Since airing in February 1999, The Sopranos’s fifth episode, “College,” has been revered as a television landmark. It not only reinvigorated a moribund medium but affirmed it, once and for all, as nothing short of an art form, laying the foundation for an ongoing “golden age” in small screen storytelling. When people describe “College,” they tend to emphasize one half of its bifurcated story: During a trip to Maine to visit colleges with his daughter, James Gandolfini’s New Jersey mobster, Tony Soprano, spots a former mafioso turned informer. By episode’s end, Tony has garroted the man in retaliation.
“College” announced several elements that quickly became trademarks of creator David Chase’s opus. There was its mobile camerawork and sidewinding story, a bold narrative detour centred around events that deepened the series’s fundamental themes and characterizations without directly propelling the larger plot of its inaugural season. Most memorably, there was the mesmerizing and fully realized tour de force of the late James Gandolfini, whose Herculean performance would mark the advent of a new criterion in episodic screen acting. These feats understandably take precedence in discussions about “College,” though there was another player in the episode whose key contributions helped canonize the HBO drama into a televisual touchstone.
In a dual storyline, Carmela, Tony’s pampered yet guilt-ridden wife, finds herself home alone with her church’s handsome priest, whose spiritual guidance and kind companionship intensify into something more illicit over the course of a dark and stormy night.
Over time, Carmela would evolve from her husband’s cosseted, emotionally neglected helpmate and staunch defender into one of his chief adversaries. Along the way, there would be chaste flirtations with this clergyman, then with a made man. There’d be some light bribery and intimidation, thousands of dollars stolen from Tony’s secret stash, a thwarted divorce, a stop-start real estate career, and plenty of marital anguish. But before all of that, there was “College.” By affording Carmela’s contrition and moment of (ultimately unconsummated) temptation the same amount of screen time as Tony’s act of vengeance, Chase and episode co-writer James Manos Jr. ensured viewers knew that the character’s multi-season arc would be just as crucial, engrossing, and psychologically intricate as her husband’s.
On this front, Chase and his collaborators were aided in no small part by a little-known thirty-five-year-old actress who had come up on the fringes of New York’s independent film scene. Throughout eight years and eighty-six episodes, Edie Falco would simultaneously play and authenticate Carmela Soprano with a combination of skill, discipline, and nerve that have become the hallmark of this sublime actor.
Like many of the East Coast peers she would act with on The Sopranos, Falco experienced a slow, uncertain rise. Upon graduating from the acting conservatory at SUNY Purchase in 1986, she popped up in a series of indies during the early to mid-’90s, done by homegrown New York directors including Hal Hartley, Nick Gomez, and Abel Ferrara. In the lean years, in between parts, she waitressed, struggled with alcoholism, and found solace in Buddhism. In 1997, she starred as Marge Gunderson, immortalized by Frances McDormand in Fargo, for a television adaptation of the Coen brothers’ crime drama that was quickly scrapped after an initial pilot. That same year, as the ensemble of The Sopranos was being assembled with character actors both seasoned and untested, Falco was in the middle of her three-season tenure as a guard on HBO’s prison saga Oz.
For Chase and his casting directors Sheila Jaffe and Georgianne Walken, Carmela Soprano proved the hardest role to cast, a complicit suburban housewife with a mindset just as roiling and agitated as her capo husband’s. In the days leading up to the pilot’s production, the role was still unfilled. Lorraine Bracco, who would go on to play Tony’s riveted and repulsed psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, turned down the part. She felt the character shared too much DNA with her performance as decadent mob wife Karen Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, the closest thing to a forerunner to Chase’s series.
