“The Sopranos: A Love Story” would have made for a different marketing campaign, that’s for sure. But for all the fixation on the initial hook of “The Sopranos” — mob boss with a therapist — the show’s core relationship became Tony and Carmela, husband and anything-but-trophy wife, ’til death (quite nearly) do them part.
Underneath all the shouting, cheating and big jewelry emerged a remarkably nuanced portrayal of a marriage, impressing not only fans and critics but marriage and family experts.
“The writing seems so consistently on (target) that whether or not the writers are sort of intelligently thinking about these things, they’re certainly in touch with that struggle,” says San Francisco psychologist Joshua Coleman, senior fellow of the Council on Contemporary Families.
“Most people can relate to Tony and Carmela’s story, even if they can’t relate to the violent sociopathic aspects of Tony’s personality.”
Virginia Rutter, sociology professor at Framingham (Mass.) State College and a CCF fellow who studies marriage and sexuality, has also marveled at the sophisticated depiction.
“It is not just truthful about the dark underbelly, the dark negotiations and sexual desire and tenderness, but we can learn some of both the humility and optimism about relationships,” Rutter says. “Our utopian expectations might be dashed about marriage, but there’s still a lot of hope to be had.”
“Sopranos” executive producer David Chase says that the Tony and Carmela relationship “always has been” the fundamental relationship of the show — even though he harbors slight misgivings about how their story unfolded.
“It was not the smartest thing we ever did, to make Carmela resentful of his mistresses and his work,” Chase says.
“I thought it would be a good idea to have conflict between husband and wife, but I think in fact most wives of wiseguys do not make objections to what their husbands do. … Carmela became sort of a drag and a drudge and a nag, more of that than I wanted.”
Edie Falco, who has won three Emmy awards playing Carmela, nevertheless observes that this path into Tony and Carmela served a purpose.
“I think they reached kind of a stasis in their marriage, where the bickering and the purported unhappiness is as much a (part) of the relationship as anything else, as much as the making up and the gifts,” Falco recalls.
But amid the doubt about whether Tony and Carmela love each other — or even know what love is — “The Sopranos” showed just how intense their bond was, punctuated by a number of scenes of mutual tenderness, passion and respect.
“I think (Tony and Carmela) come from the same place,” says James Gandolfini, a three-time Emmy winner as Tony. “They knew each other when they were kids, they have the same backgrounds, they had a lot of the same traditions, the same way of dealing with things. I think Carmela knows pretty much everything about him — they know everything about each other. If there’s still love after that, that’s still a very attractive thing. That’s a very difficult thing to achieve.”
The clash between their ardor and anger revealed aspects of their marriage both healthy and unhealthy, but most of all, how Tony and Carmela each yearned to find themselves without sacrificing their union in the process.
Coleman notes that though Tony fears losing control, he is subtly aware that the more he gives in, the more resources he finds to draw upon. Meanwhile, Carmela struggles between her desire to assert her independence and her addiction to the material benefits of her marriage and, of course, the love.
“Tony’s drawn to therapy because there’s a depth to that and a positive quality to a deeper examination of that,” Coleman says. “He’s caught by his confusion about what it means to be an American male in the 21st century.
“Carmela says, ‘I’m here. I have things to say.’ It’s a very powerful moment because it’s part of the struggle so many couples are having.”
Perhaps the biggest question for audiences watching Tony and Carmela is how to reconcile Tony’s numerous affairs with the idea that they have a strong marriage. Ultimately, the conflict led them to separate — though not irreconcilably.
“When they have the blowout, it’s an amazing fight,” Rutter says. “Tony says, ‘You knew what you were getting into when you married me — you knew what the deal is with guys like me.’
“So that’s one tricky thing about cheating — in one sense it’s not cheating. I’m not saying it’s not cheating, and Carmela’s not saying it’s not cheating, but it still is a concept that’s up for grabs within the context of this story.”
All in all, Tony and Carmela have given viewers who thought they were watching a gangster story plenty to think about in regards to their own lives. Though the Sopranos’ actions were extreme, their desires and feelings were anything but.