There’s no question that The Sopranos is considered one of the greatest TV shows of all time, if not the greatest. Generations of fans have now discovered the show’s intricate writing, impeccable acting, and Shakespearean sweep. It’s a great way to get lost in a world of crime and moral ambiguity that is foreign to most of us. But much like real life, not everything had a simple resolution.
Some of the enduring mysteries of The Sopranos, like “What happened to the Russian?” or “Did Tony die at the end?” are so well-established in pop culture that they’re familiar to those who haven’t even seen the show. But with so many unanswered questions, there’s no wonder a wide range of theories are out there.
Today we look at 10 answers to the mysteries of The Sopranos. Depending on your point of view, they may or may not be popular opinions. But in any case, major spoilers for the entire series lay ahead, so keep that in mind if you haven’t seen the show yet.
Related: 10 Important Characters in Television We Never Got To Fully See
10 Little Carmine Was Smarter Than He Let On
Some of the best laughs in The Sopranos came from the mouth of Carmine Lupertazzi Jr., aka Little Carmine. The son of a New York mob boss, his constant malapropisms, mispronunciations, and curious philosophizing (like “A pint of blood costs more than a gallon of gold”) earned him the in-show nickname “Brainless the Second.” Yet it can’t be ignored that by the end of the series, Little Carmine is effectively in control of his family’s organized crime operations, but on the sidelines, where he is free from threats on his life and law enforcement scrutiny. The plum spot Little Carmine finds himself in led some fans to wonder if Little Carmine was secretly a genius who manipulated situations to his advantage, while the rest of the mob underestimated his smarts.
Supporting this theory is a fan-favorite scene in the final season, where Little Carmine organizes and moderates a meeting between Tony Soprano and the head of the New York crime family at the time, Phil Leotardo, to avoid an all-out war between New York and New Jersey. However, when a truce seems close, Little Carmine angers Phil by reminding him of the murder of his brother at the hands of Tony’s cousin. After that, the meeting goes south, and the two families are closer to war than ever. This eventually leads to New Jersey killing Phil, leaving Carmine as the de facto leader from the sidelines—all without having to get his hands dirty.
The biggest drawback to the “bumbling genius” theory is that Little Carmine would have had to be playing this long con his whole life. More than likely, he truly was not very smart, but smart enough to trade on his father’s name and know when to step out of the spotlight.
9 The Cop Probably Did Kill Christopher’s Dad
For the bulk of The Sopranos’ six-season run, Tony had no more loyal soldier than Christopher Molitsanti. In the opening episode of Season 4, Tony bonds the two closer by revealing that retiring cop Barry Hadu was the man who killed Christopher’s father, Dickie Moltisanti, when Christopher was a toddler. But when Christopher goes to seek revenge, Hadu denies everything, claiming he doesn’t even know a Dickie Moltisanti. Christopher shoots and kills him anyway, assuming that Hadu was lying. Thus was born another unanswered question in The Sopranos: Did that cop really kill Dickie Moltisanti?
Frustratingly, the 2021 prequel movie The Many Saints of Newark still doesn’t clear things up, despite the latter part of Dickie Moltisanti’s life being covered in the movie. The man pulling the trigger is in soft focus, denying us the chance to identify the trigger man.
The best clue to this mystery is in the original series. There’s a quick but telling moment right before Hadu is killed—he tells Christopher, “I’m sorry.” While it goes by quick, it seems to be a last-minute confession quasi-confirming that, yes, he did kill Christopher’s dad and is feeling remorse now that he will die for doing it. Of course, this is still not a definitive confirmation, but it seems reasonable that the writers would include that line of dialogue for a reason.
8 Tony Had Good Reason to Kill Christopher
While we’re on the topic of Christopher, we might as well get to one of the most difficult scenes in the whole series, when Tony suffocates an injured Christopher until he is dead. The two had just been in a bad car wreck, and in Christopher’s last words, he admitted to Tony that he had a drug relapse yet again. Coming late in the final season, this was the moment for many fans that Tony became irredeemably evil, considering how close he and Christopher had always been. But what if Tony actually had good reason to kill Christopher at that moment?
One fan theory wonders if Christopher had actually betrayed the family and was talking to the FBI—because he was wearing a ball cap. Earlier seasons had established that rats like Jack Massarone and Raymond Curto were wired-up by wearing ball caps with microphones in them. Was Christopher’s ball cap a sign that he had betrayed Tony in the same way?