After gradually building a reputation as a go-to embodier of unglamorous, hardscrabble women, Falco was far from an obvious fit for the primped and spoiled Carmela. “I would have cast me as Dr. Melfi, but, luckily, I was not in charge,” Falco told Vanity Fair in 2012. She assumed the role would be snatched up by a more famous Italian-American actress—a Marisa Tomei or an Annabella Sciorra. (The latter would eventually and unforgettably guest star on the series as an unhinged, ill-fated mistress of Tony’s.) Yet something in Falco sparked with the familiarity of the part. As she told author Brett Martin in Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: “Maybe it’s because I’m part Italian, or grew up in Long Island, but I read the part and thought, ‘I know exactly who this woman is. I can feel her already.’” After reading just two scenes in her audition, Falco slipped out of her Oz police uniform and donned the silk blouses, French tips, and shield of gold jewellery that would make up Carmela Soprano’s signature style.
Falco sports Carmela’s flashy exteriors with the complete credibility of a natural-born chameleon. But what first stands out about the character is not what she wears, but what she says. “What’s different between you and me is you’re going to hell when you die,” Carmela tells Tony as he prepares for an MRI in the aftermath of his first of several panic attacks during the pilot. She’s confronting him with the full and unforgiving awareness of his ongoing adultery, the kept “goumadas” who will drive a wedge into their marriage during the show’s run. Falco spits this line out with all the venomous pique she can muster, her Jersey accent thick and strident. (It’s no wonder this barb was revisited in subsequent seasons.) Another performer might have only conveyed the anger of this exchange, but it’s what Falco does after the line that clues us into Carmela’s emotional complexity and steers the character away from the carping and castrating wife stereotype that has plagued many stories, mob-affiliated or otherwise. Seconds later, Falco’s face sinks with remorse, and as Tony slides into the MRI machine, Carmela offers him a conciliatory hand. Falco’s symbiotic chemistry with Gandolfini, a man she claims to have hardly known outside the fervency of their on-camera union, is immediate and indispensable here.
For many viewers at the time, The Sopranos was their introduction to Falco and Gandolfini, two obscure and atypical stars who had spent years batting around the industry, untied to any one image. For most viewers, Gandolfini and Falco will always and only be Tony and Carmela, so firm and deeply felt is their bond. “He was totally un-actor-y, and was incredibly self-deprecating, and he was a real soul mate in that regard,” Falco told The New Yorker about her late acting partner in 2021. “We did not spend a lot of time talking about the scripts. It was like when you see two kids playing in the sandbox, completely immersed in their imaginary world. That’s what it felt like acting opposite Jim.” In the pilot episode, Carmela informs Tony during a dinner date: “I’m getting my wine in position to throw in your damn face.” Minutes later, she lavishes him with giddy praise for starting therapy. Here, unmistakably, is a real, warts-and-all marriage; a perpetual battle between ardour and rancour, enacted so casually in Falco’s quicksilver moods and the way Gandolfini engages and evades her, assuming he knows all there is to know about this woman yet jittery that, one day soon, she may figure him out too.
Such moments also cut to the core of Carmela’s contradictory identity and fundamental dilemma as a frustrated homemaker with repressed desires, a loyal wife who has suffered endless slights from an adulterous husband she cannot bring herself to leave, a devout and conscience-stricken Catholic who owes the spoils of her upwardly mobile lifestyle to blood money and an endless cycle of immorality, and a smart, self-assured woman who has sacrificed all of her potential for a humdrum home life spent in the service of unappreciative spouse and spoiled kids. “That a woman of your intelligence is content to ask so little from life and from herself… I don’t know,” Tony’s rebellious sister Janice tells Carmela in the season two episode “Commendatori,” in which Tony and his crew jet to Sicily on a business trip, leaving behind his resentful wife. Though Carmela laughs off Janice’s intervention, the private moment that follows, capturing the grin slipping from Falco’s face and the grimace of wounded discomfort that takes its place, signals that this lack of fulfillment has nagged Carmela far longer than she perhaps even realized. Early in the series, when Carmela fervently defends her position in this corrupt hierarchy, her body resists such allegiance, revealing the apprehension that goes unuttered.
