It seems fans of The Sopranos are livid about the series finale last night, and the Net nattering class is looking for someone to whack. Frankly, I don't think the ending could be clearer, though I'll concede there's a certain degree of ambiguity about it. So, I'll try to provide my take on it, though I think it's the only one that makes any sense in the show's universe.
(SPOILERS FOLLOW: Avert thy gaze now if you don't want to know what happened. Check here for the elemental summary if you're interested.)
I said "a certain degree of ambiguity," but the ending is NOT ambiguous. By my reading, Tony's dead, and probably the whole family. Why? Because those two classics of modern mafia movies, The Godfather and Goodfellas, tell us so. Just before the end, a mysterious and anonymous figure heads into the head, and if any of you remember The Godfather, the implication is deadly. But the jagged cut to black-screen reinforces the suggestion. Recall Goodfellas and Henry Hill's realization that he had been trapped by the feds and not by the mob. He says, "For a second I thought I was dead. But, when I heard all the noise, I knew they were cops. Only cops talk that way. If they'd been wiseguys, I wouldn't have heard a thing. I would've been dead" (emphasis added). There's no noise in The Sopranos' resolution, no talk, no explanation; just nothing. The inference, I think, is inescapable, and only the most die-hard of Sopranos fans can deny they're condemned to it. (Why? Maybe because they "won't stop believing.")
For all these years, we—as an audience—have walked along-side him, and to some extent colluded with him in his activities, however vicariously. We've seen his world largely through his eyes, and now we're paying for that collaboration, because at least symbolically, we've been whacked too: denied action, denied response, and most of all omniscience; we're just plain dead, perhaps our price to pay for being his silent consigliores. In the 86th episode, we get eighty-sixed along with Tony, and one presumes the rest of the family, with the possible, but I think unlikely, exception of Meadow. The manner of the ending, though, is perfectly mimetic, and though preliminarily frustrating, it makes a hell of a lot of sense. It's also appropriately ironic, given the ways in which we, as an audience, have apologized for and even valorized Tony Soprano: we have lived off him every bit as much as Carmela, she off blood-money, we off blood-TV.
That we never, of course, see Tony die can be used against us later, should buckets of money be dropped at David Chase's feet to resurrect the characters, and that's where that "certain degree" of ambiguity comes into play. It'd be a cynical gesture, however, and one I suspect Chase would decline to make. There's a particular genius about leaving the ending in ellipsis. Shakespeare ended Henry V on a rousing note, while only vaguely indicating what would happen after Henry's defeat of France, specifically that he'd die just years later and his premature death would England into years of internecine warfare. Shakespeare's audience knew exactly what would have followed the flourish, so leaving it unsaid was all-the-more powerful. So too with The Sopranos: we can infer, we can read the indications well-enough and surmise accordingly.
And the less we have to say, the better. No wonder we didn't hear a thing.