Don’t Stop [Cut to Black]: A Defense of the Ambiguous Ending

On June 10, 2007, Tony Soprano died (probably).  At least, that’s my interpretation of the series-ending moments and sudden cut to black before the credits.  The fact of the matter is, the ending was received and interpreted in a variety of ways.  Perhaps the show ended just as Tony’s daughter,  Meadow, entered the restaurant, signifying the moment we had been waiting for since the premiere, wherein Tony’s family finally comes back to him (like the ducks).  Maybe it was just David Chase messing with us. (The least likely explanation.  Why would the man want the memory of his legacy-defining creation to be that the final moment was an “eff-you” to the audience?)  In any event, if you watched Sopranos enough to “like” it on facebook, you no doubt were forced to decide once and for all how you felt about the show in its dénouement.

It seems that more and more stories, whether they be books, films, or television series, have opted for the ambiguous ending.  In some cases, this ambiguous ending is the cynical route.  (If we never show the protagonist dying, it leaves us open for a sequel!)  In others, this is the effect of misguided narratives running on concepts or characters not strong enough to carry through to any satisfying ending, like those Saturday Night Live sketches about the weird lady who works the register at Target.  There are the afforementioned Sopranos-esque ambiguous endings, wherein the author has given you everything you need to understand the events that transpire short of just showing you the event transpiring.  Finally, there are the endings that only seem ambiguous because the action hasn’t ended even though the story has. (Memento, Inception, No Country For Old Men) Anyone who’s taken an English class in the past 20 years has heard someone say “I think it’s left open for interpretation”, which may be true in about 5% of all written works, but has now become a crutch (Read: cop out) for people who don’t want to do the heavy lifting of thinking critically about the material.

There is overwhelming evidence that suggests Tony Soprano met his demise in the final moment of The Sopranos (The Man in the Members Only jacket suspiciously walking into the restroom ala Michael Corleone, Tony being startled twice from behind in the final episode as a foreshadowing to his vulnerability to an attack from behind him, Tony remembering his conversation with Bobby about how you probably don’t even hear it coming when you get shot, the list goes on), yet people still needed to see Tony’s bloody corpse to believe this was the case.  In fact, this is the only support to the “Tony isn’t dead” theory.  This is entirely valid and understandable, but not seeing Tony’s death doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. (Was that a triple negative? You’re damn right it was.)  The fact is, David Chase had a definitive ending in mind when he wrote and directed the final episode, and he supports it with mounds of hints and clues along the way.  That the clues weren’t clear enough is a fair criticism.  That the ending is open to interpretation is not.  (Of course, this can quickly turn into the cynical type of ambiguous ending should David Chase ever decide to write a Sopranos movie.  This is all based solely on the idea that the cut to black is the final moment in the Sopranos canon.)

More interesting are the endings that seem ambiguous because the action hasn’t stopped even though the story has.  The best case of this type of ending in recent years is the film Inception.  The film’s final moment shows Cobb, Leo DiCaprio’s character, spinning his top hoping it will stop spinning and he’ll know his dream of seeing his children again is at last a reality.  When he hears his children’s voices, he steps away from the spinning top and goes to them.  The camera stays on the top as it continues spinning, starts wavering, and, just when it’s about to fall (or about to keep spinning longer than would be naturally allowed by the laws of physics) the film ends.  In this case, there is no definitive clue one way or the other letting us know what’s real and what isn’t.  You could defend your argument equally well whether you believed the whole movie was a dream, only the second half of the movie was a dream, or everything was real or dream as the characters told us it was.  In fact, I’d encourage you to watch the film three separate times with either of these beliefs in mind.  You’d find that the film is grey enough to support all arguments.  Then why doesn’t that count as a cop out?  Because figuring out whether or not the film is all a dream sequence isn’t the point of the film.  When Cobb abandons the spinning top to be with his kids, the story is over.  Cobb’s arc has come around from a man who was very strict with the rules of dream invasions so as to always keep his grip on reality, to a man who didn’t care if he was dreaming anymore, so long as he was happy (with his children).  Story over, the end.  Interpretation of the setting of the final scene is left to you, but you cannot argue the meaning of it.

No Country For Old Men, both the book and the film, also seems to end on strange terms.  The climactic shootout between Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem’s characters, one that the whole film had been leading up to, happens off screen.  Bummer.  After that, the movie sort of dwells on Tommy Lee Jones’ character, scoping out the crime scene, being too afraid to enter the hotel room, and retiring.  The final moments of the film show the him recounting two dreams he’d had the night before.  Both dreams involve his (deceased) father in some capacity, and one of them is about he and his father traveling by horse on a mountain trail, his father pushing ahead of him to set up camp and wait for him there.  Of the three or four major themes running throughout No Country For Old Men is the idea that “you can’t stop what’s coming (death).”  The sheriff’s dreams reflect just that.  The sheriff knows he’s getting older and, in an attempt to stop what’s coming, he’s retired from the force.  He won’t die for a world he no longer understands.  That we never see what happens to the villain is irrelevant.  The sheriff’s story is done.

The very point of art is that the artist has something he has to say to the world.  What are the odds anyone’s message would be “What do you think I have to say?”  We live in a “let’s give all the kids a trophy” age of self-esteem over actual accomplishment.  Everyone’s so afraid of hurting a kid’s feelings that we won’t tell them they’re not thinking critically enough.  This has led to my generation and those after me to feel every work of art has been left open for his or her interpretation, that there is no wrong answer.  Bullshit.

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Stop [Cut to Black]: A Defense of the Ambiguous Ending

  1. Tony didn’t die. If it doesn’t “happen,” it didn’t “happen.” The moment was implied, not fact. The best you have is your justification for the immaculate David Chase is that of course Tony died. Sadly, you’re not given confirmation of this. You’re also not given any type of admission from the creator after the fact. David Chase has even stated that a movie is a possibility. So wha You’re left with is an interpretation of the ending, which you feel strongly about and is what you are claiming to be against. You see that Tony must be dead. “Wanting to see the body,” is your way of making those of us angry at the cop out ending, feel as if we had a blood lust that needed to be filled. Its not. “Wanting to see the body” is simply wanting to see the finish of a story that millions of people were vested into for nearly a decade.
    No one was shocked that the ship didn’t make it through Titanic. I have yet to see the movie where the US loses WWII, even Tarantino didn’t do that. Spider-man, Superman, Batman, Hulk, Iron Man… none of the Marvel or DC heroes have died on screen or failed saving the world. We know the ship is going to sink. We know the US is going to win. We know the super hero will beat the bad guy. The story that gets us there is the draw. The characters are the allure. Tony Soprano’s story was one of rage, crime and eventually, punishment. But what should be an amazingly strong ending, turns into a black screen and the worst song ever recorded playing. David Chase failed the end of a great show. Nearly five years later, the ending hasn’t changed. David Chase has still failed us. You’ve found clues upon truths upon facts that Tony died. I’ve got him down as a missing person.

    • By that measure, Adriana didn’t die on The Sopranos either . Hell, Fredo Corleone must still be alive. I never saw his corpse, did you? We accept some implications when they’re spelled out just enough for us, but others we reject. Like I said in the post, if you want to criticize Chase for not being clear enough, that’s fair. If he makes a movie, he’s said it would be a prequel to when Johnny and Junior ran things, when Tony was a kid. My guess, the movie never gets made (unless James Gandolfini is broke in ten years).

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