This reaction is classic Falco. She is an actor of redoubtable economy who can capture a feeling and distill it into a gesture or a single glance, her face the magnificent terrain upon which so much of the character’s transformation subtly plays out. Few actors have ever thrived in the solitude of an extreme close-up like Falco. So many shots of her, close-up or otherwise, show nothing more than Carmela in active and extended thought, the minute changes in her visage the only action unfolding on-screen. To watch the shifts, both micro and macro, in Falco’s magnified expressions is to understand the character’s internal changes on a gut level; the viewer detects Carmela’s mounting anxiety and private ache in Falco’s early physicalization of the character long before she finally utters them later in the series. Carmela’s clever, curse-laden rejoinders were always a delight, enhanced by the guttural punch of Falco’s tough-broad deliveries, each word wrapped in barbed wire. (Whether wailing with jagged cries or tartly calling Tony’s bluff, Falco’s voice is an expressive tool of clear and commanding eloquence, not to mention a unique and underrated pleasure.) But Falco tells another story beneath the language of her scenes, enabling Carmela’s surfaces to contain and convey the entirety of her private world. There is an innate power to these moments, rooted in an idea, expressed cinematically by Dorothy Arzner, Kinuyo Tanaka, George Cukor, Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Chantal Akerman in their time, that a woman’s conflicted inner life is a monumental subject and thus story enough for a dramatic work.
Those who write about and worship the angst-ridden male antiheroes of the twenty-first century’s cable dramas have not always shared this view, loath to afford Tony Soprano’s, Don Draper’s, and Walter White’s wives the same curiosity and respect. In 2013, Breaking Bad actress Anna Gunn responded to the rabid misogyny that her character Skyler, the conflicted though ultimately conniving spouse of a drug kingpin, prompted from scores of internet trolls. In a New York Times op-ed, Gunn wondered, “Could it be that [these critics] can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or ‘stand by her man’? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, [her husband’s] equal?” Similarly, fans of mob dramas have often regarded wives who question and flout their husbands’ authority, who dare to behave as though they are their spouses’ equal, like mares in need of bridling; when I attended a 2017 anniversary screening of the first two Godfather films at Radio City Music Hall, a sizable contingent of the audience burst into hearty applause each time Michael Corleone closed the door on his inquiring, insubordinate wife Kay (Diane Keaton).
Then again, Kay Corleone and Skyler White were secondary and primarily reactive characters enriched by gifted actresses. Carmela Soprano is the bridge connecting these women and the only one who fully transcends their shared archetype. Unlike her forebear and descendant, Carmela was never written as a stock character. But it was Falco, physically grounded and psychologically direct from the beginning, who cemented her existential significance.
The early seasons of The Sopranos establish a Jeanne Dielman–esque monotony to Carmela’s daily activities, framing her in familiar poses of gendered domesticity. How often have we witnessed Carmela seemingly trapped behind the kitchen island, brewing espresso and offering various breakfast foods to her taciturn husband and children? Or seated at the dining room table, straining to be a merry hostess over tense Sunday dinners? Or bursting into her children’s bedrooms, ready to chide them for their misbehaviour? Falco’s presence amid these chores—plus her equally routinized lunches and get-togethers with her cohort of fellow mob wives—puts one in mind of Judith Butler’s theories on gender performativity, which, as elaborated by the writer in a 1992 Artforum interview, “has to do with repetition, very often with the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms to force them to resignify.”
From the outset, these norms are a source of contentment and consternation for Carmela, nudging her towards flickers and then full-fledged acts of defiance. Falco sows the seeds of Carmela’s rebellion in the home—evident in the grimaces that greet Tony as he lumbers into the kitchen after a night at the Bada Bing or the seething retorts that she seldom holds back during familial squabbles—without ever breaking the patterns of her housework and daily routines. In this, Carmela reminds us that performativity, according to Butler, “is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in,” a trap that Tony, through his refusal to let his wife work, has coerced Carmela into occupying. A performer less dynamic than Falco might have allowed Carmela’s very character to get lost in the shuffle of her day-to-day tedium. But Falco’s unrelenting intensity foregrounds Carmela’s frustration at every turn, her prickliness and self-assertiveness the defence mechanisms of a woman chafing at the dreariness of the demands placed on her as a stay-at-home wife and mother.
