[Life is] all a big nothing. What makes you think you’re so special?
— Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand), “D-Girl” (Season Two)
Our existence on this earth is a puzzle.
— Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco), “The Sopranos” (Season One)
When the screen cut to black in the final moments of The Sopranos on 10 June, some viewers felt David Chase had orchestrated a Livia-style hit on them: in the end, it was all a big nothing.
More than a week later, fans have watched and re-watched the tense few minutes at Holsten’s diner that led up to the abrupt ending, still debating the significance of the blackness. Was Tony whacked? His family too? The pursuit of meaning has led to more questions. Maybe it’s more like a puzzle, closer to Carmela’s worldview than to Livia’s.
It’s fitting, really. Throughout the series, viewers’ complicated relationship to Tony (James Gandolfini) paralleled Carmela’s. Although some argue that Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), as a “civilian,” was the audience’s on-screen surrogate, in the end she gave up on Tony while his wife stuck with him to the last second, just as we did. Carmela always suspected that Tony was guilty of horrible acts, and from our privileged vantage point we witnessed them: the lying, philandering, stealing, and, worst of all, the killing, whether by his own hands or by his decree. But no matter how much revulsion Tony’s misdeeds stirred up, we remained fascinated. We knew who he was, and like Carmela, we had to ask ourselves if we “loved him in spite of it — or because of it.”
Carmela’s ambivalence about her husband was established from the series’ outset. After Tony suffered his first as-yet-undiagnosed panic attack in the pilot episode, his family physician sent him for an MRI, Carmela at his side, fully supportive. But their conversation soon deteriorated into an argument about Tony’s relationship with his goomara and Carmela’s with her parish priest.
Tony: I told you, I’m not seeing her anymore. How do you think I feel, having that priest around all the time?
Carmela: Don’t even go there, all right? Father is a spiritual mentor. He’s helping me to be a better Catholic.
Tony: Well, we all got different needs.
Carmela: What’s different between you and me is that you’re going to hell when you die!
It was a hateful thing to say (she apologized for it three seasons later), yet as the MRI table began to slide into the machine, Carmela reached out to grab Tony’s hand and held on to it until he was fully inside. In this brief moment, we glimpsed the inner conflict that would trouble Carmela throughout The Sopranos. Despite her misgivings, letting go of Tony proved as challenging as staying with him.
The couple did separate briefly in Season Five, but their marriage lasted. Here and there, we learned that as a teenager, Carmela was seduced by Tony’s larger-than-life qualities: his brute strength, sexual magnetism, sweetness, and sense of humor. Indeed, Tony’s maneuvering within North Jersey’s perilous gangland made for the most compelling TV in recent memory. But watching Carmela navigate the ethical landscape as the “princess of Little Italy” was just as thrilling.
As much as Tony recognized the material dangers inherent in his line of work, he also denied the moral implications by hiding behind the vow of omerta. Carmela’s crises of conscience made her complex and also mirrored the audience’s disquiet with Tony’s violent behavior. In “College” (Season One), she confessed her crime of complicity to Father Intintola (Paul Schulze) while Tony took their daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), on a tour of campuses:
I have forsaken what is right for what is easy, allowing what I know is evil in my house, allowing my children — oh, my sweet children! — to be a part of it. Because I wanted things for them. A better life, good schools. I wanted this house, wanted money in my hand, money to buy whatever I wanted. My husband, I think he has committed horrible acts. I’m the same. I’ve said nothing, I’ve done nothing about it. I’ve got a bad feeling. It’s only a matter of time before God compensates me with outrage for my sins.
Carmela’s self-awareness and moral clarity at that moment are startling. And before Father Intintola absolved her, she promised to help Tony on his spiritual path. At that point, she did believe he could “be a better man.” It was this optimism that led Carmela to support Tony’s decision to see a psychiatrist, even when her jealousy of Dr. Melfi got the better of her. “I think it’s so gutsy! Psychology doesn’t address the soul — that’s something else — but it’s a start.” By the penultimate episode of the series, her optimism had all but vanished. When Tony insisted he had quit therapy for good (a lie), Carmela barely raised an eyebrow. “Except for the slight improvement after the shooting,” she replied, “it wasn’t doing you much good anyway.” And as Tony regurgitated his family history to AJ’s (Robert Iler) psychiatrist in the final episode, Carmela impatiently rolled her eyes, then shot him a withering look.
