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What Carmela Soprano Can Teach About Dealing With the Establishment

Argun Ulgen

Carmela Soprano's compromises highlight the choices we must make to survive a stacked system.

The Sopranos

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Robert Iler, Jamie-Lynn Sigler
Network: HBO

In a culture where America has a propensity to judge moralistic paralysis as harshly as it does sociopathic thuggery, Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) has often been labeled the 21st century's most offending fictional leading lady. The most popular charge against Carmela is that she's a cake-eating Madonna housewife who chastises her mob boss husband Tony (James Gandolfini) for his rampant philandering and absentee fathering in one breath, and then enjoys the spoils of his sociopathy the very next. Yet, Carmela's struggle during The Sopranos (1999-2007) is eerily relatable to this country's current paralytic state between establishment and anti-establishment politics.

Carmela's life orbits around Tony Soprano's New Jersey mob fiefdom in the same way most American's lives do to the megalomaniacal corporate behavior that governs so much of this country's socioeconomic structure. Of course, Carmela's situation is materially different: she shares a bed with a full-blown sociopath. At the same time, however, she grapples with same heinous dilemma as does anyone living deep within the undesirable Establishment: what to do one starts to doubt the system?

Trickle Down Economics Doesn't Work

Carmela first learns that taking the establishment's trickle downs fails to ease her doubt and grief. In season three's "Second Opinion", Carmela fears she might be pregnant, which if true would translate to rearing a little bundle of joy into a world in which the kid's father is an unrepentant mob boss whose adultery, mood swings, and parental absenteeism are reaching new highs. What's worse, Carmela would likely be left alone to explain away to her kid the strange and terrible world he or she lives in, and to deal with all the terrible emotional swings to follow.

While Carmela's doubts were previously in her head, in "Second Opinion", they translate into the physical. She’s ashen and depressed; she can't get out of bed. The establishment doesn't care. When she weeps in front of her daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Siglet) at The Met, Meadow -- a Columbia University freshman and already grooming herself to be a white-collar version of her dad -- shows a passing interest before shifting the conversation to herself.

Carmela has less luck discussing the matter with any of her friends, comprised of mob wives who have the "this is the life we've chosen" schtick on auto-pilot as they mechanically routinize their days by way of Pinot Grigio, gossip, and fresh marinara sauce. The two priests Carmela seeks spiritual guidance from -- as she was raised to do -- are equally robotic in their established patriarchal rhetoric. Carmela took an oath to stay with her husband, thus, the best she can do is proselytize an irredeemable sociopath who seems to only attend church for mob funerals.

Then there's Dr. Krakower (Sully Boyar), a psychologist with an unapologetically absolutist moral code, unveils a painfully obvious second opinion: disavow Tony's blood money and leave him entirely. Although Dr. Krakower's position may appear logically obvious to the audience, it's just a fleeting glimpse of anti-establishment in a life smothered by everything but.

Indeed, one can just as easily give Dr. Krakower’s fast advice to any American consumer who at once is neck deep in the establishment, while bemoaning it every time they scroll through a Bernie Sanders' feed: get rid of that corporate phone plan and your SUV; avoid the American credit complex in the form of student loans and mortgage agreements; forgo employment at global corporations with dubious labor law and environmental histories; spend late nights after ten hours of work protesting against the monstrous billionaires.

As the radicalistic argument goes, so long as you support or condone these entities, you're supporting a corporate-capitalistic society that's "getting away with murder', which is to say making this country an increasingly vicious and inequitable place to live in.

The option that most abide by, however, is to succumb to institutional practices that we deeply disagree with in return for the trickles. Cut a good deal and move on. In the world that Carmela knows, she does no differently. At the end of "Second Opinion", Carmela agrees to arise from her depressive funk and resume her role as Tony's supportive housewife and attentive mother to her children in return for a $50,000 endowment to Columbia: a sum that the school's smarmy dean wines and dines Carmela to believe will keep Meadow's budding success on the radar (we later learn that Meadow was pulling Cs her first year).

Although that figure seems absurdly large to 99.9% of this country's income bracket, the $50,000 is a tiny fraction of what Tony spends on his goomahs (mistresses) and his gambling. It's no wonder Carmela finds herself sick and depressed once again just a few months later near the end of season four.

Don't Engage in a Pushing Contest With the Establishment

Eventually, the Establishment pushes at Carmela hard: In "Whitecaps", Carmela's hideous depression period is capped off by Tony's former goomah drunkenly calling her to share that Tony had been sleeping with (to put it somewhat tastefully) both she and her sister. After hyperventilating and getting into one of the most physically violent and emotively charged fights in television history, Carmela finally pushes back: she separates from her husband and seeks to file a divorce.