At times, Falco’s performance assumes a certain heaviness, an air of desperation, that can make one wince, daring us to look away from Carmela’s states of lassitude, sullenness, and rage. It’s a rage just as titanic as Gandolfini’s yet one that manifests both in Falco’s compact frame and her pinched and puckered glare, its varying levels of severity constituting the grammar of the performance. This effect can be unnerving: think of Carmela badgering her friend Rosalie Aprile over dinner on their trip to Paris in season six, pushing her towards a killjoy conversation about her dead husband and slain son until she explodes. There is a vibrating, keyed-up quality to Carmela in these moments that derives from Falco’s conception of the character. This fearless, full-body approach grants Carmela a constant visibility, but it also makes Falco her character’s fiercest advocate, ensuring that the character will not recede into the decor like many a mob wife before—that attention will be paid her.
What makes Falco’s approach fascinating is the elusiveness of its origins. Falco called on her internal knowledge of women like Carmela, those she clocked and scrutinized in the commuter belt of Long Island, to inhabit a character highly unlike herself. But awareness of Carmela’s type only skims the surface of Falco’s artistry. Her performances always appear to be lined with lived experience, as though her characters have built a home inside her; then again, Falco herself has admitted that she seldom dwells inside the psyches of the people she portrays for any longer than required. Whereas Gandolfini sustained a furtive, Method-like approach to Tony in order to reach his towering dramatic heights season after season, and suffered some of its real-life torments as a result, Falco maintains that she acts from a place of gut instinct, as opposed to one of uniform process or active intellection. “I was in such awe of what the writers could do that it would never occur to me to have ideas about my character’s arc,” Falco told The Guardian in 2018 about her tenure on The Sopranos, which she frequently confesses she has never actually watched beyond a handful of episodes. “I often didn’t understand how Carmela fit into the larger picture, but I believed that somebody did, and I also knew that wasn’t my job.”
Falco is prone to playing down her own achievements in interviews like this; she would be the first to deny any sense of authorship in her acting. But her performance is so attuned and authoritative that she becomes our foremost guide into the character through the potency of her living, breathing, and thinking being. Take what might be considered a trivial exchange, set during a scene in season three’s “Amour Fou,” in which Carmela and her fellow mob wives discuss Hillary Clinton over lunch. At first, Carmela rebuffs Rosalie Aprile’s suggestion that they model themselves on their betrayed First Lady: “What, to be humiliated in public and then walk around smiling all the time?” she groans. “That is so false.” But as her fellow helpmates make the case for Clinton as a woman who managed to rise to power in the wake of her husband’s adultery—or, as another friend puts it, “took all that negative shit… and spun it into gold”—Carmela’s view changes dramatically; Falco’s gaze turns inward as she slowly, even grimly comes to the conclusion that Clinton “is a role model for all of us.”
Falco builds a small but substantial arc for Carmela in the span of this just-under-two-minute scene, in which her distaste for Hillary’s ambition morphs into one of reluctant identification. This is a canny, critical portrayal of white neoliberal feminism in the service of a character with a complicated relationship to feminism, one who outright rejects such a label. (“Women are supposed to be partners nowadays,” Carmela gripes in season four before prevaricating: “I’m not a feminist, I’m not saying fifty-fifty, but Jesus.”) Neither Falco nor the writers explicate Carmela’s sudden change in opinion during that Hillary conversation, but the reasons are there in the scenes and seasons to follow: they’re present in Carmela’s see-sawing real estate career (introduced in that same episode), her tenacious and at times duplicitous pursuit of financial autonomy, and her eventual search for freedom from the sclerotic marriage that has inhibited her growth. In that single exchange, Falco quietly and shrewdly plants the seeds for many decisions Carmela will make henceforth.
