Unlike Edie Falco, who played the wife of HBO’s now-famous mob boss, I watched reruns of The Sopranos without feeling the discomfort that reportedly prevented her from viewing them. Then again, I enjoyed the reruns precisely because of the woman who couldn’t bring herself to watch them.
For me, HBO’s The Sopranos, which ran from 1999 to 2007 and celebrated its 20th anniversary last month, will forever be associated with Edie Falco’s memorable role as Carmela, the long-suffering wife of the volatile and sometimes brutal mobster, Tony Soprano. It remains a mystery throughout the series as to why Carmela, who is an attractive and responsible lady, would tie her fortunes to someone with obvious criminal proclivities. Tony followed his father into the Mafia but rose higher in the ranks. He not only engages in his own extortion activities and multiple killings, he also hangs out every day with his retainers, whom he sends forth to kill, maim, and plunder.
In any case, Carmela sold herself short by marrying this character ably played by the late James Gandolfini. But there’s an upside, including an expensive home in a plush Northern New Jersey neighborhood and tasteful furniture with everything in its place—unless Tony goes into a fit and starts throwing stuff. Carmela also enjoys the prestige that goes with making generous donations to the local Catholic parish.
The Sopranos have a daughter, Meadow, who is both spoiled and beautiful. After a few seasons, Meadow makes it into Columbia, an expense for which Tony happily forks out his ill-gotten wealth. Her younger brother A.J. is the opposite, a troubled teen with self-esteem issues for which Tony (maybe not so happily) forks out his wealth. Not least among her wifely talents, Carmela is a superb Italian cook. Throughout the episodes, which ran from 1999 to 2007, Tony’s relatives and friends (most of whom are similarly employed) feast at the Sopranos’ sumptuous home on Carmela’s fare. She also invites her parents, who are soft-spoken and reserved. The viewer is left wondering how this sedate couple views the other guests at the table.
Unlike most of the one-dimensional psychopaths in the series, Carmela is at least occasionally troubled by her relations with the mob and (pardon the euphemism!) Tony’s line of work. She also notices that gumbas who have offended their colleagues (for example, by wearing a wire for the FBI) have a way of disappearing. For starters, they no longer turn up at parties held at the Sopranos’ home. This was the fate of a one-time frequent dinner guest, Adriana, the fiancee of Tony’s nephew Christopher. In one chaotic episode, this particular lady is rubbed out as an informer. Occasionally, Carmela and Meadow taunt Tony for his criminal associations and for always being “under investigation.” But what may be even more upsetting for Carmela is her husband’s multitude of extramarital affairs. Because of this, she leaves Tony at one point, though it’s hardly surprising when she returns a few episodes later.
Watching Carmela reminded me of a real historical figure, Winifred Wagner, who for decades presided over the Bayreuth music festival and about whom the German writer Brigitte Hammen published a meticulous biography. A plain-looking girl from Hastings who had lived with foster parents, Winifred agreed to marry Siegfried, the middle-aged son of Richard Wagner. Although Winifred’s husband was known to be homosexual, they nonetheless produced four children. The union, it seems, was arranged for the sake of social appearances and in order to produce heirs for the Wagner dynasty.
After her husband’s death in 1930, Winifred directed the Bayreuth festival while enjoying the special protection of her personal friend Adolf Hitler. She and Hitler developed a warm personal connection through their shared interest in Wagnerian music and in promoting gifted artists who could perform the arduous roles demanded by Wagner’s music dramas. The two longtime friends discovered almost simultaneously perhaps the greatest Wagnerian soprano of all time (who is certainly my favorite), the Norwegian Kirsten Flagstad, who in 1934 was invited to sing at Bayreuth.
Winifred and Hitler remained devoted companions after the latter rose to power as one of the most vicious tyrants in European history. It is debatable how much of anything Winifred knew about politics, although she did serve as a translator for German-British negotiations in the 1930s. She clearly didn’t share Hitler’s attitude toward the Jews and managed to save the lives of her favorite Jewish singers at Bayreuth.
After the Third Reich collapsed, nothing untoward befell Winifred, although she was forced to abandon her position at Bayreuth to younger members of the family. As a person of her time and place, Winifred did have her share of prejudices. But there’s no reason to assume that she approved, even if she didn’t care to notice, the bloody wars and mass murder incited by her good friend and fellow-Wagnerian. Winifred may have kept herself deliberately ignorant of certain unpleasant realities that it would have been hard not to be aware of.
In this respect she reminds me of Edie Falco’s Carmela, who also tried to close her eyes to evil in order to carry on with her life and activities. Both women were no doubt concerned about their own status, which they had no desire to risk by reflecting on moral problems too earnestly. Someone commenting on social media observed that Carmela “had the odds stacked against her.” Perhaps less so than Winifred, who came from much humbler circumstances and was less attractive. Unfortunately it’s hard not to notice that these otherwise likable and productive women took advantage of their relationship with non-stop murderers.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.