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James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was seductive to both men and women viewers. (HBO/Craig Blankenhorn)
James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was seductive to both men and women viewers. (HBO/Craig Blankenhorn)

Is Tony Soprano alive or dead? Why (still) trying to answer that is beside the point Add to ...

The smouldering seven-year-old debate over the fate of Tony Soprano burst into flames this week when the mobster’s creator, TV producer David Chase, was forced to contradict a report that he had finally revealed the character was not dead.

In a long article about Chase and The Sopranos published Wednesday on the news site Vox.com, television scholar and author Martha Nochimson reported that the producer had told her during a conversation that Tony was not dead. “…He believes that the art of entertaining is leaving the audience imagination to run wild. So when he answered the ‘is Tony dead’ question, he was laconic. Just the fact and no interpretation. He shook his head ‘no.’ And he said simply, ‘No, he isn’t.’ That was all.”

Later the same day, Chase’s publicist issued a statement saying Nochimson had misconstrued an answer for which there was a much larger context (although Vox had published a few thousand words of context already.) Anyway, the statement said that without context the “no” was untrue and reiterated Chase’s position that asking whether Tony is alive or dead is not the point.

Indeed, one wonders why a cultural critic such as Nochimson was even asking such a question. Her phrase “just the fact and no interpretation” is very odd. The fact is that Tony is a fictional character. He is not alive the way Chase and Nochimson are alive, nor is he dead the way Elvis and James Gandolfini are dead. His entire personality and biography are captured inside his television series; outside of that he may exist as a cultural icon, but he doesn’t live as person in whose life things we don’t see might be still be happening. Chase ended his series with Tony sitting at a restaurant table in an ominous atmosphere – and there he sits. You can imagine that he went home after dinner; you can imagine a gunman shot him dead in the next 10 seconds. But as an entity he stopped when the credits rolled. I guess, since he was alive at that moment, you could interpret Chase’s answer to mean only, “I did not show him being killed.”

The insistence that fictional characters are real and therefore their creators can answer questions about their lives beyond the pages of a book or the frames of a movie is a common one. Often, creators are pushed either by demanding fans or by financial temptations to start imagining more life for popular characters they thought were finished. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect Sherlock Holmes, who had to explain to an astonished Dr. Watson that he had only faked his own death, after readers’ pressured the author for years to bring back the popular detective. George Lucas greatly expanded the Star Wars story when a combination of financial losses in a divorce and the potential offered by new special effects technology lead him to create a prequel trilogy that explained how Darth Vader went to the dark side.

Of course, these sprawling cultural franchises in turn encourage fan debate about characters’ biographies, but it’s a curiosity that is often dismissed in literary circles as an example of “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” That was the title of a classic 1933 essay by scholar L.C. Knights in which he denounced Shakespearean criticism that concerned itself with pointless character analysis. (He believed the plays were poetic statements of themes and was partly responsible for pushing Shakespearean criticism in that direction.) Contradictory references in Macbeth gave rise to the initial question, so perhaps there is some reason to discuss it, but the real answer is that Lady Macbeth only exists within the play – and the play is devoid of any baby Macbeths. Or, more prosaically, that Shakespeare cared so little about the question he didn’t bother to fix the contradictions.

These biographical discussions are dead ends but the confusion itself is a testament to the power of the art; we are so engrossed by the stories they inhabit we come to believe that Lady Macbeth, Sherlock Holmes and Tony Soprano are as real as our neighbours, while the plays, books and TV dramas become mere representations of their larger lives.

Or sometimes, the Tony question is just a plea for clarification, a request that the creator at least offer a less ambiguous conclusion if not an happy ending all tied up with a bow. What is the nature of Pip’s reunion with Estella at the end of Great Expectations? What actually happens to Agnes after the Rackham household collapses in The Crimson Petal and the White? This is perhaps the interpretation that Nochimson suggests Chase might offer – at least I think that is what she suggests; Vox very confusingly printed the key passage of her article as a headline inside a black box. Instead Chase has given her only more ambiguity. The truth is that Tony Soprano is alive forever at that restaurant table – just not alive like you and me.

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