Falco may not have operated from a process as shrouded in lore as Gandolfini’s, but she was hardly immune to the strains of enacting the volatile spats in Tony and Carmela’s decaying marriage: “Occasionally I would get a sharp twinge at the back of my neck, because, especially if I’m tired, the emotional lines would bleed into each other and I’d have to kind of keep my bearings and remember, No, no, no, this is your job, and at home you have your life,” she told Vanity Fair. Falco’s physical difference from Carmela allowed her to wriggle free from her on-screen counterpart and keep a healthy distance from the show in her daily life, a privilege that the easily recognizable, six-foot-one Gandolfini was never afforded. In the years since The Sopranos, the actress’s relative anonymity, which is to say her lack of self-serving vanity, has helped her blend into numerous ensembles and slip in and out of roles with great, unassuming ease, from the dour, disenchanted Florida motelier of John Sayles’s ensemble drama Sunshine State to the pill-popping, hard-as-nails Nurse Jackie to the raving schizophrenic wife in the 2011 Broadway revival of The House of Blue Leaves to the Menendez brothers’ obsessive defence attorney Leslie Abramson on Law & Order True Crime. In 2021, Falco even played an ascendant Hillary Clinton on American Crime Story: Impeachment, meta-casting that blatantly draws on the legacy of Carmela Soprano—one brooding and betrayed wife reaching out to bolster another.
Yet Carmela remains Falco’s most enduring on-screen alter ego, the crystallization of her mysterious genius. Her consummate command over the character doesn’t implore us to decipher or evaluate her choices in the moment but emits an air of “How did she do that?” wonder in the wake of our initial viewing. Gandolfini tends to get all the credit for leaning into the unsavoury components of his antiheroic protagonist, deservedly so, but Falco dug just as deeply into Carmela’s bedrock of contradictions and immoral behaviour, and with equal gusto. I shudder whenever I recall Carmela strong-arming her neighbour’s sister, a distinguished lawyer, into writing an unmerited college recommendation for her daughter, Meadow. That sense of second-hand mortification is increased tenfold during Carmela’s homophobic rant after Meadow’s college roommates bring up the queer implications of Billy Budd, so strongly has she identified Melville’s dashing sailor with Furio, a Neapolitan associate of Tony’s with whom Carmela pursues a fervent yet fruitless flirtation. But even when Carmela sinks to her most self-delusional and unsympathetic, Falco preserves her connection to the audience by using her emotional transparency to carefully accentuate the character’s intent. Carmela’s actions can be untenable, but Falco compels us to understand the reservoirs of heartache from which they spring, the lack that spurs her to lash out.
The earnestness of Falco’s playing during these contretemps, indelibly illustrated by the dogged conviction in Carmela’s bulging and endlessly reactive eyes, presents a thought-provoking ambiguity: Is Carmela even aware of her own hectoring and unscrupulous nature, or is she simply immune to restraint when it comes to matters pertaining to husband, home, and heart? Carmela’s calculating streak comes to an apotheosis in season five when, during a separation from Tony, she attempts a sexual relationship with the guidance counsellor of her son, A.J. When Carmela complains about A.J.’s failing grade on a paper, going so far as to withhold sex from her new bedmate, the counsellor gets it raised, only to later accuse Carmela of deploying her sexuality as a means of manipulation on her son’s behalf. She seems genuinely shocked by the allegation, as she so often is by any implication of personal fault. It is Falco, specifically, who closes up the space between the character’s wrongdoing and her understanding of these murky actions. Falco very rarely plays Carmela as cunning, much less self-aware, choosing instead to foreground her sincere hurt when confronted by allegations of her skilled deceit. Falco embodies ambiguity, trusting in the viewer to understand the psychological depth that is implied rather than tidily diagnosed, existing beneath a facade inclined to explode.
