The Sopranos anniversary: TV's most heartbreaking death explained
Creator David Chase, star Drea de Matteo and others break down the agonizing demise of Adriana la Cerva for the 10th anniversary of the HBO hit's finale
“Long Term Parking.” For fans of The Sopranos, the banal airport sign remains a haunting callback more than a decade after the episode of the same name originally aired. In the fifth season’s 12th episode, viewers witnessed the tragic end to Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo) in a gripping sequence, logical yet shocking, that generated maximum suspense and heartbreak. Adriana had long stuck by her addict fiancé Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) out of some uncertain mixture of love, loyalty, and mob life materialism. Then came “Long Term Parking” on May 23, 2004, which not only gave Adriana the series’ most tragic ending but cast the show’s anti-hero, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), into a darker shadow that never dissipated. For the 10-year anniversary of the show’s finale, EW spoke to Sopranos creator David Chase, star Drea de Matteo, writer Terence Winter, and director Tim Van Patten who reveal how that long drive into the woods really went down…
The decision to kill off Adriana was made in 2003 while season 5 was being written. Her fate was considered inevitable due to the character’s increasing cooperation with the FBI…
Creator David Chase: What she had done, in the world that we were investigating, had marked her for death. We always knew at some point, she was probably going to pay for that. We just didn’t know when.
Star Drea de Matteo: In those days, everybody was talking about season 5 as maybe being the end of the series. I remember one time going and tentatively asking David what my fate might be. David didn’t like to be asked things. The show was so huge and such a big deal, it felt like you shouldn’t mess with anything or with him. I asked because I wanted to direct a movie. He said, “Let me think about it.” I remember being afraid that he’d whack me just because he thought I didn’t want to be there anymore or something. But my storyline was such that I was never supposed to be there in the first place and then I ended up being a series regular on the most amazing, TV-changing show. So I didn’t want to come across as ungrateful but I just wanted to know because Adriana was talking to the feds.
Writer Terence Winter: At the beginning of season 5, we realized it would happen at the end of the season. We may have talked about various scenarios, whether or not it was Christopher who did it, or possibly Tony. I don’t know how we ultimately arrived at Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) doing it.
De Matteo: David came to me and said, “I’m going to shoot this two ways: I’m going to kill you and I’m going to let you live. And nobody’s going to know until it airs.” I’m like, “Okay, I’m dying, for sure, but why shoot it two ways?” He said one reason was he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, and the other was to keep confidentiality on set. He would go that far to divert the crew from being able to leak anything.
Winter: You don’t realize how much you start to think of these characters as real people. It was really tough to write. It was really very difficult to do for a lot of reasons, most of which had to do with the emotion of not being able to work with Drea anymore.
The episode opens with Adriana as we’ve never seen her before: At a doctor’s office wearing a paper gown being diagnosed with stress-induced ulcerative colitis. Stripped of her usual glam, she looks miserable, embarrassed and vulnerable…
Winter: You generally see Adriana as such a powerful character and so forceful and glamorous and sexy and tough. You see a much more vulnerable side of her with her colitis, or whatever it was she had. You’re almost sympathetic to her from the beginning. The walls are closing in and she’s got it coming at her from all sides.
Chase: A person in her position would be very likely to have [colitis]. It wasn’t to make her more vulnerable. It’d be hard to make that woman more vulnerable than she was. She was nothing but vulnerability.
The FBI tells Adriana she can either become a government witness or go to prison. She asks them to let her try to convince Christopher to join her in Witness Protection. She goes home and confesses her predicament to Christopher. He flies into a rage, nearly choking her to death…
Director Tim Van Patten: [Adriana and Christopher] were both so invested in those characters, and they adored each other. They took it right to the limit.
De Matteo: That scene was as real as it gets. That scene was everything for me. Michael [Imperioli] wouldn’t hurt me, so I pushed my neck against his hands so it would look like I was being choked. That was my goodbye — not the scene where I get taken out in the woods.
