by Dr. Donna Roberts
Carmela enters … “Just a small town girl, livin’ in a lonely world, she took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.”
Cut to Tony … “Just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit, he took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.”
Suddenly, Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ is abruptly silenced and the screen cuts to black …
When the highly anticipated finale of the HBO series The Sopranos aired fans reeled. Not because their beloved Tony was killed, but because, well, they weren’t sure whether he was or not.
It was a cliffhanger. But cliffhangers are not supposed to happen in the finale of a long-running series.
The debate raged on blogs, on talk-shows, on media pages and certainly over cocktails. So much so that David Chase, creator of the series and director of the last episode, was called on to explain himself and settle the deliberation once and for all. And he did … but not really … saying things like “Whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead is not the point. To continue to search for this answer is fruitless. The final scene of The Sopranos raises a spiritual question that has no right or wrong answer,” and, “Life is short. Either it ends here for Tony or some other time. But in spite of that, it’s really worth it. So don’t stop believing.” Even when asked directly if Tony was shot in the last scene, he replied, “I’m not saying anything. I’m not trying to be coy. It’s just that I think that to explain it would diminish it.”
Chase has never answered the one burning question of that final scene—not in the interview the morning after the finale aired and not in any of his numerous public comments since the show ended over eight years ago. He has explained, in great detail, the symbolism he used and how he employed various elements to subtly create tension in the last scene. But what he won’t say, no matter how it is asked or how much we need to know, is what happened at the end.
But that doesn’t mean the fans have let it go. On the eight year anniversary of The Sopranos finale, one blogger posted a new and updated Sopranos: Definitive Explanation of the Final Scene Annotated Guide where every shot of the final scene is analyzed in detail, and references are made to prophetic quotes from previous seasons. Comments continue to be posted on that site, reflecting on his observations and continuing the debate.
But why, eight years later, why are we still asking the question we have been told repeatedly will never be definitely answered, about a fictional character anyway?
In this, as in many of our human endeavors, we have an undeniable desire to “close the loop,” to tie up the package with a pretty bow, or at least a string with a tight knot, and put it on the shelf, accessible if we need, but out of the way of our daily endeavors. In short, the stories we tell—from our entertainment to our real-life relationships to justice for wrongdoing—we want unfinished business finished. Closure, or more accurately the lack of, is often blamed for our inability to move on and, thus, sought as the Holy Grail that will set our minds at ease. Even heal us.
Closure, or more accurately the lack of, is often blamed for our inability to move on and, thus, sought as the Holy Grail that will set our minds at ease. Even heal us.
But does closure really bring the relief we seek? Does it really do all it promises to? Can justice heal the wounds of loss? Can just knowing make the bad somehow more ok?
In a word: sometimes. It depends. On what? On whether or not we have done the emotional work to accompany it.
Seeking closure can become an intellectual pursuit, a distraction, a physical reality that tricks the mind and heart into thinking we are actively addressing a problem, pain, the cruel randomness and injustice of the human condition, when all we are really doing is, in a sense, wallowing.
Is the closure of a diagnosis really better? Most people say so, even if it is bad news. And yet closure doesn’t necessarily relieve the symptoms, it simply changes our perceptions of them. Closure means the mind can relax—oh it’s that. OK, now I know what I am dealing with. Now I can move on.
From the whimsical to the serious, the need to know and know with finality, is so strong it will drive us to seek the unanswerable and run off tilting at windmills.
Psych Pstuff’s Summary
Psychologically speaking, what we call closure is actually referred to as the need for cognitive closure (NFCC). It is generally defined as both the desire for definitive answers and the corresponding aversion to ambiguity. For psychologists it is, like so many other traits, considered a defining and relatively stable aspect of character. In short, you either crave it or you don’t and if you do, you really, really crave it.
Also like many things in psychology, researchers have struggled to quantify the need for closure—in psych speak, to operationalize it—so they can compare apples with apples. The Need for Closure Scale (NFCS) was developed by researchers Arie Kruglanski, Donna Webster, and Adena Klem in 1993 as a standard way to measure the concept and compare individuals along this trait. The NFCS is a forty-seven-item test that measures five separate motivational facets that comprise our underlying affinity for clarity and resolution. These include the preference for (1) order; (2) predictability; and (3) decisiveness; and a corresponding (4) discomfort with ambiguity; and (5) closed-mindedness. Taken together, these elements indicate one’s level of need for closure. You can take an online version of this test at terpconnect.umd.edu.
The problem with an unbridled pursuit of closure is that it tends to be paradoxical and feeds into our general fear of the unknown. According to Kruglanski, the need for closure exerts its effects via two general tendencies—the urgency tendency (the inclination to attain closure as quickly as possible) and the permanence tendency (the tendency to maintain it for as long as possible). Together, these tendencies may cause us to embrace a solution or make a judgment without considering all the possibilities. In short, needing an answer too desperately can cause us to accept any answer as soon as it comes along, simply to resolve the anxiety. This can block the way to finding a better alternative.
Needing an answer too desperately can cause us to accept any answer as soon as it comes along, simply to resolve the anxiety. This can block the way to finding a better alternative.
In popular psychology today the term most often refers to a proposed goal state in the process of overcoming grief or responding to tragedy. Its lure is certainly understandable. Faced with loss there is a natural tendency to desire a resolution to all things disrupted when one’s world is turned upside down. It may be comforting to imagine there is something concrete to be done that will set things somehow right again and help us to move on to a new normal. However, for many, this fantasized state of resolution is elusive and the very thing we think will bring peace of mind and clarity is, in fact, an empty promise. Counting too much on the achievement of an external milestone to bring comfort and balance after a loss without engaging in the required internal grief work only leaves one feeling empty and still full of unresolved emotions. Certain overt actions can be symbolic and hold the power of ritual, but they are only as effective as a culmination of a larger process of healing and insight.
Some therapists maintain that true closure is a myth and impossible to achieve. They argue that instead of trying to find closure, which may never be possible, it more psychologically healthy to pursue meaning, even if there is no final “end” or resolution.
Hmm … that sounds a bit like what David Chase said in response to the “whatever happened to Tony” questions.
While it might be perfectly natural and part of our psychological makeup to desire resolution, learning how to be comfortable with not having all the answers can lead to deeper personal growth. Learning how to tolerate ambiguity—in fiction and in reality—strengthens one’s ability to tolerate the anxiety and uncertainty that is an inevitable part of the human condition.