Falco’s protean ability to swing back and forth from the placid to the volcanic and scale the full extent of her dramatic register is formidable, whether making a half-hearted suicide threat to Tony in calm yet weary tones or delivering an excoriating rant at her wicked mother-in-law’s wake, her high dudgeon threatening to cremate the woman all on its own. In “Second Opinion,” a showcase episode for Falco from the third season that marks a seminal point in Carmela’s storyline, so much of the character’s long-festering shame and indignation simmer below as Carmela pressures Tony to make an exorbitant donation to Columbia to ensure Meadow’s academic success there. Later in the episode, she is told in no uncertain terms by a no-bullshit therapist that she must leave her husband and surrender the comforts funded by his criminality if she is ever to lead an honourable life.
The slack-jawed look on Falco’s face, punctuated by the fine-grained precision with which her pupils dilate ever so slightly from one shot to the next in her therapy session, attest to Carmela’s dawning comprehension that she stands no chance of redemption should she remain her husband’s enabler. Elsewhere in the episode, Falco makes demands and gets results without raising her voice a single octave and sheds tears without heaving histrionics, privileging the difficult truths of Carmela’s revelation over any actorly need to impress; here and across the more than eighty hours of television that surround it, there is not a self-indulgent instinct to be found in Falco’s entire characterization. “Second Opinion” ends, post–therapy session, with a minor victory (Carmela gets the donation), an inevitable concession (she resumes her wifely role as Tony offers to take her to dinner), and a near-tragic instance of repression that will have ramifications far into the series.
These ramifications come to bear in the peak of Falco’s performance and possibly the series as a whole. In the season four finale, “Whitecaps,” Carmela discovers another of Tony’s affairs, this one far closer to home than she anticipated, and puts a fiery and abrupt end to their marriage. The greatest actors are able to honour the intentions of a script while simultaneously making their own meanings through the sheer force of their performance, and Falco’s work in this episode is one of the fullest realizations of such a possibility. As Carmela ambushes her husband and bats away his desperate recriminations, Falco is wide-eyed with rage, but also something like white-hot exhilaration. Laughing with grim disbelief one moment and then vigorously wiping away mascara-streaked tears the next, she gives paradoxical significance to the character in a searing confrontation that finds her finally able to unburden herself after years of Tony’s humiliations, wringing her body free of the despair it has long suppressed.
In Falco’s hands, what we watch becomes not so much a breakup as an exorcism. Every time I revisit “Whitecaps,” I am confounded as if for the first time by the extremity of Falco’s incarnation; the image of a sweat-slicked Carmela’s huffing with ragged and near-ecstatic release after Tony pushes her against a wall to protect himself from her lunges is seared into my brain. Later in the episode, as Carmela tells Tony about her love for Furio and how close she came to violating their marriage, Falco’s cold, radiant expression, fighter’s stance, and cutting speech signal that Carmela relishes watching her husband squirm with jealousy. At long last, Carmela gets to play the torturer in her uneven marriage and if she seems to delectate in such exhibitionistic cruelty, it is only because melancholy has hardened her beyond recall. Through Falco’s playing, the unvarnished immediacy of live theatre interpenetrates the fine, up-close distinctions of on-camera acting.
That these performances have assumed their rightful place in the canon of television acting is a testament to Falco and Gandolfini’s peerless work as well as a reminder that both performers brought new reputability to the small screen, authenticating it as a working actor’s oasis. In the years during The Sopranos and following its finale, television saw a sudden migration of mid-career actresses who had decisively decamped from the film industry in hopes of finding regular, more multidimensional work on the small screen. It makes sense that the likes of Kyra Sedgwick, Glenn Close, Mary-Louise Parker, Robin Wright, and Viola Davis—and even Oscar-anointed megastars like Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet, and Reese Witherspoon—were lured to the medium by the prospect of tackling a sprawling and nuanced character arc, like that of Carmela Soprano, and an opportunity to exhibit their own range, as Falco did to the tune of three Emmys. When Anna Gunn auditioned to play Breaking Bad’s Skyler, the actress was promised by series creator Vince Gilligan that the initially underwritten character was going to be “Carmela Soprano but… in on the crime.”
