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Adriana La Cerva
Though it came as a surprise to absolutely no one, the murder of Adriana La Cerva may have been the most shocking death in five seasons of “The Sopranos.” Shocking not because of graphic violence — mercifully, the moment of her demise took place offscreen, and in any case it would have been difficult to top the brutal beating and eventual beheading of Ralphie Cifaretto for sheer gruesomeness — but because we had come to regard Adriana as that true rarity in David Chase’s mob world: an innocent.
This perception has much to do with Drea de Matteo’s heartbreaking portrayal of Ade’s impossible conflict, crippling naiveté and bone-deep loneliness, particularly over the past season. Her performances in “Irregular Around the Margins,” in which a rumor circulates about a sexual encounter between Adriana and Tony Soprano, and “Long-Term Parking,” her final episode, should be enough to secure an Emmy award, if merit were the primary consideration for such a thing. (Aside from the writers and leads James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, however, “The Sopranos” routinely comes up empty-handed at the annual television awards — a frustrating turn of events that inspired a darkly comic scene this season in which a TV writer drowning in gambling debts attempts to pawn his Emmy, to little avail.)
While it’s true that Adriana was the Virgin Mary compared to a stone psycho like Ralph (who preceded her into “the witness protection program”), those who came late to the party may not be aware that she was never quite the lamb she seemed to be in her latter days. (Please, don’t take my word for this; do yourself a favor and rent the DVDs of the first few seasons.) She grew up in la famiglia — her uncle was Richie Aprile, he of the “Manson lamps” who challenged Tony’s authority in the second season and met his end in a domestic dispute before he could be dealt with in a more professional manner. And although she encouraged her longtime fiancé Christopher’s interest in show biz, she could not contain her glee when the mob finally opened the books and he became a made man. Nor could she conceal her disappointment when Christopher brought home a Hefty bag full of Jimmy Choo shoes and they all turned out to be the wrong size.
As the manager and owner-on-paper of the Crazy Horse, a rock club that serves as a front for mob activity, she could even be described as an accomplice — the term Dr. Krakower used to describe Carmela Soprano during their one and only therapy session back in the third season. Like Carmela, Adriana’s peace of mind depended on maintaining certain illusions about her world; illusions that came crashing down once the feds got their hooks into her.
Indeed, the treatment Adriana received at the hands of the FBI is one of the big reasons she garnered so much sympathy. When she was ensnared as a cooperating witness by an undercover agent posing as her friend — maybe her only friend — it was the first of many betrayals in an arc spanning two seasons. And, as we all knew deep down from the beginning, it was a death sentence. But it was also an event that breathed new life into the character and the actress who played her.
In the beginning, she had no name and barely any dialogue. First glimpsed as a restaurant hostess in the series pilot, de Matteo was promoted to a supporting role as hotheaded Christopher’s girlfriend — as originally planned, the first of many. It wasn’t long before she got another bump up the pyramid, however, and by the time the series began airing she had taken her place among the regular cast. Transforming into Adriana was a process akin to becoming a Klingon on “Star Trek”; it took three hours in the makeup chair before de Matteo emerged, poofy-haired and razor-nailed, the quintessential Jersey girl.
She wanted the Life, the whole package she saw at Sunday dinners and summer barbecues at Tony and Carmela’s mansion on the hill. But her blinders were ripped away when the FBI strong-armed her into cooperating in exchange for squashing a drug charge. Suddenly, the brutality of the mob world was in her face; she watched aghast as Tony’s crew administered a beatdown at the Esplanade construction site, and she began to comprehend the fate that awaited her should she ever be discovered.
Yet she still believed in Christopher and their life together. Though he’d badly beaten her on several occasions, routinely cheated on her, belittled her in the presence of his friends and even killed her dog (inadvertently, in a heroin haze, but still), she clung to the hope that she could convince him to leave it all behind — that one day they would run away together and be free.
“The Sopranos” is justifiably celebrated for planting seeds that later flower in unexpected ways, like the painting of Tony’s horse Pie-O-My, reclaimed and retouched by Paulie Walnuts and then forgotten, until it resurfaced at a crucial moment and sparked Tony’s most important decision of the season. In Adriana’s last episode, “Long-Term Parking” (a brilliant title, by the way — a 21st century spin on “The Big Sleep”), Christopher makes an offhand wisecrack when asked why he’s late for the millionth time: “Highway was jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.” At first this sounds like a cute in-joke, a Springsteen quote uttered in the presence of the Boss’s longtime guitarist Stevie Van Zandt, who plays dapper consiglieri Silvio Dante. By the end of the episode, however, that reference has taken on a grim new meaning.
There is a brief moment when we are allowed the possibility of hope. All out of options, Adriana finally confesses to Christopher. He hits her and strangles her and we watch the life go out of her eyes … but then she coughs and sputters back to life. Is it possible she’ll escape, with or without Christopher? We see her driving south down the turnpike, a red suitcase in her back seat. Is she getting away? Then we see reality — Silvio driving, Adriana staring out the window, choking back sobs. And we remember the line in “Born to Run” that follows Christopher’s quote: “Everybody’s out on the run tonight, but there’s no place left to hide.”
That realization comes too late for Adriana. We are left with a terrified woman, clawing at a car door with those fabulous Jersey nails, yanked out of her seat by that cascading Jersey hair. A last-ditch scramble on hands and knees through fallen leaves. Then two pistol shots end it. A red suitcase sinks into the Meadowlands. Goodbye, Jersey girl.