The answer is likely no. Despite the relationship between Tony and Christopher deteriorating in the final season, it would have been a major change in Christopher’s character to turn informant. In Season 5, after all, he had chosen Tony and the family over the love of his life when it was revealed Adriana had been talking to the FBI. Still, it’s an intriguing theory, given what ball caps had come to represent in the world of The Sopranos.
7 Jimmy Altieri Was Still a Rat
Speaking of rats, one of the most dramatic plot threads in the earliest seasons of the show revolved around Tony coming to grips with the fact that his longtime friend, Sal “Big Pussy” Bompensiero, had turned into an informant. Detective Vin Makazian tells Tony this is the case in Season 1, but Tony refuses to believe it. He instead focuses his attention on Jimmy Altieri, who is killed and later found with a rat in his mouth–which is the mafia’s way of letting law enforcement know they were aware the deceased was talking to them. Bompensiero ‘s FBI handler later tells him that Jimmy Altieri took a bullet for him, making it seem as if the wrong man had been murdered.
But in all likelihood, Altieri was also a rat. Following his arrest for a cache of guns hidden inside a pool table, Altieri is released and gives every indication that he actually is wearing a wire. He asks Tony about business matters he has nothing to do with and then calls a meeting on matters that were already decided, just so that plans could be repeated. And perhaps most tellingly, he doesn’t deny the accusation of being a rat before Silvio Dante kills him. So even though Bompensiero was still a problem for the family that would be dealt with later, they didn’t exactly get the wrong guy when Altieri was whacked.
6 Did Tony Plant the Money His Cousin Found?
Following a two-year break, The Sopranos returned for Season 5 in 2004 with a host of new characters. Perhaps most important for the season was the introduction of Tony Soprano’s cousin, Tony Blundetto (aka “Tony B”). Fresh off of serving a 20-year federal prison sentence, Tony Soprano assumes that his cousin and former partner in crime will want to get back into the mob life. But Tony B actually hopes to go legitimate by becoming a licensed massage therapist and secures a legitimate job as he works toward that goal.
Rather than being understanding of his cousin’s desire to go straight, Tony Soprano seems hurt and tries to tempt Tony B back into the life. In the sixth episode, Tony B passes the state massage board exam but later sees a bag thrown into the street. Examining the contents, Tony B finds the bag contains $12,000, which he quickly spends on flashy clothes and frivolous items. After that, it’s no time at all before Tony B is back in the mob family.
Right away, many fans theorized that Tony Soprano had somehow managed to arrange for the money to be thrown out to lure Tony B with the promise of easy money. Tony did really want Tony B back in the crew, but on the other hand, the bag was thrown out of a car that was being chased by a police car. Even with Tony Soprano’s clout, this seems like a difficult scenario to fabricate.
5 Paulie’s Dad May Be Dr. Russ Fegoli
There’s perhaps no character not named Soprano on this show who is more beloved than Paulie Walnuts. His wisecracks, mannerisms, and old-school gangster charm made this psychopath very endearing. Paulie gets put through the wringer a bit in the final season, having a prostate cancer scare and finding out the woman he thought was his aunt is actually his mother (and vice versa). When his biological mother confesses on her deathbed, he finds out he was the product of a one-night stand with a lonely soldier named Russ.
Meanwhile, back in Season 5, we are introduced to Dr. Russ Fegoli, a friend of Carmela’s parents. The reason for this character’s brief screentime in one episode seems to be to drive home the point that Carmela’s parents favor a certain type of Italian-American—one that would never be thought to be associated with the mob. But some eagle-eyed fans started making connections between this Russ and Paulie’s unknown bio-dad Russ. The connection is further solidified when re-examining the dialogue in Russ’s Season 5 episode. He mentions he was in the Navy, had similar prostate issues like Paulie, and Carmela’s dad says Russ was known to sleep around back in the day.
While this can seem like a fairly random fan theory, it does seem to have merit. The Sopranos’ writers were known for not wasting any lines of dialogue. With Dr. Russ Fegoli’s past lining up so well with what little is known about Paulie’s dad Russ, it seems safe to assume this plotline was intentionally placed to see if anyone would pick up on it.
4 Adriana Is the Hostess in the Pilot Episode
In the early seasons, Drea de Matteo’s Adriana La Cerva worked as a hostess at Artie Bucco’s restaurant, Vesuvio. But in the pilot episode, her character is not referenced by name, and de Matteo is listed in the end credits simply as “Hostess.” So could this actually be a separate character who looked a lot like Adriana but had the job before her?
