Don't let the headline fool you: This VOX article on David Chase is about a lot more than just explaining the obvious meaning of the ending to his ancient show called The Sopranos. As interviewer Martha P. Nochimson puts it:
I had been talking with Chase for a few years when I finally asked him whether Tony was dead. We were in a tiny coffee shop, when, in the middle of a low-key chat about a writing problem I was having, I popped the question. Chase startled me by turning toward me and saying with sudden, explosive anger, "Why are we talking about this?" I answered, "I'm just curious." And then, for whatever reason, he told me.
It's a high point of the article, but not really the main point, although parts of it are also in a roundabout way about his process in realizing that people were never going to stop asking him about it; that eventually suffering fools who prize the activity of watercooler chatting more than reaching any kind of point to the watercooler chat—as happened before, and often after, and even now, for Time Is A Flat Circle—was going to kill him.
But also, Tony Soprano can never die. He will always be suspended in the last second; his life will be one of paranoia whether it is long or very short. He cannot and will not Stop Believin' that he is about to die: Forever and ever, asleep and awake, falling down in the driveway or puzzling over ducks, getting sad blowjobs or fucking amputees, wheezing heavier year after year: Every instant the eternal last instant, like the inside groove on a record once it's done, but keeps spinning. He was always about to die, but it took a whole show for him to realize it.
Also a contributing factor is that everyone on that show is 100% assholes, but especially his sister, his wife, his kids for SURE, his parents, his grandparents, and also the other Family he is in, La Familia, Cosa Nostra, this Thing of Theirs, also 100% assholes. Even Chrissy. I have loved every Italian person I have ever met, except for the ones on TV: Those ones, I hate.
What Old Stank Dudes In Robes is to Game of Thrones, Fat Dudes in Tracksuits was to The Sopranos. "Which one is that?" we'd ask (and God forbid it be a meeting of the Super Old Fat Dudes in Tracksuits): "The gay one, or the mean one, or one of the ones named Pussy?" Some would pretend to know the answer. Some would admit it got tricky on occasion. The important thing was talking about it at work with the other men, tomorrow morning and for the rest of our lives.
Or at least until The Wire, and then Breaking Bad, and then True Detective: A widening gyre of slow-slower-slowest that, not unlike the final scene of the show The Sopranos, threatens to keep us forever on the precipice, between the mercurial psychosphere of eye-stabbing boredom and the ecstasy of true and lasting art. Amen.
Other cool parts of the article:
Q: "What happened to the Russian in 'Pine Barrens'?"
A: "I don't give a fuck about the Russian."
When you bring less than 100% of your A-game to a subject, you are going to focus on the most obvious things, things which you would have ordinarily overlooked or put in their correct places. Were the people on Six Feet Under really talking to ghosts? Obviously not. Were the vampires on True Blood just a simplistic metaphor for gay folks? Don't be a fucking idiot. Was the point of The Sopranos what "happened" to any of these people? No. You literally know everything there is to know about them. If there were more to know, you would.
Reading Carlos Castaneda convinced Chase that using drugs "without a whole belief system around it was really fourth rate."
Two concepts that go together, although it might be better if they didn't: One, that Chase's understanding of shamanism plays directly into the world he created for Tony (and Weiner took with him to Sterling Cooper), which is one in which the personal and numinous coincides with the "reality," because they're the same thing.
Dumbledore says, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?" The shamans of old, they understood that metaphors are tricky things and that there's not a shit-ton of difference: Maybe you have a drug trip, or maybe priests with animal heads come into your tent in the middle of the night and cut you up into a million pieces and put you back together with a jewel in your skull. No actual difference at all.
It's something we've lost, and something Chase fought hard to get back to. The author traces a whole line of references down through Chase's earlier and future work, this idea of the unreachably spiritual, the tip-of-the-tongue yearning for the numinous, and how it informs Tony's very secular but very open-hearted negotiation with those forces, dark and light.
Tony goes drifting by grace so many times, like Mole and Rat (heh) in "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn," and he knows it when he sees it, and then he forgets it. That's about as boringly human (and heart-rippingly special) as it gets. It's a collision and a thunderclap so loud it robs him of his consciousness, his eyes roll back. They call it a lot of things, including exhaustion, but to my mind that's the best description: The exhaustion of the prophet, working real fuckin' hard in a room you can't point to.
Chase also writes to her:
"Nature is part of Our Universe and Our Universe is part of Nature and there could well be more universes or mirror universes."
Which like all truisms sounds like 100% bullshit but is, you know, worth saying every now and then. Once you stop assigning "reality" to your tiny little viewpoint, once you stop comparing everybody's universe to the one perched on top of your neck, that's when you start becoming a grownup. Substituting your reality for everybody else's isn't always a bad thing, but it is a childish thing. You don't know what you don't know.
It's why I love religion but never believed in God: Something has to remind you that you're not All There Is. Because of course arrogance comes from that—but also such loneliness.
He wrote her this too, which is the best part, and explains how Tony Soprano can and will live, and not live, forever. Like Schrödinger's Cat, like you and me, and David Chase:
"I guess what I was trying to get to in Not Fade Away is that experiencing art is the closest an atheist or agnostic can get to praying."
The author interprets this in one way, dragging it back across the line toward a humanist, secular viewpoint that we all can agree with. But to me it's a lot simpler and it always has been. What's the difference between our response to art, that hollowed-out greatness in the heart, and their prayer to a larger something, that may or may not even exist?
I don't give a fuck about the Russian.