What happened in the intervening years to extinguish Carmela’s hope and her desire for change? Though she often attempted to take the high road, Carmela grappled with her own moral failures. If Tony’s reputation served her purposes, especially regarding her children’s future, she worked it, like when she shook down a Georgetown alumnus to snag a recommendation for Meadow. “What, threatening?” she said with a smile. “I brought you a ricotta pie and a high school transcript so you could write a letter for my little daughter to Georgetown.” In Season Four, when Tony refused to pony up money for an IRA, she stole $40,000 from a secret stash to set up the accounts on her own. And of course, she allowed herself to be placated by extravagant gifts financed by Tony’s criminal enterprise: mink coats, sapphire rings, Porsches, and a $50,000 donation to Columbia University in the Soprano name, to list a few.
All the while, she complained of Tony’s infidelities to the other mob wives in her circle, like Angie Bompensiero (Toni Kalem), Rosalie Aprile (Sharon Angela), and Gabriella Dante (Maureen Van Zandt).
Rosalie: It’s not just us. The president of the United States, for crying out loud. Look what his wife had to put up with, with the blow jobs and the stained dress.
Angie: Hillary Clinton? I can’t stand that woman.
Rosalie: I don’t know. Maybe we could all take a page from her book.
Carmela: What? To be humiliated in public, then go around smiling all the time? That is so false. I would dig a hole, I would climb inside, and I would not come out.
Rosalie: All I know is that she stuck by him and put up with the bullshit, and in the end, what did she do? She set up her own little thing.
Carmela: That’s true, isn’t it? She’s a role model for us all.
It was only after Tony’s former goomara Irina (Oksana Lada) phoned the Soprano house in Season Four that Carmela finally decided to leave him. During the separation, she pursued a relationship with AJ’s guidance counselor, Bob Wegler (David Staithairn), one of a string of “sensitive intellectuals” with whom she became infatuated over the years. The romance ended disastrously after Wegler accused Carmela of using him to advance AJ in school. It was then that Carmela realized she would forever be haunted by her history with Tony, whether they remained together or not: “Whatever I say, whatever I do, because I was married to a man like Tony, my motives will always be called into question.” She also experienced the brunt of Tony’s ruthlessness first-hand as he contaminated the pool of top divorce attorneys in the state by visiting them all before she had a chance.
When no one would take her case after learning the identity of her husband, Carmela understood her options were dire. Leaving Tony, really leaving him, meant following the advice of a tough-talking psychiatrist she consulted once in Season Three: “Take only the kids, what’s left of them, and go.” This decision would be the equivalent of entering the witness protection program, forsaking everything in her life up to that point and starting over with nothing. In the end, she lacked the courage (as many of us would), and she decided to take Tony back. Her asking price? $600,000, enough to “set up her own little thing”: the construction of a spec house on Crestview Drive.
But it was Tony’s shooting and subsequent coma in Season Six that ultimately cemented the Soprano marriage. Carmela’s concerns over Tony’s soul in Season One gave way to a more pressing desire to keep him alive. As the series came to a close, Carmela was consumed with worry: over Tony’s safety, AJ’s suicide attempt, and Meadow’s upcoming marriage to the son of Tony’s mob associate. A trip to Paris with Rosalie Aprile brought her crushing anxiety to the surface. Standing amidst the rubble of ancient Roman baths, Carmela revealed, “There was one night in the hospital when things were touch and go with Tony. He came out of the coma for a minute, and he said, ‘Who am I? Where am I going?’ At the time, I didn’t know what he meant. Coming here, I feel the same way.” She goes on, “We worry so much, it seems like that’s all we ever do, but in the end, it all just gets washed away, it just gets washed away.”
The scene at Holsten’s created a sense of unease as fierce as the one Carmela described. The blaring music, the suspicious-looking man at the counter, the allusion to The Godfather, and Meadow’s failed parallel parking all led to a seeming conclusion. But before our worries could be washed away, the action cut off, and viewers were left suspended in a dreadful thrall, much like Carmela was during her entire marriage. As a priest once explained to her, “God understands that we all live in the middle of tensions.” David Chase understands that too.