It’s the 10th Anniversary of the ‘Sopranos’ Finale: Remember Its Trump Joke?

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
The Sopranos series finale. (Photo: HBO)

Saturday, June 10, will mark the 10th anniversary of the final episode of HBO’s The Sopranos, the hour that was titled “Made in America,” written and directed by show creator David Chase. It’s famous for having one of the most controversial endings in television history: Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his family are in a restaurant when suddenly, an abrupt, prolonged shot of blank blackness fills the TV screen. After a beat, the final credits come up. Millions of viewers were left asking, “Is that it? Did my cable just cut out, or what?” I decided to look at the episode once again — I hadn’t rewatched it since it aired — to see if it held up and if it still had the power to provoke.

For most of its length, “Made in America” plays like any other (excellent) episode of the series. Tony has business to do, he makes the rounds, checking in on people, including Silvio (Steven Van Zandt), who’s in a coma, in the hospital. Tony’s lawyer tells him that he, Tony, might be indicted on a weapons charge. He visits his sister, Janice (Aida Turturro). He visits his Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese). These scenes are entertaining but also a little dutiful, as though Chase needed to check off certain boxes and let the audience get last glimpses of certain key characters, before wrapping up his phenomenal, groundbreaking TV series.

The immediate-family stuff is the most interesting. Tony’s son, A.J. (Robert Iler), is going through a rough patch and has decided to join the Army to become a helicopter pilot: “My ultimate goal is to go to work for Trump or somebody, be their personal pilot.” A decade ago, Donald Trump’s name was shorthand for a rich guy with a lot of expensive toys. The Army prospect bothers both Tony and Carmela (Edie Falco), who fear for the kid’s life. A bit later, A.J., who always had trouble deciding on a career goal and sticking to it, mentions he’d also like to join the CIA. Tony shoots back a sarcastic joke: “What, you gonna ask The Donald for time off from your helicopter duties to go on CIA missions?” The Sopranos’ other child, Meadow (Jamie Lynn-Sigler), is well on her way to a good life: She announces she’s engaged, and she’s building a law career — she just got a job offer from a firm.

In the final scene, the Soprano family is going to have dinner at a restaurant — the real-life Holsten’s, in New Jersey. Tony arrives first, settles into a booth, pops a few quarters in the tabletop jukebox, selecting Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” Carmela and A.J. arrive next; Tony has ordered onion rings for the table; they munch and make small talk. Meadow is running late; we see her trying to parallel park in a tight space across the street from the restaurant. In the context of a thriller like this, a concentration on car parking raises a red flag to a viewer: Is she going to get whacked before entering the joint?

The way Chase constructed the final scene, there are shots of a grim-faced man entering and sitting at the counter, glancing over at Tony, who picks up the guy’s glance. Two more men enter and stand around momentarily, as though looking for someone. The grim-faced guy walks past the Soprano family on the way to the restroom. Then the voice of Steve Perry rises to its awful crescendo, yowling the words, “Don’t stop” — the camera focuses on Tony, and then everything goes black.

When the show first aired, viewers were baffled and upset. Social media wasn’t as prominent as it is now, but you knew the country was in a minor uproar. Critics’ reviews ran the gamut from “Brilliant!” to “Is that all there is?” Some felt it was too pretentious — too arty — an exit. Or that it demonstrated Chase’s failure to commit to a decisive ending. Others simply resented the idea that David Chase was yanking our chain with a conclusion that was so eternally ambiguous. The most common interpretation seems to have been that the blackness meant a sudden death for Tony, that someone in the restaurant killed him (and, possibly, his family). But there were others who thought Tony’s life went on, that the show was just abruptly cutting us off from our weekly fix of The Sopranos.

Chase gave an interview to the Directors Guild in 2015 in which he came as close as he ever has to explaining his intention: “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.” I have to say I hate the idea that David Chase ended one of the greatest shows on television with a salute to one of the corniest hit songs ever. Thank goodness there’s no law that says you have to adopt the interpretation the artist imposes on his piece of art — indeed, it’s always good to remember that, very often, the person who created the art is the person least likely to have the distance or objectivity to interpret his or her work definitively.

Rewatching “Made In America,” I was struck by how quickly the blank-black-moment passes. It was over in just a few seconds; I thought it had stretched on for at least a minute. Not so. The screen became a black hole briefly, just time enough to allow all our dreams and nightmares about a Tony Soprano future to slip down that black hole forever. For me, I’m willing, 10 years on, to enjoy the mystery of it — to enjoy the journey, if not Journey. I stopped believing in tidy endings a long time ago.

Read more from Yahoo TV:
• #EmmyTalk: Alexander Skarsgård Revisits His Tense ‘Big Little Lies’ Therapy Scene
• Late Night Hosts Have a Field Day With the #ComeyHearings
• ATX Festival Founders on the Lessons They’ve Learned