She’s beautiful, smart and an early 2000s fashion icon. But above all else, The Sopranos’ Adriana La Cerva is remembered for her tragic story. Over the seasons, she quickly became a fan favorite, which meant that the tragedy of her arc was all the more intense. Born into a mafia-adjacent family and in a serious relationship with Tony’s abusive nephew Christopher Moltisanti, it seems like Adriana’s grim end was spelled out from the start. So what is it about her that we love – and that, in turn, makes her the perfect tragic character? Here’s our Take.
What is a tragic character?
Greek philosopher Aristotle first defined the ‘tragic hero’ in Poetics, his work on dramatic theory – and we can use his analysis of the character type as a way of reading Adriana. There are several essential attributes of the tragic hero, according to Aristotle: the first is that they should be ‘virtuous, but not eminently good.’
That’s Adriana. Like many other women in the Sopranos – Carmela in particular – at first, Ade seems willing to ignore many aspects of how Christopher makes his money; actually, she’s mostly pleased with what she can get out of it. But despite enjoying the things that Christopher’s position can buy her, Adriana’s always shown to be innocent. She sees things in a pure way, and while she doesn’t think her life is perfect, she naively believes that she and Christopher are safe because of their connection to Tony.
Aristotle also says that the tragic hero should invoke a mixture of pity and fear in the audience. Adriana and Christopher’s often one-sided love story is designed to elicit both of those things. We feel pity for Adriana because all she ever wants is Christopher. And right up to the end, she’s so hopeful, against all the odds – hopeful that they’ll get married, that she can get Christopher off drugs, that she can get them out of the mob, that he will leave his old life behind and they can finally begin their new, happier life together.
The Sopranos is an intensely violent show that doesn’t shy away from the murderous side of the mafia. But some of the most difficult violence to watch happens at home between Christopher and Adriana. Although there are sweet, playful moments in their relationship, the bulk of it is violent. Christopher is consistently domestically abusive towards her, and as we watch them, the audience ends up caught in the same cycle that she is in, of being lulled into a false sense of security and then hurt over and over again. For the audience, there’s a veil of fear and foreshadowing across their entire relationship – we never know what, exactly, might make Christopher lash out at Adriana, but we always know it’s coming – even when she herself doesn’t seem to.
How is tragedy woven through Adriana’s arc?
Adriana had a minor role in the first season of The Sopranos, but the first few times we meet her, we see a hopeful edge to her – that she believes her life can be different, better even, than the lives of mob wives from the generation before her. Early on, she reveals she doesn’t want the traditional mob wife life. She’s shown to be interested in business, particularly hospitality, and she wants to make her own money. So, for a long time, she works as a restaurant hostess – until Christopher decides to exercise more control over her and tells her to quit once they’re engaged. Gradually, as a result, Adriana becomes more like the wives she didn’t want to emulate at the beginning of their relationship. And when she finally does get an opportunity to run a venue, like she’s always dreamed of, it’s on Christopher’s terms, too.
When Adriana talks about her life, we see she’s been dogged by tragedy long before she met Christopher. Describing an abortion she had, she says. There’s an underlying note to this confession – that her ex-boyfriend must have been worse than her incredibly violent current partner, Christopher – or that she simply doesn’t see Christopher’s behavior as problematic. This blind spot she has for Christopher is apparent throughout the show. In season 4, she has an illuminating conversation with Ralph Cifaretto, one of Tony’s men. The irony is that, by this point, Christopher has abused Adriana for years – yet she still hasn’t realized what kind of a man he is. Even her mom, who can see that Christopher’s bad for Adriana, can’t talk her out of it.
But despite the way he treats her, all Adriana ever wants is to be with Christopher. She’s terrified to tell him that she probably can’t have children – yet she’s honest with him despite knowing he’ll be furious. On multiple occasions, she begs him to leave New Jersey with her and start a new life somewhere they’re no longer at risk. For Adriana, as the show progresses, it’s no longer about the money or the nice things that Christopher’s mob connections allow – all she wants is for them to run away and be safe together. She’s willing to give up all of the comforts she had enjoyed in the past if that’s what it takes to secure her future with Christopher.
