There were several haunting deaths during the run of David Chase’s prestige drama The Sopranos — which premiered 20 years ago, on Jan. 10, 1999 — but none were quite as impactful as that of Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo). Unlike the headstrong women featured in the HBO series like Livia, Meadow, and Dr. Melfi, Adriana on The Sopranos was an innocent bystander, and her murder showed just how far Tony and his crew were willing to go to protect themselves. And although she was aware of Christopher Moltisanti’s mobster identity, her longtime physical abuse and untimely demise proved that she was really a sacrificial lamb — and a seriously underrated character that deserves to be revisited all these years later.
At the beginning of Season 4, Adriana was approached by the FBI and blackmailed into becoming an informant. But as audiences saw with Pussy in Season 2, snitches sleep with the fishes; narcing on the family was the ultimate betrayal, and it weighed on Adriana so heavily that, although she cooperated with the feds, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. And she was right to be afraid; when she finally worked up the courage to tell Christopher, he violently choked her.
"Sometimes in [de Matteo’s] close-ups, it looks like she might already be dead, the way she’s just staring at him," Sopranos creator David Chase said in a 2017 interview with Entertainment Weekly about that scene. "What I think is so important about it is the fact that she just stops fighting and just accepts it. She’s just staring at him as he’s choking her to death. I think that’s really important."
That said, this wasn’t the first time audiences had seen Tony’s nephew act violently towards Adriana. He was both verbally and physically abusive throughout the series, and when she finally told her fiancé that she might never be able to have children, Chris furiously called her "damaged goods." Although she planned to leave him more than once, Adriana stuck with him, and in doing so, accidentally signed her death warrant.
As Sopranos fans will recall, Tony’s crew was not to be envied or emulated. They were violent, racist, manipulative, and misogynistic. If the salacious backdrop at The Bing didn’t tip you off, they treated women like objects — using, abusing, and losing them. Perhaps the most egregious example of this was when Ralphie Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) beat Tracee — a pregnant stripper — to death for talking back to him. Then there was Paulie (Tony Sirico), who murdered an old woman for the cash underneath her mattress.
Adriana was viewed as a sex object by most men of The Sopranos. This was clear in the way that Tony’s associates talked about her, and even the salacious way the FBI agents watched her play tennis in that famous binoculars scene. However, the other men in the family knew better than to touch her — except Tony, who had a brief flirtation with his nephew’s fiancée in Season 5, which caused Christopher to go on a tirade and threaten to kill his uncle.
But although Adriana was not involved with the mob, she became accustomed to the financial perks and looked forward to Christopher bringing home brand name shoes or jewelry from a job. But rather than make her simply a fallible character, this instead made her nuanced. She grew up in organized crime — of course she was used to that life. In fact, it was Adriana who convinced Christopher to give Meadow and her friend crystal meth back in Season 1, since she didn’t want them to get it on the street.
Of course Carmela (Edie Falco) is another example of a woman on the inside, but although she didn’t condone her husband’s actions (she wrestled with her complicity in early seasons), it was clear that she’d grown accustomed to their lavish lifestyle, too. Perhaps Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) was the only person in Tony’s orbit who rejected the compromises that had to be made in order to enjoy the fruits of their violent labor.
But despite all this, Adriana La Cerva was still a guileless bystander. She was sweet, loyal to Christopher (unfortunately, and to her detriment), and more than a bit naive. That’s what made it so heartbreaking when Tony called her from that payphone in Season 5, Episode 12, "Long Term Parking." Chris tried to kill himself, Tony said, and Silvio will come pick Adriana up. What was so heartbreaking is that she thought she had convinced Moltisanti to run away with her and go into protective custody.
"You have this feeling of exhilaration that she’s escaped," Chase said in the same EW interview. "She looks like she’s going to be the one person to escape this hell in New Jersey. But, of course, she isn’t. I think there’s very good chance she could’ve [fled], but she didn’t. Why didn’t she? Why didn’t she run away? What happens is people get trapped."
Adriana began that fateful car ride with Silvio with him consoling her for Christopher’s supposed suicide attempt, and ended it with her whimpering and crawling into the forest on all fours. It was heartbreaking to watch. What was so shocking about her death scene is it signaled to Sopranos viewers that sh*t just got real. If the writers were willing to off women, no one was safe, as was evidenced when Tony killed Christopher in Season 6. Furthermore, audiences weren’t privy to Adriana’s final moments, which made it even more painful. Perhaps she escaped, or Silvio decided he couldn’t go through with it — we never got to know.
"I’ve written some very graphic violence for the show and for some reason — and this was completely subconscious — I scripted this scene where she crawled out of camera," Sopranos writer Terence Winter told EW. "People asked, ‘Why didn’t you show it?’ I realized that I didn’t want to see it myself. I completely didn’t think about it when I wrote it. But it just felt like the right thing to do, filmically and cinematically. I think it worked really great, but I guess I did not want to see Adriana/Drea get shot. It speaks more to how much we fell in love with this character and that actress."
Furthermore, Chase discussed Adriana’s death scene in an excerpt from Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall’s book, The Sopranos Sessions, which was published on Esquire. "It’s probably something that I didn’t want to see," he said. "I liked [Adriana] too much. She’d suffered enough. And she wasn’t pretentious. She was not a phony intellectual. She was just trusting, sobbing-prone. She was innocent."
Adriana’s murder still haunts audiences 20 years after The Sopranos first aired. In a time when predatory and abusive men are being exposed and many women are feeling brave enough to tell their sides of the story, one can only imagine how Adriana would fare in today’s climate. Perhaps her outcome would still be the same, but it’s tempting to imagine an alternate universe where she escaped — but hopefully not with Christopher, since she deserved so much better.
And although the general public may never learn what happened to Adriana, her mother was convinced that her daughter was murdered, and Carmela dreamed about running into her in Paris. In this fantasy, La Cerva wore an elegant black trench coat, stilettos, and a beret, and she was walking her dog — whom Christopher apparently didn’t kill in this reality. "Look, I found Cosette!" Adriana exclaimed. A policeman appeared and told Carmela, "Your friend? Someone needs to tell her she’s dead."