James Gandolfini
James Gandolfini during a November 2007 photo shoot in New York; that year, his hit HBO show "The Sopranos" was in its final season. . Associated Press

James Gandolfini’s death at 51 shocked and saddened the millions of viewers for whom Tony Soprano elevated primetime television to an art form rivaling cinema, while shaping “The Sopranos” into a show that intimately and permanently connected with its followers, who saw pieces of it as a proxy for their own lives and relationships. How else could Edie Falco, who played Tony’s wife Carmela Soprano on the HBO drama, say in earnest in a statement responding to the tragic news that “the love between Tony and Carmela was one of the greatest I have ever known”?

Implicit in Falco’s words is the sense that Tony and Carmela Soprano were more than just characters on a screen. Indeed, “The Sopranos” were a three-dimensional family, one with a terrible, irresistible secret, who invited us into their kitchen and bedrooms just as casually as we welcomed them into our homes every Sunday night. They offered us an unvarnished view not just of life inside the Mafia, but of the life that goes on in the margins of a career criminal’s dark pursuits: Morning coffee in his bathrobe and a cigar for the road; the peyote in the desert; the geese in the backyard. These slices of humanity permitted us to care for a cold-blooded murderer; to hope against all reason that he might be spared the sudden, violent death he always had coming; and sometimes, to forget -- or willfully ignore -- the morbid specter, even after a gunshot wound that nearly took his life left him in a surrealist coma. As Carmela cried to her husband in the show’s final season: “We walk around here as if there isn’t a giant piano hanging over your head.”

But the piano didn’t fall, at least not that we can be sure of. It remains suspended in the black abyss of the instantly notorious closing image of the series finale (still online at YouTube), one that left bewildered viewers wondering, for a collective, panicked moment, if their cable service had cut out at the worst imaginable time. The panic gave way to angry frustration among those who felt the show’s creator David Chase had shortchanged his faithful audience, and cheers for him from others who were convinced that he had ended the series in the best, and only, imaginable way. Six years later, there is no overriding consensus about whether Tony Soprano and his family are still alive or died in a hail of retributory bullets over the gang war that had just culminated in a supposed truce; whether Meadow Soprano was the lone victim or the sole survivor; or whether we have any right to know how it all ended for the Soprano family -- if it ended.

However irrationally, it appears that Gandolfini’s death could reshape some of our ideas of what happened in that diner. If James Gandolfini is dead, how can Tony Soprano still be alive? On Thursday, crowds flocked to pay tribute to the actor at the very New Jersey eatery where he filmed his last scene; choosing to honor him in a place where we saw him just once, and, as far as we know, neglecting the Elizabeth, N.J., restaurant that was the setting of the original Vesuvio’s, where Tony and company went again and again, and walked out alive every time.

Details -- gratuitous, tasteless and of questionable veracity -- describing Gandolfini’s last hours before he died of a heart attack in Italy on Wednesday promote a salacious suggestion that a different kind of piano had hung over the actor’s head in the years since we last saw him as Tony. Gandolfini had previously admitted to struggles with substance abuse, and was clearly a bit overweight. And now, tales of fried shrimp, pina coladas and extra shots of rum (compliments, naturally, of the New York Post) are being served up as an explanation for the star’s early demise.

It’s not unusual for the media to scramble for the how and why in the wake of a sudden tragedy. Nor is it unusual for an actor to be inextricably linked to a signature role, especially, as in Gandolfini’s case, when the actor is introduced to a mass audience for the first time as a wholly original, unforgettable character. Since it’s impossible to prove a negative, we can’t know if the public and the media reaction to Gandolfini’s death would be different if Tony Soprano’s fate had been made clearer. Would a part of Gandolfini’s public image have already died with Tony, just as a part of him now lives on through our beloved Mafia kingpin? Even when it comes to people far less extraordinary than Tony, it’s almost always easier to know a character than the actor who plays him. That we can sometimes so easily confuse the two is a testament to the way great characters and stories like those we found in “The Sopranos” can permeate our consciousness, twisting our imaginations into what feels like a kind of reality. In Gandolfini’s case, almost certainly, we are mourning the loss of Tony Soprano as much as we are the man who brought him to life.

For years there has been talk of a “Sopranos” movie. Chase himself has said that he is open to it, but surely any plans, however vague and preliminary, will have to be reconsidered in the wake of Gandolfini’s death -- which at least for the purposes of any future “Sopranos” projects, will likely mean that Tony Soprano too is gone. And whether or not you believe that Tony was killed at the end of the series, Chase has in a way already addressed Tony’s death, during the extraordinary, mind-bending first half of season six (the final Soprano season), when Tony was in a medically induced coma after Uncle Junior, the former head of the Soprano crime family, shot him in a case of dementia-fueled mistaken identity. Tony’s unconscious mind transported him, and us, into an afterlife dream, in which he was forced to confront the man he had become through the eyes of another man, who himself was just another version of Tony -- someone he might have been in a different kind of life.

When Tony Soprano lay in his hospital bed, with both his families keeping anxious vigil, I believed he would never wake up. I worked out a half-baked theory that the second half of season six would exist in a post-Tony Soprano world, where Carmela would rise as matriarch and boss, and where we would learn who Tony’s friends really were -- a question that crept in while Tony was unconscious. It seemed like the dream allowed Tony to confront his deepest fears and most profound guilt in a way that he never quite could with his therapist and sometime-love interest, Dr. Jennifer Melfi. It seemed, for a little while, like he was free to go.

Although we were all relieved when Tony did finally come back to life, I felt a vague sense of loss for the man we had met in his unconscious -- a loss that now feels somehow like it has come full circle, in the worst imaginable way. The dream sequence only lasted two episodes, but whenever I think of Tony Soprano, I will always think of him there, suspended between life and death, as he was again in the cut to black that brought all those people to the New Jersey diner this week. And because, like so many of us, I don’t know where Tony Soprano ends and James Gandolfini begins, it’s all too easy to imagine that Gandolfini is once again inside that terrifying and beautiful dream, visiting with the ghosts of “The Sopranos” past. Maybe now, Tony Soprano finally is free to go.