When The Sopranos Blacked Out

HBO
HBO

The late James Gandolfini, the imposing and formidable character actor who became famous virtually overnight for his portrayal of a mobster who submitted to psychoanalysis for six seasons on HBO’s The Sopranos, told Vanity Fair in 2012 that he had a plain and simple reaction after viewing the show’s finale:

“What the f*ck?”

That brief review would be echoed by critics and fans in the days and months following the episode’s broadcast on June 10, 2007. Titled “Made in America,” The Sopranos's series finale featured one last supper with Tony Soprano (Gandolfini), his wife Carmela (Edie Falco), and children Meadow and A.J. (Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler). Converging at Holsten’s Ice Cream Parlor, the family appears at least temporarily free of the stress Tony’s life of crime has brought into their world. Tony orders onion rings, selects Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” from the tabletop jukebox, and seems relieved his domestic life is intact.

Moments later, the screen goes black. “Don’t Stop Believin’” is cut off so abruptly that many viewers believed they were experiencing a cable outage. It remained that way for 11 seconds before the credits rolled, a curious void of content that quickly became one of the most infamous endings to a series in the history of television. As far as fans were concerned, creator David Chase may or may not have whacked Tony, but he definitely whacked them.

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When Chase was growing up in Clifton, New Jersey, in the 1950s, his father owned a hardware store, and his business partner had a son. The son’s cousins had an unusual family name—Soprano—that stuck with Chase for decades. After duties on episodic television like The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure, Chase stumbled onto an idea about a mobster who was in therapy. After Fox and other networks passed, The Sopranos landed at HBO in 1999.

Although the channel’s prison drama Oz, which had premiered two years earlier, signaled the network's newfound commitment to hour-long dramas, The Sopranos was cut from an entirely different mold. Novelistic and ruminative, the show seemed to delight in taking the tropes of mob fiction and turning them on their head. When Doctor Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) is sexually assaulted, it seemed assured that she’d eventually turn to her patient, Tony, in order to exact vengeance. (She doesn’t.) When Tony’s wife has an affair with one of his lieutenants, viewers braced for an inevitable face-to-face showdown that never occurred. Given near-total autonomy over the tone and direction of the series, Chase was able to embrace his preference for ambiguity.

While it ran for eight years, there were just six seasons; Chase didn’t produce material for air in either 2003 or 2005, nor did he have any desire to overstay his welcome. In 2006, the network aired the first 12 episodes of a planned 21-episode final season. Although it was a long march to the finish line, speculation ran rampant over how Tony's story would conclude.

In later interviews, Chase explained he had the idea for the finale early on. Tony’s unethical conduct seemed to point to only two inevitable outcomes: jail or death. But Chase inserted a third option that most critics and fans hadn’t counted on—that previously expressed love of ambiguity.

Chase would later admit he shot an alternate, as-yet-unexplained ending as a red herring to throw off people trying to find leaks of plot details. The ending he was committed to, however, took place at Holsten’s, a real restaurant in Bloomfield, New Jersey. After disposing of yet another mob rival, Tony greets each member of his family as they walk into the restaurant, a bell chiming overhead. As his son comes in, a man in a Members Only jacket ambles into the location and later enters the restroom.

What happens next is left open to interpretation. Echoing a comment made by Soprano associate Bobby Bacala earlier in the season that you never hear “it” (read: a gunman) coming, it’s possible Chase meant for viewers to experience the suddenness of being clipped from behind, perhaps by the man who had entered the restroom. The abrupt end of “Don’t Stop Believin’” hints at that.

Viewers, however, didn’t want to choose their own climax. As soon as the episode aired, a national outcry bemoaned the lack of any answers. Some thought their cable had been disconnected. Others figured it out once the credits rolled and became so incensed that they bombarded HBO’s official website with complaints. (HBO shut its website down that Sunday night.) According to a Yahoo! spokesperson, searches for “Sopranos ending sucked” poured into the search engine. Wikipedia had to lock pages related to the show because users kept editing entries to reflect the “fact” that Chase had ruined the series.

Chase, who had timed a holiday in France to avoid most of the feedback, granted an interview days later. While he refused to answer the question of whether Tony was dead, he insisted that all the information a viewer needed was in the scene. “Anyone who wants to watch it, it’s all there,” Chase said.

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When Chase pops up in media to discuss current projects, talk still usually turns to the furor caused by the blackout. While he has always demurred on the question of whether Tony survived his plate of onion rings at Holsten’s, he did elaborate on some of the decisions made in the scene during a 2015 Directors Guild of America interview.

“Don’t Stop Believin’” was selected, he said, because the lyrics seem to be a close match for the personal journey of Tony and his wife. The “midnight train” referenced in the song was a parallel to the fateful decisions made by the couple years ago—“the dark train,” as Chase put it. The man in the Members Only jacket entered with A.J. so the audience’s attention would be focused more on the face they knew than the suspicious man they didn’t.

The closing shot, a jarring end to what looked to be a peaceful dinner, wasn’t intended to frustrate viewers. “I thought the ending would be somewhat jarring, sure,” Chase said. “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.”

And the theories regarding Bobby Bacala’s comments foreshadowing Tony’s death? “When it’s over, I think you’re probably always blindsided by it," Chase offered. “That’s all I can say.”

