Fabulous Friday: Characterization in Carmella Soprano

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While re-watching an episode of The Sopranos, (because that’s what I do, apparently, when I cancel Netflix, watch something on Amazon), I was struck by how beautifully the story is told.

First of all, I love James Gandolfini. I’m not one prone to celebrity worship, but I was saddened by his death and thought that the world was just a little less bright for the loss of him. He was Tony Soprano. His rough-and-tumble accent, his imperfect teeth, and the way his face would draw lines that defined not only a Mafioso badass, but also the goofy kid in a middle-aged man’s body.

It was that combination, the badass and the jokester, that drew audiences in and drove the show. It’s been years since I’ve seen the later episodes, but on first watch, I found myself watching his downward spiral and being horrified. Acts of violence were interspersed with acts of tenderness and silliness.

Good writing is, in essence, emotional manipulation, and the writers of the Sopranos excelled at it.

But it was two scenes with Carmela Soprano that really drove home the point of power of small actions driving characterization.

In the third episode of the first season, we see Carmela’s being buddy-buddy with Charmaine Bucco, the wife of Tony’s childhood friend, Artie. While they aren’t exactly equals, they are at least within a peer group. Charmaine and Artie own a very popular restaurant, and they’re not doing too bad for themselves, financially speaking.

But then the restaurant burned down, and the Buccos find themselves in dire straits because the insurance company is lagging on payment.  Carmela, in a fit of “charity,” gets Charmaine and Artie a job catering a big fund-raising function at the Soprano’s house.

In the set up scene, Charmaine witnesses Carmella doing a motion with her perfectly manicured fingers, a “come hither” motion to the maid who is occupied fighting with a vacuum cleaner.

“She’s usually so good,” Carm whispers to Charmaine. It’s a gesture that denotes superiority and sameness of those behind the hand, and inferiority and otherness to the maid who is being summoned. The hand is a wall, separating “us” from “them.”

This gesture is later repeated toward Charmaine, and she finds that she has crossed the line and is on the “other” side of the hand, moving her from peer group to servant.

This action sets up further plot points, but this small encapsulated space, this repeated gesture, says so much about Carmella, and without very much dialogue at all. From this scene, it is clear that Carmella respects status and makes clear distinctions between “us” and “them.” Carmella has traded her camaraderie for  hierarchy, and displays her shallowness for Charmaine and viewers alike.

This is great characterization: subtle actions which communicate more than they say on the surface level. Great characterization is layering of attributes: making the viewer or reader love or hate or pity a character.

I didn’t particularly like or pity Carmella during the show’s run, but I never, ever felt apathetic toward her, and that is the cardinal sin of characterization: apathy.

It’s a fate worse than swimming with the fishes.

I didn’t particularly like or pity Carmella during the show’s run, but I never, ever felt apathetic toward her, and that is the cardinal sin of characterization: apathy.

It’s a fate worse than swimming with the fishes.

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