The answer is no, it’s actually Adriana, but her character just didn’t have a name yet. It’s so established that the hostess in the pilot is Adriana that the IMDb credits for the episode now show de Matteo as playing Adriana. So why would fans theorize this in the first place? It stems from the fact that some actors on the show actually played a different role before playing the character they came to be known for.
Perhaps most famously, Joseph R. Gannascoli appeared in a Season 1 episode as a bakery patron named Gino but then went on to play the long-running character Vito. Many fan theories and internet memes about how Gino and Vito might be related have ensued over the years. But in the case of “Hostess” and Adriana, it seems to be a simple case of a character not having a name yet.
3 The Russian Climbed a Tree and Escaped
One of the most beloved episodes of the show is Season 3’s “Pine Barrens,” where Christopher and Paulie bungle a money pickup at the apartment of a Russian named Valery. When things go south, they take Valery out to New Jersey’s Pine Barrens to execute and bury him. But then Valery attacks the duo and manages to escape into the woods. Christopher and Paulie then get lost while looking for him, essentially leaving Valery’s fate up in the air. And thus was born one of the most enduring mysteries of The Sopranos.
But many fans note a telling camera shot right after Valery escapes. It’s a view of Christopher and Paulie from high up as if someone is looking at them in a tree. While the shot goes by quickly, it does seem to be a POV shot from the tree, leading one to conclude that it is Valery looking down on them.
David Chase and writer Terence Winter both seem to agree that was the intent, even though the show never elaborates on Valery’s fate. TV critic Alan Sepinwall recalls conversations where the writers told him of a follow-up plot where Christopher and Paulie would later see Valery when again picking up Russian money. Valery would be there—but he wouldn’t recognize them due to brain damage from the incident. It would also have been established that a Boy Scout troop found and saved Valery in the Pine Barrens.
Although this never made it to the show, it does seem to confirm fan theories that Valery survived and escaped after climbing up that tree.
2 Ralph Probably Did Kill Pie-O-My
One of the great Sopranos antagonists was Ralph Cifaretto. Although a member of Tony’s crew, he was also a constant thorn in Tony’s side. Their relationship seemed to improve once they both invested in the profitable racehorse Pie-O-My. But once Pie-O-My died in a fire, Tony’s resentment of Ralph came roaring back. He accused Ralph of intentionally starting the fire that killed Pie-O-My to collect the insurance money. This leads to a big fight that ends with Tony killing Ralph.
Of course, Ralph denies setting the fire. But in the pre-fight argument, he also says, “So what? It was a horse,” which can be seen as one of those admissions that slips out when one is angry. There’s also the fact that Pie-O-My had been ill before her death, leading to vet bills that Ralph was ultimately responsible for.
With the horse no longer winning races and costing Ralph money, is it so surprising that he would want it dead for the insurance money? After all, Ralph is the type of person who murders human beings for less.
1 The Final Scene Is an Editing Joke
There’s no more famous scene in The Sopranos than its very last one. With Tony’s mob crew decimated after the war with New York and a criminal indictment likely coming any day, Tony is constantly looking over his shoulder, waiting for the next bad thing to happen. He enters Holsten’s diner, plays Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” on the jukebox, and orders onion rings. Carmela then arrives, with AJ shortly after that. Tony notices a suspicious man in a Members Only jacket at the counter checking him out. As the Members Only guy heads to the restroom, Meadow enters the diner, and then…the screen goes black.
What Tony’s ultimate fate was is still the source of endless debate. Many fans believe we’re seeing Tony’s death from his point of view—the screen goes black as his world goes black. Others think the scene just represents the paranoia that Tony will have to live with for the rest of his life—and there are many other popular theories. For his part, David Chase has continued to be coy about the meaning of the final scene, at times denying Tony died, seeming to confirm it at others, or giving very academic and theoretical explanations.
But what if it’s something else entirely? The show frequently used what could be described as editing jokes. For example, one character may be talking about how fat another is, then there’s a quick cut to the pig outside Satriale’s Pork Store. Or Tony yelling “Good job, girls!” at Meadow’s soccer game, to a quick cut of a stripper dancing at the Bada Bing. This show was full of editing jokes.
And what’s a bigger joke than Steve Perry singing “Don’t stop,” then the show abruptly stops? Knowing Chase’s sense of humor and editing style, this may indeed be the real answer to the biggest mystery of The Sopranos.