It’s become a pattern for viewers to empathize with the tortured antihero of a show while harshly judging his wife, even though she doesn’t do anything nearly as bad. But while women like Betty Draper and Skyler White are totally floored when they find out what their husbands have been up to, on The Sopranos, we see something different: Carmela knew exactly what she was getting into when she married a mob man. Whereas Betty and Skyler might garner resentment for being so virtuous and at odds with the antihero audiences identify with, Carmela is complicit from the beginning. So instead of getting caught up in judging her character, we’re fascinated with her. We know she’s guilty, but we want to know just how guilty, and how she reconciles that guilt with her perfect-seeming suburban mom life.
The more we look at Carmela, we see she has multiple complex layers – and she uses these layers of herself to suppress and control her guilt in order to function. So today, we’re peeling back these many layers to reveal the truth that lies underneath: living a life of complicity and denial is just as destructive as living a life of crime. Here’s our take on The Sopranos’ Carmela!
Carmela’s life is possible thanks to the power of denial. When it comes to Tony’s line of work, Carmela obviously knows what he does – so she directs her denial into the morality or excusability of Tony’s actions. When she has to face ugly facts about what Tony does, she has a pretty incredible ability to spin it so it doesn’t seem so bad. This is most obvious in season two, when Tony tells her that Janice’s boyfriend Richie Aprile is dead and he helped cover it up. Carmela is only speechless for a moment before she justifies it. For the most part though, Tony lies to Carmela about deaths that he had a hand in, and she buys what he tells her… or, at least, she seems to. But even in these cases, it appears she does have doubts and is just choosing not to press Tony too much because she doesn’t really want to know the truth. Take the time in season five when Adriana is killed for being an informant. Carmela seems to accept the story Christopher tells her: that he and Adriana broke up and she suddenly moved away. But in season six, her dream about Adriana suggests that, subconsciously, she’s always known Adriana is dead.
Staying in the Dark: Carmela’s Power of Denial
Carmela also deals with Tony’s infidelity through a kind of unspoken agreement. Deep down she wants so badly for her husband to be faithful to her. But she knows that ultimately she has no power over him, so she settles for tolerating his cheating so long as it doesn’t infiltrate her home life. That’s why Irina’s call to the house in season four is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Because it takes away Carmela’s power of denial and forces her to acknowledge the painful truth of her marriage.
Carmela’s cognitive dissonance also comes into play in regards to the family finances. Her materialistic streak lets her create a distance between the reality that she’s suppressing and the image she’s comfortable with. When she sees a psychiatrist in season three, he reminds her where her family’s money comes from. But by creating a life that looks respectable, Carmela rarely has to acknowledge the truth in this. From her perspective, she’s someone who sends her kids to good schools and ensures they don’t want for anything. When Meadow’s at Columbia, Carmela is determined to get Tony to donate $50,000 to the school. And this is because it lets her see herself as someone who uses the family’s finances for charitable purposes. The comfort of money is also what allows Carmela to see her marriage as loving… because to her, Tony’s lavish gifts are romantic rather than an effort to buy her off.
In a sense, Catholicism is to Carmela what psychiatry is to Tony. There are times she seems to be seriously considering divorce, and she wants guidance. In the same way, there’s a part of Tony that does want to change his ways through therapy. Yet in the end, both of them are using these confessional outlets to perform remorse and appease their guilt, only to go on acting the same way. The priests Carmela talks to always tell her that divorce is not an option, so it sometimes seems as if she’s seeking them out just to be reassured that she’s right to stay with Tony.
Performing Remorse – Carmela’s Catholicism
In season three, a priest advises Carmela to essentially see Tony through a glass half full lens, valuing the nice things he does for her and the kids, and turning a blind eye on the bad. When we see Carmela later, she’s taken off the big ring Tony gave her a few episodes before. She’s clearly making an effort to “live on what the good part earns”... but although she’s let go of this one luxury item, it doesn’t change the fact that her livelihood depends on the mob. The big mistake she makes is thinking it’s even possible to separate the good from the bad in this mafia environment where personal relationships and illegal business are all mixed up.
