It’s not new to say Skyler White and Carmela Soprano have a lot in common.
They’re both married to two of television’s most renowned antiheroes. Both of their husbands are liars. Both women try to escape their unhappy marriages with other men, and the attempts always disappoint.
Perhaps their most conspicuous commonality, however, is the fact that, in a television landscape littered with sex, both of these women are, if not outright chaste, about as far from sexualized as you can get.
In six seasons of HBO’s The Sopranos, Tony, the head of the New Jersey mob, beds a woman nearly as often as he eats a piece of capicola (that is to say, a lot). Carmela makes out with a painter, fantasizes about Tony’s Italian driver and has a short-lived fling with her son’s guidance counselor. Despite all the sex Tony has in these many, many hours of television, you could count on one hand the number of times it happens with his wife. Similarly, in Breaking Bad, which recently ended its five season run on AMC, Skyler White appears to stop sleeping with Walt, her drug lord husband, shortly after she realizes he’s leading a double life (which happens early on in the series). Eventually, after she’s no longer pregnant, Skyler has an affair, but anyone who says there’s anything particularly sexy about it is reaching. Like Carmela’s infatuations, Skyler’s fling with her former co-worker and at-the-time boss Ted Beneke plays out more like an attempt on her part to rebuild an ego that’s being crushed by her husband’s ongoing deceptions. Ted is about as normal as they come, and that’s the point.
Sure, it’s not entirely fair to compare the sex these characters are (or are not) having, considering how much sex there is otherwise in The Sopranos and how little sex there is in Breaking Bad. And, as Tony likes to tell Carmela, she “knew the deal” when they got married. She knew Tony would likely cheat on her. Skyler, on the other hand, thought she’d married Mr. Chips.
Regardless, this similarity is significant for what it shows about them and what it highlights in their husbands, the white male anti-heroes of cable. Indeed, wives are notoriously difficult characters for cable dramas to animate with agency and complexity, even as the men in their lives violate morals frequently, with fleeting guilt, in their pursuit of power and desire. The Walking Dead and Boardwalk Empire built up love triangles with Lori and Margaret only to a hit a wall and dismiss those characters a couple of seasons in. Sons of Anarchy‘s Gemma and Tara take plenty of initiative throughout the show, even at times outsmarting their husbands, but only occasionally with their own romantic satisfaction fulfilled as their husbands nearly kill one another (though Gemma appears to be on the right path, interestingly, by venturing outside her social circle and race). Mad Men‘s Betty had little to do in the show’s earliest seasons and her marital transgressions were barely dalliances. The few dramas centered on women — like, Homeland, The Good Wife, Scandal, American Horror Story: Coven, and Orange Is the New Black, or dramedies like Nurse Jackie — give their protagonists greater range, as do a few of the newer dramas, like Game of Thrones and House of Cards.
But Carmela and Skyler can’t enjoy sex with other men without feeling remorseful because they can’t let go of their strong moral compasses. The first and only time Carmela sneaks a kiss with the painter in her house, her look of excitement immediately gives way to pained regret. The last fling she has in the series is the only instance where Carmela doesn’t seem regretful, as it happens during her separation from Tony, who shows no such signs of remorse when they’re married, except when confronted by a hysterical Carmela about his other women.
Skyler similarly has a hard time letting go of her conscience, despite a completely reasonable and strong desire to lash out at her duplicitous husband. Walter isn’t cheating on her with other women, but that doesn’t make his deceit any less painful. If anything, it’s more frustrating for Skyler, at least at first, when she doesn’t know what’s going on. She knows she should be mad about something, but her first thought isn’t to assume her husband is making and selling meth. Because Walt is such a devoted liar, Skyler struggles to reconcile her suspicions with the little she actually knows about his double life.
Because Skyler’s frustration is more potent than Carmela’s, her immoral acts are laced with a retributive streak. But, like Carmela, she takes no real pleasure in acting out. At first, while very pregnant, she lashes out by smoking cigarettes, which she painfully regrets. When Walt confronts her, she readily admits that she feels ashamed, despite the fact that she knows that whatever her husband is up to is probably a lot worse. When she sleeps with Ted Benake, there’s so little the viewer gets to see of her actually enjoying herself. Viewers get to see more of her excited about Ted’s temperature controlled bathroom tile than they see her actually excited about Ted. More often, though, we get shots of her looking unsure. When she coolly tells her husband that she had sex with another man, it seems clear that the affair is at least half as much done out of revenge as it is out of desire. And soon after that one moment of doling out punishment, Skyler is back to setting a place for Walt at the table, surprisingly looking more upset with herself for her infidelity than with him for leading her to it.
This inability of Skyler and Carmela to really relish their immoral acts doesn’t just serve to show the decency of these characters; it shows how morally compromised their counterparts are. The inability of Skyler and Carmela to get back at their husbands without feeling remorseful highlights how sociopathic their husbands are to begin with.
This is plain to see during the arguments these wives have with their husbands. Frustrated viewers recall the many, many instances Walt and Tony were cornered by their wives and still tried to evade taking any responsibility for the harm they’d done. For example, in season four, during a truly emotional confrontation where Carmela is teary and hysterical, Tony swears he didn’t sleep with a woman Carmela believes he had sex with. He says he’ll “take a polygraph to that effect” — just like Walt says he will swear on a Bible that he isn’t having an affair throughout the first two seasons of Breaking Bad, when Skyler still isn’t sure what kind of double life her husband is leading.
It’s disheartening to these women that the men in their lives care more about vindicating themselves than asking for forgiveness. Walt would so much rather prove that he didn’t do one thing wrong than admit to his fast-growing list of transgressions. Tony, even more comically, would prefer to prove he didn’t sleep with one woman despite the fact that he still has slept with many, many others.
So, in shows that focus on men who do terrible things, here are two women who get trapped by these protagonists and still can hardly stomach the relatively small victories they can claim. Is it any surprise then that Carmela and Skyler inspire so much disdain from so many viewers? We watch shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad to escape with people like Tony Soprano and Walter White into worlds where the less compassion you show, the more entertaining you’ll be. These two men cause countless deaths and almost never look back at the damage they’ve done.
Carmela and Skyler, on the other hand, can’t smoke a cigarette or sneak a kiss without arching a brow, putting their hands to their faces and wondering, “What have I done?”