The Women of 'The Sopranos' Taught Me I Can Only Be Myself
On "The Sopranos," women can be wives or mistresses; dependent or independent; but the men of the show, like the men in my own life, may never see them as multifaceted, complex people.
Photos courtesy of HBO
Late one night, a guy I’d been sleeping with on and off for years texted me, “Have you ever watched Sopranos?” “No, why?” I asked. “You remind me of Gloria Trillo.” I was thrilled that I reminded him of someone; it was an admission that I was on his mind and on his mind deep enough for a comparison. He was emotionally unavailable to the utmost degree, bluntly closed off in all the ways I was desperately open. I looked Gloria up and was met with the stock image of a brunette woman clad in all black, a half-seductive, half-dead look in her eyes, curled up on a chair in her therapist’s office. That’s how I curl up in therapy, too.
I read that Gloria was Tony’s mistress. He was captivated upon meeting her and they fell into an intoxicating affair. As she revealed the depth of her instability, he left. Her thing is that she had a lot of boyfriends, but they all leave her when they realize she’s crazy. She is beyond the manic pixie dream girl archetype; she’s a truly unwell woman, one who barely succeeds in hiding her self-destructive interior behind blown-out hair, leather jackets, and a light Buddhism practice. When I binge-watched the show a year later, I pored over her arc. She brings Tony on a date to the zoo and they fuck in front of the monkey cage; he says, “I never met anyone like you.” That’s what I prized back when I was first sleeping with the aforementioned guy. He never met anyone like me. What this probably meant was anyone so frighteningly obsessed with externalizing and understanding their own internal experience, but I took it to mean something more romantic. Or rather, I knew this was what it meant, and I took what I could get.
If I wouldn’t be met with equal affection, the same desire to get inside another that I craved, I could at least feel some sense of uniqueness and intrigue in my alienating intensity.
As their relationship comes to a head, Tony and Gloria have a climactic fight: He’s left her because it’s not fun anymore, as she’s shown her truest, darkest colors, and she calls him sobbing. He asks her what’s wrong and she says, “I don’t know,” over and over, the refrain of women everywhere who are confused by their own devastation and devoid of the energy to try to explain it, again, to a boyfriend. She says, “I can’t take it anymore.” He goes to her and ends it, again; when he moves to leave, she threatens to tell his family about their affair, looking like a frightened animal. He lunges at her, pinning her to the ground and choking her. He says he’ll kill her if she ever comes near his family—and he’s Tony Soprano, he means it. It looks like his threat gives her strength, feeling alive so close to death. “Kill me,” she spits, “kill me.” I love her.
The women of The Sopranos, in a sense, remind me of a line from Ariana Grande’s now-iconic break-up song “thank u, next.” She sings, “One taught me love / one taught me patience / one taught me pain,” describing her ex-boyfriends, for whom she is grateful. It sparked a million memes: Those lyrics accompanied by three images of the creator’s choosing. I posted one myself and mine featured the women of The Sopranos: Adriana la Cerva, Tony’s almost-niece-in-law (love); Carmela Soprano, his wife (patience); and Gloria Trillo, his Season Three mistress (pain). This is, of course, the greatest show ever on television; twenty years on, public ardor for it remains as feverish as ever. It is also widely accepted that James Gandolfini gave one of the greatest performances of a lead male actor ever on television. Beyond even Tony, though, I was captivated by the women who surround him. I say this not to put forth a feminist reading of the series, but because the female characters literally imbued my life with meaning during the time I devoured it, illuminating myself to myself, in the shadow of their larger-than-life patriarch.
Every character, related to him or not, belongs to Tony because it’s his existence that brings all of theirs into existence. The fallibility of the women is highlighted by his infallibility—he can be killed in the spirit of revenge or a power grab, but he can do no wrong: He is the boss, he controls the familial narrative. The women, on the other hand, can fuck up and be killed or exiled for their mistakes; their tenderness is their bargaining chip, but it doesn’t always save them. It took me a long time to realize my own tenderness wouldn’t save me, not from death or exile, but lonely relationships, where my close care for another was met with, at best, bewilderment, and at worst, cavalier disregard.
Loving The Sopranos is possibly the least original way a person can consume media, and yet, I like to think I was uniquely pre-disposed to this fixation. Being told I was reminiscent of the most dysfunctional woman on a show filled with dysfunctional women felt like an incantation, a twisted love spell put on me, making the series the subject of my heart. Or maybe it’s just because the interpersonal dynamics are so reminiscent of my own Jewish-Italian heritage. The Soprano family and all their counterparts are Catholics, but Jews and Italians have much in common: Overbearing mothers, sociality centered around food, and a long-suffering, largely outdated sense of persecution. The Italian side of my family passed down a history of oppressive but beloved patriarchs, a la Tony and his capos: Fathers and husbands who loved the women in their lives but also serially cheated on them, verbally abused them, and drank the booze and ate the meat they provided them to their heart’s content.
