How "The Sopranos" elevated and complicated the mob wife

Juicy Couture tracksuits, gaudy gold jewelry and French acrylic nails -- Adriana and Carmela ran "The Sopranos"

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published January 13, 2024 1:30PM (EST)

Michael Imperioli as Christopher Moltisanti and Drea de Matteo as Adriana La Cerva star in HBO's hit television series, "The Sopranos" (Year 3). (Photo by HBO/Getty Images)
Michael Imperioli as Christopher Moltisanti and Drea de Matteo as Adriana La Cerva star in HBO's hit television series, "The Sopranos" (Year 3). (Photo by HBO/Getty Images)

The following contains spoilers for "The Sopranos," which premiered 25 years ago.

"The Sopranos" premiered 25 years ago, and as new generations find the Shakespearean-inspired mob story, the show's alluring female characters stand out from those found in the usual gangster films.

In the series, New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) struggles to balance his home life and being the leader of a criminal organization, turning to therapy sessions with a psychiatrist. "The Sopranos" really shines when it focuses on the nuances of Tony's home life through his love for his family: his homemaker wife Carmela (Edie Falco), his rebellious son AJ (Robert Iler), his academically inclined daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and his "cousin" and protégé Christopher (Michael Imperioli).

"The Sopranos," turned the vapid stereotype on its head through Carmela.

But the series also put the spotlight on the women in ways we hadn't seen before. While mobster movies like "Goodfellas" and "The Godfather" portray wives and girlfriends as props of the men's lavish lifestyle, wealth and success, "The Sopranos" allows its audience to peek behind the curtain into the internal world and dilemmas of those women. Television offered more time onscreen to dive deeper into each female character, allowing them to be nuanced and complicated women — not mere status symbols or accessories. Creator David Chase said that when he imagined the show, it would have "really good roles for women."

The men and their crimes are the surface-level appeal in "The Sopranos," but characters like Tony's wife, Carmela and Christopher's girlfriend and eventual fiancée Adriana (Drea de Matteo), are the pulsing heart of the series. The show becomes so much more than its toxic, hyper-masculine mob violence through the women's perspectives as the women closest to criminal men. It's through these lead female characters that the audiences see how the vapid role of a mob wife or fiancée can be so much more than that. And how for the most part, the lifestyle that they trade their freedom for has grave, fatal consequences.

Lavish lifestyles and ambitious aspirations

James Gandolfini; Edie FalcoJames Gandolfini as Tony Soprano and Edie Falco as Carmela Soprano seek counseling in HBO's hit television series, "The Sopranos" (Year 3). (Photo by HBO/Getty Images)In the most stereotypical portrayals, mob wives or love interests are known for their life of opulence and style. One might recall the expensive slinky satin gown and the jewels draped on Michelle Pfeiffer's character Elvira in "Scarface." Mob wives exude that conspicuous luxury, and therefore have a knack for shopping and fashion to help them keep up appearances. Internally, they are as shallow as a kiddie pool, always used as plot devices or damsels in distress. As an audience, we revel in characters like this. They exist as our gateway into their fictional lives of wealth and access. It's why the characters are largely associated with their iconic images decades beyond a film's shelf life.

But "The Sopranos," turned the vapid stereotype on its head through Carmela who on the surface may seem like she's just about appearances but is working tirelessly behind the scenes. Even though she is married to a mobster, she largely stays out of his business because she is busy running her household. She is a typical housewife with a beautiful, large New Jersey home and two kids. She always has a perfect blowout, fresh from the salon, French nails and a Juicy Couture and Fila tracksuit to match. She's got all the makings of an upper-class stay-at-home mom. 

When she's not tending to her kids and Tony's every need, she's shopping with her daughter and friends — her clothes and aesthetics inspired by Italian designers like Pucci, Adrianna Vittadini and Robert Cavalli. Or she's receiving pity gifts from Tony like a massive sapphire ring for her birthday and a matching necklace at Christmas, a top-of-the-line Porsche, and an extravagant fur coat. The gifts are never-ending just like Tony's faults in their marriage. And the gifts are almost always illegally obtained by Tony or one of his goons.

As Tony moves up the ladder, he becomes increasingly entrenched in the lifestyle and the bad behavior that comes along with it. And Carmela knows the position she is in. She's been in this with him for decades. She accepts gift after gift, affair after affair just like a doting housewife should. In the episode "Whitecaps," the couple have an explosive fight and are on the brink of divorce. After she finds out about another one of his affairs, she tells Tony that buying her a beach house is just "like a big emerald ring" that he got for her birthday. Another gift to shut her up. Tony towering over Carmela says, "Where do you get off acting surprised and miffed when there are women on the side? You knew the deal." She knows the freedom she's signed away for simply being his wife.

