There are many books and films and plays about existentialist housewives. Hedda Gabler, Emma Bovary, Thelma Dickinson, April Wheeler from Revolutionary Road. Trapped by duty to something rotten these characters are usually on a highway to hell: driven to nihilistic excess and self-destruction. In The Sopranos, Tony Sopranos’ wife – Carmela – is just such a character. She squirms and wriggles in a cocoon of material comfort, aware that this comfort has come through the illest of means.
But Carmela is never transformed, is never transported to the nirvana of absurdist anomie. Nor does she fall into the clutches of despair. Instead – for the decade of her life which the series covers – she lingers in purgatory. For a decade, she aspires and she worries.
In a dream, she is visited by the ghost of long-dead Adriana La Cerva, her cousin’s fiancé, murdered – unbeknownst to her – at the bequest of her own husband.
‘I worry Aid,’ she says.
‘Everybody worries,’ the spectre says.
‘No. I worry all the time,’ Carmela replies.
Her life is punctuated – but so sparingly – with moments of reprieve from aspiration and worry and when they come along they are so precious, they are such good writing.
The episode where Carmela and her friend Rosalie Aprile visit Paris, for example. Paris in this episode comes to mean two things to Carmela: death and designer goods. As she teeters through the streets in search of a Kelly bag, the pavement becomes a high wire. She glances downwards – only occasionally and fleetingly – into the pit of the pointlessness of it all.
The whole episode is a miracle and much of the miracle is in the muscles of Carmela’s face. It creases – just for a second here and there – in despair and then she rallies, all smiles.
It seems to be history that has her feeling this way. She and Rosalie, lost, walking the streets in the rain, miles from the Louvre, stumble upon the Pont Alexandre III, which crosses the River Seine. Rosalie coos and chuckles at the staggering opulence, at the ornate wrought iron lanterns, the golden statues of winged stallions and cherubs; Carmela is paralysed.
‘Who. Could. Have. Built this?’ she says, quietly.
This image of Carmela standing on the Pont Alexandre III always makes me cry. It doesn’t make me sad for her, or pitying. It makes me feel sad for us all. For the pitiable busy-ness of life itself.
In the foreground what we see is the gigantic head of the nymph of the Neva. Iron and cold and old. The eyes are hooded, averting Carmela’s gaze, as disinterested as the universe.
In the background, Carmela stands with her hands clasped around a guidebook. Her face is filled with so much. Clad in her Chanel finery, she looks suddenly drab and tired and tiny. But not cowed. She looks almost like a little saint. She is rapt and still. There is something childlike about the mixture of curiosity and admiration in her eyes, the tweak of concentration in the corners of her mouth. She seems momentarily satisfied with beauty. You can tell from her face that there is no information interrupting her experience. It’s so true, so lonely. Carmela is somebody who is always so terrified of being small and in the world, but for this brief moment she seems okay with it. Okay with being small and in the world. The best that life – this chasm – can hold for us, is the marvellous. Where can we live but days, and what more can we do but marvel?
Image © Denkrahm