The Sopranos Ending Explained: A Diner, Death, And Don't Stop Believin'

It's been 14 years since HBO's hit series "The Sopranos" ended, and people are still arguing about the last moments of the series finale. Danger surrounds antihero Tony Soprano on all sides; he's a wanted man by both the FBI and the family and crew of his recently departed nemesis, Phil Leotardo. One by one his family members join him for dinner at a local diner, but before daughter Meadow can walk in, the scene cuts dramatically to black. 

People have argued for years over whether or not that meant Tony died, and just recently The Hollywood Reporter declared they finally had the answer. (Spoiler: They didn't, it's the same kind of non-answer showrunner David Chase has been giving for over a decade.)

While the prequel film "The Many Saints of Newark" gave us more insight into the history of the crime family, it didn't give us any answers on what happens down the line. Let's dig into the final episode of "The Sopranos" to dissect one of television's most powerful and divisive endings.  

What's With Paulie and the Cat?

Animals are hugely symbolic in "The Sopranos." Tony's ducks represent his loving side, while the bear that stalks outside their home represents the ever-present dangers that surround the family because of their unique lifestyle. The orange cat, however, is of special significance, because high-ranking mob family member Paulie (Tony Sirico) believes the cat is a jinx. The cat sits and stares at a photo of Christopher (Michael Imperioli) after his death, and even after Paulie moves the photo, the cat continues to stare at it. 

Paulie explains his fears to Tony and the other wise guys: "These are snakes with fur. The old Italians'll tell ya, you can't even put 'em around a baby. They suck the breath right out." 

Both Paulie and Tony view the cat as a connection to Christopher, and they both have guilt over how their treatment of him led to his downward spiral and eventual demise. (Tony feels more guilt, obviously, as the one who actually snuffed him out.) While Tony views the cat as a way to show kindness in spite of it all, Paulie sees the feline as a symbol of death. When he sees the cat, he thinks of all of his many sins, and knows the time is coming when he'll have to pay the piper. 

Did Tony Die?

This is the big question, isn't it? While Chase said in that THR interview that he imagined Tony dying when he first came up with the scene, he left it open-ended for a reason. Whether or not Tony kicks the bucket in the diner isn't really the important thing to focus on, because the ambiguity is what's terrifying. That ambiguity is what made fans across the country furious when the finale first debuted, and it's why people are still talking about the finale today. 

Tony's death is kind of a Schrödinger's cat situation. It doesn't matter whether he's dead or alive at the end of it, because the pondering is the important part. Like Paulie's many superstitions, the specter of death will always be looming over Tony. People in his line of work don't get to retire and die of old age, they tend to get a bullet in the back or wear a pair of cement shoes and go swimming. Even if he walked out of the diner that night, he would always be looking over his shoulder. Death will always be watching, waiting, and none of Tony's feeble attempts to better himself will prevent that outcome. At some point, Tony has to die, and the diner scene establishes that it could be at almost any time. After all, not seeing your death coming and getting blindsided is a repeat theme in both "The Sopranos" and "The Many Saints of Newark." Tony's chances of death might be higher now that he's basically started a war with another crime family by killing Leotardo, but the chance was always there. 

There are a handful of wilder theories out there that claim Tony actually died at other points in the series and the events thereafter are his way of processing his death, but that starts to get a little too "whole universe in a snowglobe" for me. 

The Lingering Threat of the Law

Tony doesn't only have to worry about the other mob families coming for him, because the Feds are on his tail, too. After giving up some basic information on a couple of Muslim locals in exchange for the whereabouts of Leotardo, Tony knows there's a good chance there's an indictment coming his way. He's only barely played ball with the FBI, giving them tiny tidbits of information without playing his hand or snitching on any of his own guys. 

Tony's family hated living on the lam while they were hiding from Leotardo's crew, so how are they going to feel if Tony goes to prison? Or worse, if they have to go into witness protection? Could you see Carmela (Edie Falco) living in suburban Ohio with a minivan and a mousy brown bob haircut? No, me either. The Soprano family has gotten used to a life of luxury, and Tony knows that he could lose that at any minute the same way he could lose his life. No amount of therapy could ever help Tony deal with the anxiety of knowing he's pretty doomed, one way or the other. 

Don't Stop Believin'?

The ambiguity around whether or not Tony dies in the diner may never be solved (and it honestly probably shouldn't.) There is one burning question left about the "Sopranos" finale, however: why "Don't Stop Believin'"? Clearly Tony wasn't going to get things "Any Way You Want It," but does the Journey song have a hidden meaning for the series?

As it turns out, the "Sopranos" crew just really hated the song, and Chase thought it would be funny to use it. He had a couple of different songs in mind for the final scene, but whenever he told crew members about his Journey pick, their annoyed reactions amused him. Beyond that, it's an ironic song choice given Tony's position; the song is about surviving against the odds, and the odds are not in Tony's favor. When the scene cuts to black and ends immediately after the word "stop," it's a harsh goodbye. After all, in the world of "The Sopranos," you rarely see the end coming.