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10 Years Later: When The Sopranos Blacked Out

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The late James Gandolfini, the imposing and formidable character actor who became famous virtually overnight for his portrayal of a mobster who submitted to psychoanalysis for six seasons on HBO’s The Sopranos, told Vanity Fair in 2012 that he had a plain and simple reaction after viewing the show’s finale:

“What the f*ck?”

That brief review would be echoed by critics and fans in the days and months following the episode’s broadcast on June 10, 2007. Titled “Made in America,” The Sopranos's series finale featured one last supper with Tony Soprano (Gandolfini), wife Carmela (Edie Falco), and children Meadow and A.J. (Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler). Converging at Holsten’s Ice Cream Parlor, the family appears at least temporarily free of the stress Tony’s life of crime has brought into their world. Tony orders onion rings, selects Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” from the tabletop jukebox, and seems relieved his domestic life is intact.

Moments later, the screen goes black. “Don’t Stop Believin’” is cut off so abruptly that many viewers believed they were experiencing a cable outage. It remained that way for 11 seconds before the credits rolled, a curious void of content that quickly became one of the most infamous endings to a series in the history of television. As far as fans were concerned, creator David Chase may or may not have whacked Tony, but he definitely whacked them.

James Gandolfini and David Chase on the set of "The Sopranos"
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When Chase was growing up in Clifton, New Jersey, in the 1950s, his father owned a hardware store, and his business partner had a son. The son’s cousins had an usual family name—Soprano—that stuck with Chase for decades. After duties on episodic television like The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure, Chase stumbled onto an idea about a mobster who was in therapy. After Fox and other networks passed, The Sopranos landed at HBO in 1999.

Although the channel’s prison drama Oz, which had premiered two years earlier, signaled the network's newfound commitment to hour-long dramas, The Sopranos was cut from an entirely different mold. Novelistic and ruminative, the show seemed to delight in taking the tropes of mob fiction and turning them on their head. When Doctor Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) is sexually assaulted, it seemed assured that she’d eventually turn to her patient, Tony, in order to exact vengeance. (She doesn’t.) When Tony’s wife has an affair with one of his lieutenants, viewers braced for an inevitable face-to-face showdown that never occurred. Given near-total autonomy over the tone and direction of the series, Chase was able to embrace his preference for ambiguity.

While it ran for eight years, there were just six seasons; Chase didn’t produce material for air in either 2003 or 2005, nor did he have any desire to overstay his welcome. In 2006, the network aired the first 12 episodes of a planned 21-episode final season. Although it was a long march to the finish line, speculation ran rampant over how Tony's story would conclude.

In later interviews, Chase explained he had the idea for the finale early on. Tony’s unethical conduct seemed to point to only two inevitable outcomes: jail or death. But Chase inserted a third option that most critics and fans hadn’t counted on—that previously expressed love of ambiguity.

Chase would later admit he shot an alternate, as-yet-unexplained ending as a red herring to throw off people trying to find leaks of plot details. The ending he was committed to, however, took place at Holsten’s, a real restaurant in Bloomfield, New Jersey. After disposing of yet another mob rival, Tony greets each member of his family as they walk into the restaurant, a bell chiming overhead. As his son comes in, a man in a Members Only jacket ambles into the location and later enters the restroom.

What happens next is left open to interpretation. Echoing a comment made by Soprano associate Bobby Bacala earlier in the season that you never hear “it” (read: a gunman) coming, it’s possible Chase meant for viewers to experience the suddenness of being clipped from behind, perhaps by the man who had entered the restroom. The abrupt end of “Don’t Stop Believin’” hints at that.

Viewers, however, didn’t want to choose their own climax. As soon as the episode aired, a national outcry bemoaned the lack of any answers. Some thought their cable had been disconnected. Others figured it out once the credits rolled and became so incensed that they bombarded HBO’s official website with complaints. (HBO shut its website down that Sunday night.) According to a Yahoo! spokesperson, searches for “Sopranos ending sucked” poured into the search engine. Wikipedia had to lock pages related to the show because users kept editing entries to reflect the “fact” that Chase had ruined the series.

Chase, who had timed a holiday in France to avoid most of the feedback, granted an interview days later. While he refused to answer the question of whether Tony was dead, he insisted that all the information a viewer needed was in the scene. “Anyone who wants to watch it, it’s all there,” Chase said.

An exterior shot of Holsten's in Bloomfield, New Jersey
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When Chase pops up in media to discuss current projects, talk still usually turns to the furor caused by the blackout. While he has always demurred on the question of whether Tony survived his plate of onion rings at Holsten’s, he did elaborate on some of the decisions made in the scene during a 2015 Directors Guild of America interview.

“Don’t Stop Believin’” was selected, he said, because the lyrics seem to be a close match for the personal journey of Tony and his wife. The “midnight train” referenced in the song was a parallel to the fateful decisions made by the couple years ago—“the dark train,” as Chase put it. The man in the Members Only jacket entered with A.J. so the audience’s attention would be focused more on the face they knew than the suspicious man they didn’t.

The closing shot, a jarring end to what looked to be a peaceful dinner, wasn’t intended to frustrate viewers. “I thought the ending would be somewhat jarring, sure,” Chase said. “But not to the extent it was, and not a subject of such discussion. I really had no idea about that. I never considered the black a shot. I just thought what we see is black. The ceiling I was going for at that point, the biggest feeling I was going for, honestly, was don't stop believing. It was very simple and much more on the nose than people think. That's what I wanted people to believe. That life ends and death comes, but don't stop believing.”

And the theories regarding Bobby Bacala’s comments foreshadowing Tony’s death? “When it’s over, I think you’re probably always blindsided by it," Chase offered. “That’s all I can say.”

It’s hard to know, once the initial shock of the closing moments wore off, whether viewers ever softened their stance on the finale. (At the time, newspapers were filled with quotes by fans calling it “unbelievably cruel” and accusing Chase of some kind of conspiracy to annoy them.) For at least one viewer, it took just one night of introspection to come to an entirely different opinion.

“After I had a day to sleep,” Gandolfini said in 2012, “I just sat there and said, ‘That’s perfect.’”

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail
MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

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