Eventually, when the couple reconciles, he pays to build her a spec house to be allowed back into their house. He gives her pricier and pricier gifts, and he continues to do basically whatever he wants to with no objection from Carmela. She has what she wants but not fully what she needs from Tony.

Whereas Christopher's girlfriend Adriana is accustomed to the mob lifestyle because she's grown up seeing it in her family. Adriana is seemingly nice but exceedingly shallow and materialistic. Like Carmela, she is also always dripping in gold jewelry and designer fashions, and wants the kind of grand lifestyle Tony and Carmela have.

Carmela and Adriana form a close relationship, finding solace in their mutual understanding of complicated, violent men. And because Christopher is Tony's protégé, with time, the young couple aspires to mirror the married one. One day, Adriana hopes to get the life she's dreamed of, which includes more expensive cars, designer shoes, jewelry and clothes. But the young couple struggles to get there, living in a crappy apartment with Adriana working as a hostess, as they blow through their money on drugs and partying.

Adriana and Carmela have also been able to level up their materialistic lifestyle, benefitting from and Christopher's access to power and social standings in their mob community. When Carmela gets bored of the housewife life, she wants to start flipping houses, and while Tony is a pain about her working, he pulls some strings for her.

On the other hand, Adriana gets a taste of the high life with Christopher; the access to drugs and partying keep her coming back for more. But she’s also ambitious and craves to be a business owner. So Christopher acquires a bar called the Lollipop Lounge through a person who owes the family a debt. She renames the bar Crazy Horse and turns it into a successful venue where indie rock bands perform.

The price paid

The Sopranos James Gandolfini Edie FalcoJames Gandolfini And Edie Falco of "The Sopranos" (Getty Images)

But all these material gains mean that they've traded their personal goals and independent lives to tolerate abuse. There is always a price to pay, and this is where Chase and his writers find the richness of their characters. Carmela didn't always want to be a housewife. She dropped out of college even though her passions have always been in real estate development. But she chose to marry Tony and have a family instead. It's why she stresses the importance of an education to her children, especially her daughter Meadow. Carmela spends a lot of the series resentful of her choices, jealous of women who had the opportunity to go to school and start their own businesses.

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All these material gains mean that they've traded their personal goals and independent lives to tolerate abuse.

This resentment builds and leads to an emotionally abusive relationship with Tony as he continues to have affairs that she pretends don't exist. But the dynamics in their relationship shift when Tony finds out that Carmela has a crush on a member of the mob family, Furio (Federico Castelluccio). This leads to a brutal fight in “Whitecaps" that's frightening because Tony almost hits Carmela. She tells him, "What, you want to hit me, Tony? Go ahead. Just go away, please. I can't stand it anymore," adding, "I know you better than anyone,Tony, even your friends. That’s probably why you hate me.”

Drea De Matteo; Michael ImperioliActors Michael Imperioli & Drea De Matteo in scene from HBO cable TV series The Sopranos. (Anthony Neste/Getty Images)Meanwhile, Adriana is on the receiving end of brutal and violent behavior from Christopher who goes through periods of addiction and recovery throughout the show. Christopher's actor Michael Imperioli said, “The most brutal, difficult stuff for me is when Christopher had to be physically abusive with Adriana, for obvious reasons."

When he is under the influence, Christopher flips like a switch. In the episode “The Strong, Silent Type,” Christopher beats Adriana for suggesting he get clean from his heroin addiction, and that’s not the first time he’s laid his hands on her either. But in the most harrowing episode of the series, "Long Term Parking," he almost strangles her to death when it is discovered she is a mole for the FBI. It's a brutal assault on Adriana who is riddled with guilt for being an informant but ultimately wants out of a life that is so wrapped up in criminality and endless pain. So Christopher tricks her into thinking they’ll run away together, and it ultimately leads to her ruthless killing by an associate of Tony's.

Ultimately, “The Sopranos” added to the prestige television boom, earning respect for creating art on the small screen. Women got to be all shades: kind, supportive but selfish and materialistic while also being human, having desires to be successful, loved and seen outside their romantic counterparts. The downside is that they fell into the trap of servicing dominant, violent and power-hungry men.

In characters like Adriana and Carmela, the show broadened the audience's preconceived notions of what a mob wife looked like. And 25 years later, these characters set the gold standard of what it looks like to be the few women at the center of a series so centered on the animalistic, aggressive ways of mob men.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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