When writing about tragic heroes, Aristotle made it clear that their misfortune should arise “not through vice or depravity but by some error of judgment,” and this is indeed what leads to Adriana’s tragic end. We can feel the coming doom of Adriana’s end well before it actually happens, looming over her like a black cloud. The point we realize she really has no hope of a happy ending is when the FBI tricks her into becoming an informant and supplying them with information. And the real tragedy here is how little any of the people involved seem to value her – both her feelings and her life. She meets an undercover agent called Danielle, who gains Adriana’s trust by making her feel like they’re friends – reminding us just how isolated Adriana is most of the time. The agents eventually reveal who Danielle is and what they want from Adriana, backing her into a corner. She’s in an extremely tough position and is terrified for her life. She even begins hallucinating. Meanwhile, they tell her she could be an informant for years – and emotionally manipulate her. Eventually, the pressure becomes too much for Adriana, and she tells Christopher she’s been working with the FBI. In the moment, he placates her, agreeing to run away with her. But episodes prior, when she asked him to go away with her, he said something that echoes through the scene. Ultimately, Christopher’s loyalties don’t lie with Adriana; they never have. So, he goes to Tony and tells him everything.
In Adriana’s final episode, we’re confronted with the shell of a woman she’s become – she’s heavily bruised, dressed in muted colors, her hair scraped back off her face – all of the beauty and light drained from her being. We see her in a hospital gown – she’s developed ulcerative colitis as a result of the intense stress she’s been under – and it seems like she really has hit rock bottom. But during the episode, we’re also given that little glimmer of hope again: when Tony calls her to trick her into getting into the car with Silvio, we watch a sequence where she leaves New Jersey, driving away with a packed bag. Like Adriana, we want so desperately to believe that her story could possibly end with her finally achieving some kind of freedom and, one day, happiness. But, also like Adriana, our hopes are crushed when that ray of hope turns out only to be a daydream, and we’re brought back to earth when we see what really happens: her sitting alongside Silvio in the car, being driven to her brutal death. The murder itself has been called ‘the most gut-wrenching’ of any on the show. Even the Sopranos writers couldn’t bear to watch her die.
Even after all of that, the tragedy of Adriana’s story doesn’t even really end with her death. Her mother is left, never knowing what happened to her. Meanwhile, Christopher uses the way she was killed as leverage with Tony to the point that Tony gets tired of it. As she fades from memory, even Carmela – who suspected foul play and at one point did try to find out what had happened to her – begins to come around to the idea that her disappearance couldn’t have had anything to do with Christopher. With Adriana’s life snuffed out and her story buried, she becomes a footnote in the lives of the other characters, even the person she had loved so much. The tragedy of her arc is compounded when, after she’s murdered, Christopher easily moves on and quickly gets married to someone else – after putting it off for years with her.
The last time we ever see Adriana is in a dream of Carmela’s – when she’s finally reunited with her beloved dog, Cosette. When Christopher accidentally kills Cosette, it devastates Adriana – and Tony, too, who has a peculiar love for animals. Drawing the dog and her owner together again in Carmela’s subconscious is like a confirmation of Adriana’s innocence and Christopher’s culpability – even though everyone may pretend to have moved on, deep in their subconscious, they can’t escape the truth.
The tragedy of Adriana La Cerva is an important aspect of the Soprano’s story because she shows, perhaps more than any other character, how devalued women are in this world. We see brutal violence towards women throughout the show (as well as other aspects of ingrained misogyny). Still, Adriana feels different because no other character continues to hope in the way that she does. Until the very end, she truly believes that there’s a chance she’ll be able to carve out a happy life for herself one day, and so the brutal reality of her end – and her entire arc – feels even more bleak. But it’s this same ability to hold on to her inner goodness that solidifies her place as a tragic heroine: all of her kindness and compassion aren’t enough to save her from the misfortune wrought by a single mistake for which she’s made to pay the ultimate price. Her tragic story provides us with a warning – not that we should give up all hope, but that we must not let our capacity for optimism and belief in the possibility of a better tomorrow cloud our judgment around the often dark realities of our present.
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