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Fans gasp as 'Sopranos' fades to black

The Baltimore Sun

If you thought Tony Soprano had issues, you should talk to fans of The Sopranos.

A day after the final episode of the landmark HBO mob drama, reaction to creator David Chase's ambiguous jump-to-black ending ranged from he's-a-genius praise to outright scorn. Some people simply thought the cable had gone out.

"I liked it," said long-time fan Zack Chaiken, 28, of Baltimore. "To me, it was pretty clear that Tony gets a bullet."

"I just thought it was horrible," said Bitsy Cramer of Timonium. "I was prepared for the worst-case scenario, Tony's being shot, or the best-case scenario, him going into the witness protection program. As far as I know now, he just had an order of onion rings and that's it."

To recap, the long-running HBO series ends with a reflective Tony sitting in a retro Jersey diner listening to Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" and waiting for his family to join him.

His rival, Phil Leotardo, has been whacked, courtesy of a bullet and a sport-utility vehicle tire crushing his skull. But an aura of imminent danger still surrounds Tony.

In comes his wife, Carmela, followed by son A.J. As they enjoy their onion rings, the camera cuts to a few other shifty-eyed customers who might as well be wearing buttons that say: "Hi, I'm a hit man!"

Outside, Tony's daughter, Meadow, is having problems parallel parking. The music gets louder. One of the shifty-eyed customers gets up to go to the bathroom.

Will he come out blasting away, like Michael Corleone in The Godfather?

Meadow finally parks, and Tony looks up as she comes into the diner. Journey wails: "Don't stop ... " And that's it.

The screen goes black.

And when that happened just after 10 Sunday night, thousands of Sopranos fans cursed their cable companies or rushed to their TiVo units, convinced that some catastrophic technical malfunction had occurred.

"I thought I sat on the remote," Cramer said.

"I said 'Oh, my God!'" Joe Facinoli of Timonium said. "The ending is right there, I'm anticipating it - and it just went blank! I thought: 'I'm not going to see the ending! They're never going to show it again! And I missed it!'"

Then the credits rolled.

And the arguments started about whether the final scene was a stroke of genius by the iconoclastic Chase - the show won 18 Emmy Awards, after all - or a crushing disappointment.

"I immediately said: 'This is David Chase,'" said Facinoli, who added that he was hooked on The Sopranos from the very beginning of the series. "I think it was a brilliant ending ... this leaves the door open to our own imaginations. If Tony dies or goes to jail, it'll be in our minds now."

Mike Vasilikos, program director at WTMD 89.7-FM, had a similar take.

"I think what David Chase was trying to do was let everyone have their own ending," he said. "If you want to believe Tony died, he died. I think he probably died."

On Sopranos fan Web sites, the possibility that Tony didn't die - that he'll come back to head another crew of wise guys in bad velour track suits and gold chains in a Chase-inspired movie a few years from now - was hinted at darkly.

Until then, though, Sopranos Nation remains in mourning, doomed to spend Sunday nights without its fix of mob violence and such darkly comic nuggets as Paulie Walnuts telling Tony with a straight face that he saw an image of the Virgin Mary in the Bada Bing strip joint.

"I'm going to miss it terribly," said Facinoli.

So will HBO executives.

Based on preliminary overnight ratings from Nielsen Media Research, 11.4 million viewers watched the finale Sunday night, an increase of 42 percent over the audience from last week's episode.

And while the final scene probably won't achieve legendary status - this was no group hug at the end of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, after all - it'll have Sopranos fans buzzing for a while.

"It was bizarre," said Laurie B. Schwartz of Baltimore, who said her heart was pounding during the diner scene. "I just knew something bad was going to happen. And nothing did. The joke's on us."

Sun television critic David Zurawik contributed to this article.

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