Chase: Both of them just did an incredible job, as did the director. You really think she’s going to go. Sometimes in her close-ups, it looks like she might already be dead, the way she’s just staring at him. 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.
Winter: I remember watching that on set and actually having tears in my eyes. You just felt how torn Christopher was. He knew she was backed into a corner and they’re probably both going to die. Ultimately, he couldn’t go through with it. He loved her despite giving her up.
Christopher leaves and sees an impoverished family at a gas station…
Winter: He sees his future life flash before his eyes: “This is going to be us, we’re going to be that family living hand to mouth in a shitty car with a bunch of kids.” It gives you his mindset as a guy who’s never going to leave New Jersey. There’s nothing like a mullet to shake you into reality.
Tony calls Adriana and says Christopher has attempted suicide and that he’s sending Silvio to bring her to the hospital. For a moment we wonder what Adriana is going to do. Then the scene cuts to Adriana driving out of town, suitcase in the passenger seat — she wised up and fled! And then suddenly, the scene abruptly changes: Adriana is now in a car’s passenger seat and Silvio is driving. We witnessed a cruel fake-out daydream…
Van Patten: All you wanted for her was to escape. And when you thought she was going to succeed, you were so happy for her and so relieved. When you realize she’s going to her death, it’s absolutely devastating.
Chase: You have this feeling of exhilaration that she’s escaped. 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. And we make excuses for why we didn’t take an action or why we didn’t do something to better a situation.
Winter: That idea was David, all David, as far as I remember. I remember David pitching that, and we talked about whether it will work.
Chase: What I liked about [the scene] was that it didn’t explain itself. She’s riding in the car and the next thing you know, she’s going in the opposite direction in somebody else’s car. There’s no build up to that switch. So you really weren’t sure what was going on for awhile. I always liked that.
In an agonizing sequence, Silvio drives Adriana out of the city into a wooded area. Her face is a progression of heartbreak and terror as she realizes Christopher has betrayed her. Silvio maintains a chipper facade, reassuring she shouldn’t worry about her fiance, even as their surroundings become more and more remote with each passing mile …
Chase: The audience doesn’t know for sure [if Silvio plans to kill her]. In a sense, you don’t know who was ahead of who. Who knew first: Adriana or the audience? You think it’s the audience? I think you’re right.
Winter: It’s slowly dawning on her, and it’s almost like Silvio is gearing up for it. You can see him talking himself into it. I don’t know that Silvio took any glee in doing this. It was very much a workmanlike thing he had to do. You can see him almost getting into that mindset during the drive.
Chase: It was meant to agonizing, yeah. It’s really incredible. She’s a wonderful actress. She’s taking us through that.
Silvio stops the car in an isolated spot and tries to drag Ariana from the car. Adriana’s reaction is primal and disturbing. At first, she clutches the steering wheel, not wanting to leave the car, and then she scurries on the ground, so terrified that she cannot run, trying to crawl away instead…
Winter: Obviously, you’re not going to be able to crawl away from a bullet. But there’s such a will to live, we’ll do anything to get away from somebody trying to kill us. It’s even more pathetic when you realize it’s absolutely futile.
De Matteo: Stevie [Van Zandt] was freaking out. He was like, “I don’t want to pull you out of the car, I don’t want to call you a c—.” I tried to laugh [between takes] to make it easier. We basically talked about outlaw country music the whole time.
Silvio raises the gun as Adriana crawls out of the frame. Her death isn’t actually shown…
Winter: 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. 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.
Chase: It’s the only time in the whole history of the show in which we killed someone and we didn’t show their point of view. It seems to be worse without it; we were imagining what might’ve happened to her and how her body would’ve been destroyed. I don’t think any of us wanted to see Drea in that condition.
De Matteo: When we were on the stage that last day, they brought out a big cart of champagne and flowers. The whole wardrobe department filled my trailer up with balloons.
Van Patten: There was such a sense of reverence on set. I’ve never seen a set so quiet. It really was like a death in the family.
