‘Bandersnatch,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ and the Myth of Certainty | Modern Society of USA

‘Bandersnatch,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ and the Myth of Certainty

‘Bandersnatch,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ and the Myth of Certainty

The year 2018 ended with a TV event that offered multiple resolutions. The year 2019 is beginning with the anniversary of a TV series that, famously, left us with no resolution at all.

“Bandersnatch,” the new interactive — episode? movie? game? — of “Black Mirror” on Netflix, and “The Sopranos,” which began 20 years ago Jan. 10, are products of two different TV eras. The former lets the viewer direct the story (sort of) through a series of choices. The latter was the work of a creator who resisted catering to his audience and ended his series on a big, fat question mark.

But as different as the two works are, they’re oddly complementary. Each is an example of the tension between two ways of seeing fiction. Is a story a puzzle to be solved or a mystery to be pondered?

“Bandersnatch,” released Dec. 28, is full of tricks. It allows you to control Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), a video game designer in 1984 creating his own choose-your-path game. Along the way (limited spoilers ahead), you can learn codes that release mysteries from a vault. You can kill your father, or not. Somewhere, there’s a 1980s-style console game you can unlock. And after you reach an ending — most of them unhappy — you can try for another.

But the biggest trick “Bandersnatch” pulls off is to convince its audience that it offers more possibilities than other stories do. In fact, it offers far fewer.

Every story — be it a novel, movie or TV show — is full of forking paths: points at which characters could have chosen differently and events could have unfolded differently. In a linear story, you can never know any of these possibilities, and therefore they are infinite. The fact that one can only go forward and never know what might have been is part of what gives a story heft and poignancy.

The same is true in life. Living with regret is why we have entire spiritual practices devoted to letting go of the past and the unborn futures and accepting the moment.

But the moment can be unsatisfying. It can be infuriating. It can tease you with the thought of a better moment, somewhere on an alternative line of reality. You want to reach it. You want a do-over. You want to know what would have happened.

This has been the idea behind stories like “Groundhog Day” and “Sliding Doors.” (In the Netflix series “Russian Doll,” coming in February, the protagonist, played by Natasha Lyonne, keeps reliving variations on the last day of her life.)

“Bandersnatch” literalizes this idea: Go back, do something different, get a different result. (Fans on Reddit have already mapped out the branching and conditional options of the story in massive flowcharts.) Repeat your actions and you get, generally, the same outcome.

There’s an egocentric fallacy in a choose-your-own-adventure: that you alone, represented by the protagonist, have volition and the ability to change your decisions. You are the special one. You have choices; you, in any moment, might do a number of things. Everyone else, however, is an automaton character, answering a given input with a predetermined — and replicable — output.

That’s a fiction itself. You might make different choices if you could relive a key scene from your life. But so might your parents, your lovers, your boss, your dog. Taking one different action would not guarantee a certain outcome in life. But in “Bandersnatch” it does. By quantifying the resolutions, “Bandersnatch” limits them.

“Bandersnatch” is not unaware of the limits of interactive storytelling; it is at its best when it has fun with them. In one ending, where Stefan produces the most successful version of his game, he explains his secret: “I’d been trying to give the player too much choice,” he tells his therapist. “Now they’ve got the illusion of free will, but really I decide the ending.”

Still, like all games, “Bandersnatch” has ideas coded into it. Chief among them is the fantasy that life can be gamified, that the uncertainty can be hacked out of it, that taking a different turn in the past (you learned piano! we nominated Bernie!) would have one, and only one, determinable outcome.

“Bandersnatch” can be fun, if you’re entranced by its puzzle structure, or if you’ve always believed TV episodes would be better if only you could spend hours grinding through them again in order to watch 45 seconds of new footage.

He doesn’t even realize he’s said it, or what it implies, until Seitz points it out, upon which Chase curses and says he was referring to an earlier ending idea, in which Tony died at a meeting with another mobster.

If the years since the show’s finale in 2007 have taught me anything, it’s that a certain set of fans will analyze that snippet like it were the love child of the Warren Report and the Steele Dossier. Did Chase spill the goods? Or did he simply add another layer of could-have-been before returning us to the ambiguous status quo antipasto?

I will submit, probably pleasing no one, that it doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter even if David Chase held a news conference tomorrow and announced that Tony sleeps with the fishes, and it would not matter if he changed his mind five years later and declared that Tony was eating onion rings at that moment in New Jersey.

Maybe Chase intended a specific thing by that cut to black. Maybe he didn’t. He certainly could have punctuated the ending with an unambiguous hail of bullets if he had wanted. (No one questions whether Bobby Baccalà is dead.)

But once Chase, like any creator, ended his creation, it was loosed into the world and became everyone’s property.

This does not sit well with some fans, who have marshaled batteries of evidence and relaunched the argument every time Chase has opened his mouth. (The “Tony’s dead” camp seems to be more vocal than “Tony’s alive,” if only because they’re out to prove an ending rather than the absence of one.)

To insist that the ending of “The Sopranos” is a puzzle with one correct solution is to crave a “Bandersnatch”-type certainty: that Tony went down a certain path on his flowchart and reached a point where only one outcome was possible, only one answer is correct.

Fans today have been trained to expect answers. They’ve watched series, like “Westworld,” that structure themselves as riddles and invite sleuthing. They’ve seen authors like J.K. Rowling dispense ex post facto addendums to their novels long after the presses rolled.

To this mind-set, when there is no fact that can’t be deduced or retconned or cleared up in a prequel, there must be only one definitive solution — and it’s in David Chase’s head; he just needs to spill the damn beans.

But you won’t get that in this world. In this world, we fight it out. I have a dog in the fight as much as anyone: To me, ending “The Sopranos” on Tony dying would have been a bad, uncharacteristic move. It would slap a typical mob-story finish on a show that was anything but typical, a just deserts ending on a show that operated on the belief, as Chase once put it, that “crime does pay.”

That’s what I think! But I don’t know the truth any more than you do. The ending of “The Sopranos” creates an atmosphere of tension in which Tony could die, or not. Then it leaves you without certainty; it leaves you knowing that you could die and never see it coming; it leaves you to wonder what ending you were hoping for and why.

You might see it differently, and someone else might differently still, and no Redditor will ever beat the final boss level and unlock the answer. We all just have to argue and second-guess and marinate on that black screen until our own lights go out.

We’ve got a word for that kind of fiction: interactive.

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