It’s hard to know, once the initial shock of the closing moments wore off, whether viewers ever softened their stance on the finale. (At the time, newspapers were filled with quotes by fans calling it “unbelievably cruel” and accusing Chase of some kind of conspiracy to annoy them.) For at least one viewer, it took just one night of introspection to come to an entirely different opinion.

“After I had a day to sleep,” Gandolfini said in 2012, “I just sat there and said, ‘That’s perfect.’”

Thursday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Guitar Kits, Memory-Foam Pillows, and Smartwatches

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Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 3. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

10 Fascinating Facts About Samuel L. Jackson

SUHAIMI ABDULLAH/GETTY IMAGES
SUHAIMI ABDULLAH/GETTY IMAGES

If you watch enough movies, you’re bound to spot Samuel L. Jackson. The 71-year-old star (he'll turn 72 on December 21, 2020) is one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood, appearing in Oscar-winning films like Pulp Fiction (1994) as well as blockbuster franchises like Jurassic Park, Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From his background as an activist to the origin of his R-rated catchphrase, here are some things you should know about the Oscar-nominated actor.

1. Swearing helped Samuel L. Jackson manage his stutter.

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Before he was one of Hollywood's most accomplished actors, Samuel L. Jackson had trouble speaking in front of others. He was bullied for his stutter as a child, and he avoided talking in school for nearly a year because of it. He eventually took the initiative to treat the issue on his own by researching breathing techniques at the library. He also came up with a unique anchor word: motherf***er. The expletive that helped him manage his speech impediment would also become his professional calling card later in life.

2. Samuel L. Jackson was an usher at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral.

The assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968 thrust a young Jackson into the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson, who was a sophomore at Morehouse College at the time, flew from Atlanta to Memphis a few days later to march in support of a garbage workers' strike. Back in Atlanta, he agreed to be an usher at MLK’s funeral when he heard they needed volunteers. In 2018, he wrote about the experience for The Hollywood Reporter, saying, “I remember seeing people like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. People that I thought I'd never see, let alone have a relationship with later on in life. The funeral was pretty much a blur.” He later staged a lock-in at his college that got him suspended.

3. Samuel L. Jackson almost became a marine biologist.

Jackson attended college in the 1960s with the intention of becoming a marine biologist. After he held the lock-in at Morehouse, he saw a performance by the Negro Ensemble Company that inspired him to pursue acting. When his suspension ended, he switched his major to drama and joined the theater group that inspired him.

4. Samuel L. Jackson was a stand-in on The Cosby Show.

Before he made it big in Hollywood, Jackson worked as a stand-in for Bill Cosby during tapings of the sitcom. "I was the right height, and I was the right skin tone," Jackson told Vulture in 2012 about the gig. "We did the blocking, while they did the camera choreography because it was a three-camera show. For two to three years, they would put his crazy sweaters on me."

5. Samuel L. Jackson's famous Jurassic Park line was inspired by another film.

Not long before he found a permanent place on Hollywood's A-list, Jackson played a small part in Jurassic Park (1993). John “Ray” Arnold wasn’t the star of the film, but he did say one of its more memorable lines: “Hold onto your butts.” Jurassic Park screenwriter David Koepp recently revealed that he borrowed the line from director Robert Zemeckis, who uttered it before watching reshoots of his film Death Becomes Her (1992).

6. Samuel L. Jackson asked for a purple lightsaber in the Star Wars prequels.

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Jackson is such a big Star Wars fan that he immediately accepted the role of Jedi Mace Windu when George Lucas offered it to him. He did, however, make one request regarding the part: He wanted a purple lightsaber. Traditionally, lightsabers come in green for Jedi and red for Sith, but Lucas reluctantly agreed to make an exception for Mace Windu in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002). Jackson recounted the origins of his unique weapon on The Graham Norton Show: “We had this big arena, this fight scene with all these Jedi and they’re fighting or whatever. And I was like, well s***, I want to be able to find myself in this big ol’ scene. So I said to George, ‘You think maybe I can get a purple lightsaber?’”

7. Samuel L. Jackson is the highest grossing actor of all time.

Samuel L. Jackson has appeared in more than 150 movies, including blockbuster franchises like Star Wars and several of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including The Avengers series. So it’s not surprising that the actor has earned the distinction of being Hollywood’s highest-grossing actor. The combined box office earnings of all his films—which includes Avengers: Endgame, the biggest money-maker of all time—add up to more than $13 billion worldwide.

8. Samuel L. Jackson has his own wig consultant.

Jackson is bald in real life, but he has sported many iconic hairstyles over the course of his movie career. His ‘dos have become such a big part of his on-screen personas that he employs his own personal hair stylist and wig consultant. Robert L. Stevenson has used Jackson’s head as a canvas on dozens of films.

9. Samuel L. Jackson appears in Kill Bill Vol. 2.

After first collaborating with director Quentin Tarantino on Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown (1997), Jackson made a brief cameo in his Kill Bill series. The next time you watch Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004), pay close attention to Rufus the wedding piano player—he’s played by a familiar face.

10. You can hear Samuel L. Jackson on Amazon’s Alexa.

Jackson is known for his distinctive voice and colorful vocabulary. In 2019, the actor lent his vocal talents to Amazon’s Alexa. The Samuel L. Jackson Alexa option has many of the same capabilities as regular Alexa, including playing music, setting your alarm clock, and singing “Happy Birthday.” You can even let the feature use swear words for a more authentic experience.