Some viewers even theorized Adriana wasn’t really dead…
Winter: There was some crazy speculation that she was still alive which was always absurd because we never did stories like that.
Chase: That might have had something to do with the Russian [gangster who vanished in the woods in “Pine Barrens”]. They thought the Russian was going to come back and he never did. And people were probably saying to themselves, “Well, they’re not going to do that twice.” That was something we figured into it.
Later in the episode, we’re seemingly back in the same woods, except now it’s Tony and Carmela inspecting land for a real estate investment. The message: The Soprano family’s fortune is built upon deaths like Adriana’s…
Winter: This is the very same place where the bodies get buried. Even something as pure and beautiful as nature gets tainted with that ugliness.
Van Patton: It was an emotional callback. Life goes on, and wittingly — or unwittingly in Carmela’s case — you are a player in this, you are culpable.
Chase: Also, it had a more mechanical purpose, in that what you see is leaves and some feet walking through, and you don’t know — are those Silvio’s feet? Are those feet going to come across her body? And what you see instead is Carmela blithely talking about real estate values and what kind of view her place has.
Christopher ditches Adriana’s car in Liberty airport’s long-term parking, explaining the episode’s perfect title…
Winter: I don’t know who came up with that title. I came in one day and that title had been written on the board, and I went, “Oh my god, it’s perfect, that’s the absolute best title we could’ve possibly come up with.”
Chase: [The title has] a slightly sardonic humor to it. When I was growing up in New Jersey — in fact, we used this part of a storyline on the show earlier — there were a couple of guys in their 20s who murdered somebody. They shot him in the garage and they took him to Newark airport and they drove him into long-term parking and left the car there. But they began to worry and came back and got the car … and the cops got them. That’s where I first got the idea for “Long Term Parking.”
But there was also a scene you did not see — at least, not until the next season. Originally a scene of Christopher telling Tony about Adriana’s betrayal was filmed and was supposed to be inserted before Silvio comes to pick up Adriana. The scene made it clear Tony was lying to Adriana on the phone. The scene would later be shown as a flashback in season 6…
De Matteo: So as originally written, you know he’s lying to me. Her being in the car would have been a lot less dramatic. Michael and I went to David — and we would never do this normally because he was like a god to us — and I begged him to not include that scene. Her death would build so much more anticipation without it. That scene takes a lot of steam out of what we’re trying to achieve. David was like, “We won’t show the death,” and I was like, “I don’t care if you show the death! I only care that nobody knows it’s going to happen until it happens and that you drag that out.” I never got an answer about it. So when it aired and the scene was gone and I was so relieved. Now you take the journey with her rather than just watch her go to the guillotine. I even cried.
Chase, Winter, de Matteo, and Imperioli won Emmys for the season. The episode became known as one of the iconic drama’s finest hours and one of the most heartbreaking TV deaths ever filmed…
Winter: It’s amazing how impactful that episode is, people really remember it. Adriana was such a beloved character because she was not really guilty. She was guilty by association, but she certainly didn’t deserve the fate she got. So her death was more painful than any of the gangsters who live by the sword, die by the sword. That her big sin was falling in love with Christopher made it that much more painful. I would be hard-pressed to name another episode that shook people up more.
De Matteo: She told Christopher, “I told [the FBI] nothing because I know nothing.” [Tony and Christopher] never tried to find out if she was guilty of anything and just impulsively took her life. And it showed there’s no loyalty there. That’s all they talk about is “loyalty, loyalty,” but there’s no loyalty when it comes to a loved one. The characters on the show, even Tony’s kids, were operating from this place of primal manipulative existence. The only character who came from a place of love and innocence was Adriana. People say she’s a rat, she’s a whore, she’s a junkie — derogatory words from people who didn’t understand the show. I like to see [the episode] not as one of the most shocking, f—ed up deaths in TV history and all that, but as a huge risk to take. You’re taking characters and showing them in the ugliest possible way. Adriana wanted what was best for everybody; she only operated from a place of light.