homer & marge & tony & carm
what would it mean for marge simpson or carmela soprano to move on to the next life, partnerless?
A friend texted me last night:
And because I have brain worms and couldn’t stop thinking about this if I tried, here we are.
I watched this amazing video essay recently from Lola Sebastian on Marge Simpson and the futility of the sitcom wife. She’s destined to repeat her domestic tasks each week while smiling and caretaking and unconditionally loving her brute of a husband, doomed to clean up his messes and exist at the periphery of his ambition.
Her existence is particularly futile in a world like The Simpsons, where reality resets at the end of each 23 minute episode. Homer will never really learn from his mistakes and commit to his apologies because The Simpsons is so episodic. Like, I actually really liked The Simpsons’ most recent season premiere, despite the fact that — in order to enjoy it — I had to accept the premise that Marge graduated high school in 1999 when I know for a fact (from many earlier episodes!) that she graduated high school in the early ’70s.
Most often, Simpsons canon changes because real-life time passes, not because the characters learned anything that stuck (notable exceptions include Lisa’s vegetarianism and the deaths of Maude Flanders and Bleeding Gums Murphy).
Tony and Carmela are different because The Sopranos is serialized. Decisions are final, consequences last, and dynamic character growth is a feature of the show, not a fun easter egg or exception. But I think the futility of the sitcom wife is very similar to the futility of the prestige drama wife — the woman married to the anti-hero, who stays with him despite everything, is just as stuck in her cycles as our beloved Marge.
Some of the greatest and most tragic moments of The Sopranos come when Carmela asserts her humanity. She bakes a ricotta pie to guilt a Georgetown graduate into writing a recommendation letter for Meadow; she falls in love with Furio and sleeps with AJ’s English teacher; she insists that Billy Budd is not a gay book, actually, and the scholars must have been reading it wrong.
Every effort Carmela makes to center herself in her own story inevitably crumbles and pushes her further back into the shadow of her husband. The universe punishes Carm each time she acts outside of her established domestic cycle; manipulation, lust, and any kind of social control is for the boys. The tragedy of Carmela Soprano, and every wife of one of “the greatest TV characters of all time,” is how tightly her identity is tethered to her husband’s. No one will ever take her seriously in the way she craves.
This was me Googling “best TV characters of all time” and Google said “Fictional Characters/Television/good.” Skyler White, honey, I’m so sorry I don’t get to you in this essay, but you definitely fall under the same category.
Carm is such a rich character that it bothers the hell out of me when people make grand, sweeping statements about The Sopranos and ~enabling toxic masculinity~ and Why No Girls In Sopranos, A Show About Boys, For Boys. That surface-level discourse basically confirms Carmela’s biggest insecurity — that she’s virtually invisible on her own.
Miserably, no matter how abusive or philandering or neglectful Tony Soprano is, Carmela needs him. She needs his money and his status to maintain the lifestyle she’s become accustomed to. She needs the figurehead of The Husband because she wants to feel like The Wife. And she needs to feel comfortable spiritually. In religious spaces, the devout Catholic Carmela often confides in priests and deacons and whoever else that she’s worried about Tony’s soul.
In “Homer the Heretic,” Homer Simpson stops going to church on Sundays out of sheer laziness. While he relishes in the freedom of an empty Sunday morning, Marge stews and prays. She believes in God, and in an American Protestant method of engaging with Him; Homer neglecting his spiritual side might mean terrible things for his afterlife. What would it mean for Marge Simpson to move on to the next life, partnerless?
What would it mean for Carmela Soprano to move on to the next life, partnerless?
Who are Marge and Carmela on their own, free from the confines of The Husband?
Homer goes back to church in the end, for the sake of his wife and his family — he attends, even though he sleeps through the service, because he cares about Marge’s feelings. I think Homer Simpson is a good-hearted dude who tries to be good because he’s kind, and I think Tony Soprano is a sociopath who tries to be good because he thinks that’s what he’s supposed to want. They are both neglectful and abusive, but I think Homer is neglectful and abusive because he is selfish and dumb, and Tony is neglectful and abusive because his drive and ambitions almost never include his family.
Tony Soprano, like his wife, is interested in image. He wants his blood family to Look Successful so his work family respects him as a person who can keep his house in order. That means Carmela looks beautiful, has nice clothes, and cooks nice meals; it means Meadow goes to Columbia; it means AJ, at minimum, stays out of trouble. But image is about control. Tony Soprano knows he can lie and cheat and steal as much as he wants and his family will still be there to serve him. The moments where he is most violent and abusive with Carmela and the kids are the moments where he cannot fully manipulate their actions.
Dr. Melfi ultimately dismisses Tony as a patient because she correctly identifies him as a lost cause. Tony Soprano is the frog AND the scorpion, condemned to make the same mistakes over and over, no matter the pain they cause, because that’s just his nature. Sociopathy makes him a static, episodic figure in a serialized world.
I don’t think Homer Simpson is driven by any specific ambition for success. I just think he wants his family to be proud of him — especially Marge. He is deeply flawed, but he cares for Marge, Bart, Lisa, and the baby in the way a person with healthy empathy does. He lies, but he doesn’t cheat. The lessons he learns might not follow through to the next episode, but at least he learns lessons. The best Homer Simpson moments are when he shows us that softer side of himself; the most iconic Tony Soprano moments are when he completely forgoes any pretext of goodness.
And they both suffocate their beloved sons or surrogate sons. So, there’s that.
If this interested you at all, read this devastating poem by Bojack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg. It’s called “Does Marge Have Friends?” and it’s just as sad as that sounds.
A few months ago, I went to the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Kevin Can F*** Himself and was so into the pilot that I decided on the spot to move to New York and try, peripherally, to actually pursue the TV writing thing. I haven’t watched any more of the show yet — mostly, I’m scared the magic I felt watching the pilot will dissipate if I watch more. But the pilot, at least, rules, and I think you should watch it if you vibed with this piece.
I didn’t hate The Many Saints of Newark. I wish it was a miniseries. Here’s more on what I thought about it — it’s not elegant, but it’s thoughts.
I work at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene now! It’s very on-brand and exciting for me.
I’m on Venmo if you want to give me money for expanding on more thoughts.
And I’m on Twitter because I, like the subjects of this piece, am deeply flawed.