However, drastically increasing one's push back efforts is not the same as making a quick, thunderous break; the former usually proves to be ineffective, as the establishment has a much more impressive and relentless arsenal. During Carmela's separation, her own father balks at the idea of her throwing him a 75th birthday party ("Marco Polo", season five) at a home signed in her name because regardless of the way Tony mistreated his daughter for more than 20 years, no party can be held without "the man of the house" present.

Carmela's kids side with cool dad as well: he's guy who takes AJ (Robert Iler) to baseball games on school nights, and who treats Meadow to ritzy Manhattan dinners with her boyfriend, while mom is the home wrecker.

When Carmela repeatedly seeks legal counsel for a divorce, she learns that her husband peremptorily visited several divorce attorneys to create conflicts of interest. It's quite an effort to even go to one divorce attorney for help, but in Carmela's world, even going to several is not enough.

Of course, Carmela could just pack up the life she has known and make an entirely clean break. However, what this likely would have meant for Carmela is a middle-aged life away from her roots, all under the looming threat of her husband’s violent impulses and paranoia turning against her newfound freedom (even after a date during her separation, she hides a pistol in her pillow). And what to say about AJ, who certainly wouldn’t run away with mom, and would thus be alone with dear old dad?

The real world parallels to Carmela's situation aren't perfect, but they are meaningful. For instance, if a hypothetical 28-year-old college graduate is earnestly convinced that the student loan industrial complex she naively walked into ten years ago is grossly exploitative; the compound interest, in particular, is keeping her principal suspended as she can’t afford to make any more than the minimum payments even if she’s living in a studio apartment and eating in every night in the hopes of buying a home and starting a family.

So, she boycotts payment until she can re-draft her contract so that her accruing compound interest isn't so merciless, and starts putting some money toward a down payment on a mortgage. No, Tony Soprano wouldn't come after her. She would, however, have to suffer a lifetime of bad credit, wage garnishments, and if the loan has a co-signer or our hypothetical anarchist a husband forced to assume the debt, she’d have to carry the burden of emotional guilt and scorn from one's friends and loved ones. Thus, she pays the loans faster, and maybe if she's lucky she finds a higher paying job she never thought of wanting.

All of this is to say that the establishment has a way of putting many backs against the wall to take the best option; not the most moral or ethical, and certainly not the most individualistic, but the optimal deal. Near the end of season five, Carmela finally learns her lesson and does what Tony does every ten minutes on the show, and what any successful business-person does in reality: she leverages her position to make a fat profit for herself.

Own Your Position in the Establishment

At Vesuvio -- the upscale Italian restaurant where Tony makes financially lucrative deals -- Carmela offers Tony back the marital life he knows and loves in return for $600,000 to build her own property ("Long Term Parking"). In addition, Tony offers to "no longer let my mid-life crisis problems … intrude on you anymore." The old Carmela may have balked at that despicably vague, self-serving promise. The new Carmela finally acknowledges she’s running a big negotiation with the Soprano mob, and that certain conditions need be accepted if she's going to get a larger stake of ownership in the game.

So, Carmela no longer raves about Tony's across-the-board failures as a loving husband and father; her concerns instead are focused on her own business, which true to Tony's own line of work, includes leaning on the building inspector to approve of a home built with sub-standard materials. Interestingly, Carmela's existential doubts have one last gasp of fresh air during a week-long trip to Paris ("Cold Stones"), a few thousand miles away from the establishment, where a deeper appreciation of beauty and quiet individualistic contemplation is rooted in its spacious cobble roads and stone walls. That's in Paris, though, and Carmela's no ex-pat. Back home in Jersey, Carmela resumes her role entirely in the establishment: a property owner in for valuation before beauty; a great compromiser she thought she'd never be.

Given this country's trumped-up anti-establishment aspirations, Carmela Soprano may indeed be retrospectively emerging as the most important character on the show, even more so than Tony. As Carmela's trajectory grimly argues, there are really only two satisfactory options regarding the establishment: make a clean break, or own entirely your position within the system. In either case you'll be judged, but it's better than living with lonely despair and guilt-laden limbo while the monster roams about regardless.

Argun Ulgen is a film and culture writer residing in New York. In addition to PopMatters, Argun has contributed essays to Salon, The Good Men Project, and other smaller publications. Follow Argun on Twitter @BrooklynCycles.

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