The life-of-crime narrative that Gunn’s Skyler ultimately adopts owes a massive debt to Chase and Falco’s construction of Carmela. Carmela never fired a gun or discovered where, exactly, the money came from, and yet the portrait of penitent immorality resonated with viewers eager to plumb the nitty-gritty, hypocritical contradictions of the character. Carmela’s story, the tale of a woman dissatisfied by her domestic station but ultimately unable to rise above it, always belonged more in the realm of that oft-misunderstood genre, the heartfelt melodrama, than the sordid crime thriller.
Remove the silver chains and dangling crucifix from Carmela’s neck and her situation recalls the repressed and ravished heroines who populated Sirk’s Universal women’s films of the 1950s, tearjerkers whose stinging cultural critiques were leavened with voluptuous feeling from the women at their centres. This is perhaps most apparent in a pivotal season five scene taken right from the Sirkian handbook. In the episode “Unidentified Black Males,” Carmela watches from her bedroom window as Tony, from whom she is separated, floats uninvited in their pool. She is overcome with emotion, both at the news of Meadow’s surprise engagement but also for her dashed hopes of personal freedom and financial support from her husband, who has deadlocked divorce proceedings. As Falco’s tearful despondency takes hold, the viewer watches Carmela at long last realize what she is and always will be: a prisoner of choice in a cage of her own design, beholden to a man who knows she is far too craven to seek a solitary life less cushy than the one he has gifted her. Falco’s performance in this scene throws these criticisms into relief. But it also moves me with an immediacy that I can only attribute to Falco and the extent to which she has wormed Carmela under our skin. Falco exposes the flimsiness of Carmela’s pride—yet rather than punishing the character for her faults, she finds the necessary pathos in her failure to change.
Like Tony, Carmela possesses the intellectual capacity to examine her flaws but too little of the bravery and backbone required to actually correct them. Tony’s brush with death in season six may have renewed Carmela’s dumb yet intransigent commitment to her husband, but the series concludes not with the solidification of their love, but a slow, less decisive drift apart as Carmela finds increased success in real estate ventures largely subsidized by Tony. Although Carmela’s ability to envision and pursue a life for herself outside of Tony’s world gradually diminished with each passing season, Falco’s own virtuosic abilities and commitment to honesty stayed true until the series’s ambiguous end. Sitting in a diner booth on the eve of Tony’s likely indictment, suffering more of A.J.’s whiny self-pity, Carmela looks as nettled and impatient as ever, perhaps all too eager to get back to her trade and leave her husband and kids to fend for themselves once and for all.
Like the best acting, which is to say like the best art, Falco’s embodiment of Carmela raises questions and teases possibilities rather than arriving at easy moral conclusions. Though season three’s pitiless therapist offers her an easy out, there can never be any easy answers for a character like Carmela, whose life is one of constant negotiation between shame and rationalization. Is it any wonder that so many of Falco’s greatest scenes find the character in intense contemplation, reassessing how much neglect, contempt, and disappointment she can stomach for designer duds and a spacious house to fill with her loneliness? I think again of Falco’s eyes—that narrowed, heavy-lidded gaze that she lent to Carmela as a kind of armour, signalling a sangfroid easily set ablaze.
Falco’s courageous and clear-sighted performance revolves around a single, shiver-inducing question posed to the self: Have I missed out on the chance of a better life? “You raised two gorgeous kids. You got a husband that loves you. You made us a beautiful home,” Tony tells Carmela in season five after her plan of building a spec home is briefly thwarted. “Doesn’t that count for something?” Every restless bone in Falco’s body, as exhibited across seven seasons, tells us that it never will.