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Published: Friday, 6/15/2007

Is Tony with the fishes?

LAST Sunday night, television screens across America went black halfway through the chorus of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." The darkness held for 10 seconds, long enough for collective panic to set in. Either the cable quit or the satellite dish failed during the final scene of the last episode of The Sopranos.

The last thing America saw before darkness fell was New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano gobbling onion rings with wife Carmela and son A.J. at an ice cream parlor.

Though he murdered without conscience for eight years on HBO, Tony exuded suburban complacency in public. Not this time. After narrowly surviving a vicious mob war, Tony's face exhibited wariness as various shady characters walked into the joint.

Would the stranger sitting at the counter take Tony out? Would the two guys by the jukebox do the honors? Was death one bathroom stop away? Tension was building by the second.

When the credits rolled, it was hard for those sitting on the edge of their seats to catch their breath. Did the darkness obscure Tony's murder? How much collateral damage was there? Was the black screen what faithful viewers deserved after sticking with the series for six seasons?

Depending on whom you ask, the finale's ambiguity was infuriating, brilliant, nonsensical, a clever cop-out, or the only scenario possible for a show that never believed in tidy resolutions.

Widely hailed as the best TV drama of the last 25 years, The Sopranos played by its own rules. It never did the things that would cement its appeal with fans of conventional narrative.

Days after it aired, the finale is still the talk of the office water cooler. It either enraged viewers or lent itself to rapturous praise of creator David Chase. It was certainly memorable. What more could any show ask?

Somewhere in the New Jersey of the mind, Tony Soprano and his family are still eating onion rings while we weigh their fate. After passively watching their antics for years, it is up to us to decide what happens next.

Did Tony continue to live a mundane existence dodging mobsters and criminal indictment, or did he die shielding his family from a hail of bullets? It's up to our imaginations to decide. Never has the final episode of a TV show put so much responsibility on its fans.

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