LOS ANGELES Fans of "The Sopranos" are seizing on clues suggesting the controversial blackout which abruptly ended the TV mob drama meant that Tony Soprano was rubbed out, and HBO said on Thursday they may be on to something.
One clue in particular, a flashback in the penultimate episode to a conversation between Tony and his brother-in-law about death, gained credence as an HBO spokesman called it a "legitimate" hint and confirmed that series creator David Chase had a definite ending in mind.
"While he won't say to me 100 percent what it all means, he says some people who've guessed have come closer than others," HBO spokesman Quentin Schaffer told Reuters after speaking to Chase.
"There are definitely things there that he intended for people to pick up on," Schaffer said.
Chase himself suggested as much in an interview on Tuesday with The Star-Ledger newspaper of New Jersey when he said of his end to the HBO series, "Anyone who wants to watch it, it's all there."
In the final moments of Sunday's concluding episode, Tony, the conflicted mob boss who has just survived a round of gangland warfare, sits in a diner with his family munching on onion rings as the 1980s song by rock band Journey, "Don't Stop Believing," blares from a juke box.
Tension builds as a suspicious man wearing a "Members Only" jacket eyes Tony from a nearby counter before slipping into a restroom. Then, as Tony looks toward the restaurant's entrance, the screen abruptly goes blank in mid-scene -- with no picture or sound for 10 seconds -- until the credits roll silently.
Stunned viewers, many initially believing something had gone wrong with their cable TV reception, were left wondering whether Tony ended up "whacked" or whether his sordid life went on as usual.
The jarring, fill-in-the-blank finale, concluding a show widely hailed as America's greatest television drama, sparked a furious debate about whether Chase had conceived of an actual ending and whether he left the audience any clues.
The biggest hint, according to a consensus taking shape on the Web, is a scene from an earlier episode in which Tony and his brother-in-law, Bobby Bacala, muse about what it feels like to die.
"At the end, you probably don't hear anything, everything just goes black," Bobby says while they sit fishing in a small boat on a lake.
That scene is recalled briefly in a flashback played at the end of the penultimate "Sopranos" episode, as Tony is lying in the darkened room of a safehouse clutching a machine gun to his chest in the midst of a mob war.
"I think that is one of the most legitimate things to look at," Schaffer said when asked about theories that the Bobby Bacala flashback was meant to foreshadow Tony's death.
Moreover, he said the man in the "Members Only" jacket could be interpreted as a symbolic reference to membership in the mob. "Members Only" also was the title of the episode in which Tony's demented Uncle Junior shoots him in the gut.
The "Members Only" guy was played by the owner of a real-life pizza parlor, Paolo Colandrea. Schaffer denied reports that Colandrea had appeared earlier in the series as the nephew of Tony's New York gang rival, or that there ever was such a character. He also dismissed reports that Chase had filmed more than one ending to the finale.