When I watched last year, I wanted with equal fervor to be Tony’s wife and mistress. I wanted to be Irina in Season One, waiting on his boat, trying on the pony-hair Manolo Blahniks he gave me; Gloria in Season Three, on my knees, playing with his gun and always veering too close to the edge; Carmela in his bed, throughout, caressing his head exasperatedly with my perfect french manicure. I want to be to Tony as Lana del Rey is to A$AP Rocky in her “National Anthem” music video: Both Jackie and Marilyn, to his singular JFK. To watch the show was, for me, to identify with all of my romantic impulses at once: Attraction to hyper-masculinity, frustration with gendered roles of heterosexual relationships, a secret desire for marriage and stability, and the largely self-destructive need to be the girl on the side, illuminating a man’s vitality for him while slowly being seeped of my own.
Of the three women that meant the most to me, two ended up dead. Gloria’s suicide is announced long after her storyline has ended; you knew watching her that she wasn’t going to get better, and she didn’t. Adriana la Cerva, fiancee to Tony’s nephew Christopher, gets killed on Tony’s orders because she becomes an FBI informant, a death I mourned and protested for months before I could pick up the show again in her absence. Adriana, above all, loves Christopher, but she is, as all the women on the series are, acutely lonely.
I always knew Adriana met a bad end; I Google-imaged her when I first started watching in search of photos of her outfits, and accidentally saw something about her disappearance. When she tells the truth to Christopher and he tells Tony, Silvio is dispatched to get rid of her; he calls her a cunt and shoots her as she crawls away from him in the woods. Her cold death broke my heart, not just because I truly adored her (I watched her the way one watches a new friend, delighting over the perfection of every outfit and phrase), but also because it made me sad for the state of our movements, for the possibilities of family (however you define it) loyalty in the face of larger institutional enemies. Those who do emotional and physical labor behind the scenes, in this case, women in service of male leaders, also know background information and are practical targets for outside infiltration, threats, and sowing of the seeds of discord. We must value and protect these members of our communities, as much as we venerate their male counterparts. Adriana teaches us that we have to remind each other, over and over, that we can turn to, not on, each other, even in the face of a fear-mongering state, an abusive boyfriend, an oppressive patriarch.
I watched during the #MeToo year when the barrage of stories about “good” men treating the women in their lives and political circles like trash was never-ending. The women of The Sopranos cook, clean, listen, suck dick, look beautiful, and raise children, and most end up dead, suicidal, or alienated. In essence, these women are central to the project of the mob—and in a larger sense, women are central to all political and subversive movements—but instead are often treated as disposable.
Tony would be nothing, literally, without the wives and mistresses surrounding him, and neither would any of his captains, earners, and hitmen. But this truth goes unacknowledged, and worse even than being ignored, the women are treated cruelly.
Only Carmela lives, who, even with her boundless patience, tires of Tony’s infidelity and leaves him in the fourth season, though she returns to him in the fifth, with the promise of a business venture of her own. One of the most astounding qualities of her character is that she is not stripped of sexual desire as the cast-aside wife; she doesn’t refuse Tony sexually and it’s never given as the reason why he strays. His cheating doesn’t reflect something lacking in her, it is just about him: His gluttony, his stress, his savior complex, his ongoing attraction to damaged, needy women.
Carmela just wants Tony, and she tells him as much in a heartbreaking scene in the middle of the second season. He sits on the edge of the bed in his ribbed white undershirt, exhausted in the way that he always is, as she hovers behind him, kissing and leaning into his head, his neck, with impossible love, the way you might imprint on a newborn baby. He concedes he will get a vasectomy and she says no, what if she wants another baby. He is bewildered by her change of heart (it was she who requested that he have the procedure in the first place), and it is this same bewilderment at every woman in his life that perversely comforts me most.
I have experienced this confused exasperation so often at the hands of men who pride themselves on quelling feelings, in opposition to the way I prize emotional depth above all else. Though being misunderstood is painful, I find myself taking shelter in it. I honestly think this is the basis of my heterosexual desire: I am convinced that a man can never understand me and somehow this makes it so that I find the relationship sustainably intriguing, and find us able to maintain our independence of each other even as we love each other. If I am perfectly understood, I am too quick to enmesh and I grow to hate it. Instead, I bond myself to someone with whom I perceive an insurmountable separation, inherent to our emotional identities.
Tony confirms something I know to be true: It doesn’t matter how I behave—like a wife, a mistress, dependent, independent, needy, stand-off-ish—parts of me will still remain opaque to the man before me, just as the women in Tony’s life remain opaque to him. Of this, he makes me certain.
He asks what Carmela wants, frustrated, and she answers that she just wants him, and she wants him to be “true.” When he says he will, she shushes him—it is her perfect wish, and she won’t have it tarnished by a lie.