Carmela’s philosophy for her marriage, and her entire life, is basically to make the best of a tricky situation. There’s a pragmatic layer to her personality that proves her denial is only on the surface and she’s not totally oblivious. Tellingly, she takes concrete steps to protect herself should anything go wrong with Tony.
Making the Best – Carmela’s Pragmatism
Carmela’s “make the best of it” mindset comes out when she and the other mob wives discuss Hillary Clinton staying with her unfaithful husband. At first Carmela judges Clinton for this. But then she starts to see Hillary as a positive model for holding your head high and not being brought down by your husband’s misdeeds. And as time goes by Carmela really does follow the Hillary Clinton example in deciding not to view Tony’s failures as a reflection on her, and instead focuses on getting what she can out of this situation. In season four she sees Big Pussy’s widow Angie struggling to make it on her own. And she starts doing everything in her power to prevent ending up in the same tight spot. She pressures Tony into setting up a trust for the family. And she even steals some of the cash he’s hidden and invests it. When she agrees to let Tony move back into the house after they’ve been living apart, it’s because he agrees to buy a plot of land so she can build a spec house and have her own little project. On the surface, Carmela has succeeded in “setting up her own little thing.” What this scene really proves, though, is that Carmela can never fully separate herself from Tony’s mob money, or the mob itself.
In reality, Carmela’s just as much a member of the mob as any other character on The Sopranos, and being a mom is what most brings out this side of her. The times she goes a step further than just enjoying the spoils of Tony’s business and actually seems to take a page out of his book, it’s on her kids’ behalf. And at first this makes us overlook the sinister nature of what she’s doing… In season two, Carmela wants Meadow to go to an east coast college rather than her first choice, Berkeley. So she implicitly threatens her neighbor’s sister to make her write a recommendation letter that will get Meadow into Georgetown. We see Carmela doing something similar in season five, when she has a fling with AJ’s guidance counselor – at least in part to ensure that AJ gets into college. After he calls her out, Carmela mopes that her reputation is forever tarnished because of Tony. Of course, it does say a lot about her that she chose to marry a man in the mafia – it’s proof that on some level she’s on board with Tony’s shady business. Carmela even openly admitted that on her second date with him, he brought her family expensive gifts that she knew he obtained through violent means. And by this point in the series she’s not just guilty by association – she’s actively playing dirty by applying a mobster mentality to mothering. Because even though she’s partly motivated by love, she’s still controlling people through threats and force, going behind her kids’ backs, and using her position to get what she wants.
Mob Mom – Carmela’s Mothering
At one point Tony complains that Carmela is responsible for AJ’s lack of ambition, because she’s spoiled him. But Dr. Melfi argues that her protectiveness is what Tony wishes he’d gotten from his own mother. And if you think about it, Carmela really is the opposite of Livia Soprano in almost every way: she’s loyal, loving, and truly wants the best for her family. Yet in the end, even these positive qualities can’t save Carmela from becoming another mob mom who lies, makes excuses, and exposes her children to things they shouldn’t see.
Carmela never lays a finger on anyone, let alone commits murder. And she brings a ricotta pie when she’s blackmailing someone, while her husband would have brought a gun. But what Carmela teaches us is that ultimately, these things don’t make as much of a difference as she thinks they do. Her wedding vows have ended up being almost like Tony’s mafia oath: a Faustian bargain that she can never escape. Carmela built up her many layers of denial and pragmatism as a defense mechanism – both to protect her family and to keep herself safe without having to give up the worldly possessions she enjoys. But when we peel back those layers, underneath we find the truth she fought so hard to ignore: no amount of denial can ever erase her complicity.
Jensen, Jeff, and Melissa Maerz. “The Evolution of the Antihero.” EW.Com, 30 Aug. 2013, ew.com/article/2013/08/30/evolution-antihero/.
Zavisca, Christian. “Carmela Soprano’s Most Important Scene: I Have a Completely Different Opinion about It Today.” Medium, Commentary by CZ, 14 Mar. 2016, medium.com/@czavisca/i-have-a-completely-different-opinion-today-about-carmella-soprano-s-most-important-scene-95f405b3ded7.