' " the statement said. "The final scene of The Sopranos raises a spiritual question that has no right or wrong answer.")
But if we give in to our inability to tolerate ambiguity, and demand an answer the question, that Tony lived seems to me to be the preferable choice.
There are plenty of ways to think about his potential death.
If he went out in a hail of bullets in a New Jersey diner, we could interpret his end as inevitable, given his profession and the conventions of the genre of which his story is a part. Seeing Tony murdered before them might provide a galvanic kick to his family, forcing the reckoning with the reality of Tony's work which they have avoided so as to more comfortably enjoy the fruits of his criminal labors. Or death could be punishment for Tony himself.
But if we want Tony to suffer for the damage he has done to his family, his community and the people touched by his criminal enterprises, I think it is better for him to live.
This is in line with my general thinking on the death penalty. In addition to our inability to administer it without causing the kind of pain that we see as criminal when caused without the sanction of the state, it seems both harsher and more hopeful to keep our worst malefactors alive and capable of achieving a reckoning with the harm that they have caused.
And it strikes me that Tony's particular story is exceptionally well-suited for this sort of punishment. Tony's therapy with Dr. Jennifer Melfi comes to an end in part because she has become convinced that by making Tony a more functional person, she has helped make him a more effective criminal. But I think it is undeniable that she has also made Tony more aware of himself and his feelings. In a sense, she has created the perfect condition for Tony's ongoing punishment: an ability to continue committing bad acts while seeing them with increasing clarity.
The Vox profile of Chase discusses his affinity for Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville, among other authors. To me, Tony Soprano has a different analogue. He is a grubbier, smaller version of John Milton's Satan in the fourth book of Paradise Lost, aware of what it would take for him to be a better person and ultimately unwilling to extricate himself from a disaster of his own making.
"Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell," Milton's Satan ruminated. That seems like a decent description of Tony Soprano. That he has to share Satan's fate and live with himself forever, or at least until his natural death, is a far crueler fate than for him to be cut down by the man in the Member's Only jacket.