Directed by John Patterson | Written by Jason Cahill | 53 min
The School of Hard Knocks, starring AJ Soprano
By Colin Hart
8.7 / 10
“Meadowlands” is only relatively weak. Let me explain: the pilot, “46 Long” and “Denial, Anger, Acceptance” make up one of the strongest beginnings to any TV season ever. It’s only natural that an episode like “Meadowlands” comes around and puts an end to that streaking start. But “Meadowlands” is not a bad episode at all—it’s actually very well written and expertly directed (the first of many episodes directed by John Patterson). It’s just not as good as the first three; I’ll get to why. It is an episode that is only made to seem weak by impossibly high Sopranos standards.
The main reason “Meadowlands” doesn’t receive the coveted 9/10 is because of a particular storyline—more specifically, character—that it decides to focus on: The School of Hard Knocks, starring AJ Soprano.
Last episode decided to spend a little time with Meadow Soprano, as she and her annoying friend Hunter tried to score crystal meth in order to cram for SATs. It was the weakest plot of the hour, but it really wasn’t all too bad because Jamie-Lynn Sigler delivers a good, believable performance. “Meadowlands” decides to spend significant time with the other Soprano kid—the less interesting one with the worse actor.
AJ is a dimwitted juvenile rascal—he rocks a bowl cut and laughs at stupid shit. This is more or less how he gets in a fight at school with a kid who should be able to kick AJ’s ass. The climactic final showdown (“3 o’clock. The pit.”) never actually happens due to the other kid being scared of AJ’s big bad mafia dad, of which poor innocent AJ is still in the dark about. However, by episode’s end—with help from sister Meadow and the most 1999-looking website you’ve ever seen—he figures out the truth.
The scenes that take place at the middle school seem dated and poorly acted, but they are necessary for bringing the show’s themes together. AJ knows his father cares for him, but now he’s finding out a dark flip side to that preconceived notion. Yet, aside from that, this is simply an uninteresting plot. And it’s not like I completely hate AJ altogether, it’s just that this particular plot doesn’t do it for me. He’ll be a central part of a much better episode later on in season one (“Down Neck”), yet I always find that time spent with Anthony Jr. is time that can be better spent elsewhere…anywhere else.
The episode begins in Tony’s dreams (floating quality, eerie sound effects, Livia Soprano with a Melfi wig, etc). Tony’s subconscious is telling him two things—1) what would happen if the guys find out he’s seeing a shrink? and 2) Melfi looks pretty good in that mini-skirt.
It’s a bold way to open up the episode, but it is a little clunky in execution. The Sopranos would continue to return to the world of dreams, but there will be far better subconscious explorations in the show’s future. Compared to the surreal greatness of episodes like “Funhouse” or “The Test Dream”, this first foray into Tony’s nighttime desires is a little too on-the-nose. But again, only inferior by impossibly high Sopranos standards.
Tony wakes up not in his own bed but next to his Russian girlfriend, Irina. He heads home and attempts a little bonding with AJ—a little late-nite Mario Kart. It’s in these quieter character moments where The Sopranos continues to make strong progress.
But when the show branches out beyond its comfort zone is when it can start to suffer. AJ’s adventures at middle school feel like a different show, and, sometimes, when the show focuses on Melfi’s life outside the office, there can be a similar effect.
Tony has his drunk-gambler, crooked-cop buddy Vin Makazian get some basic info on Dr. Melfi. Tony’s only doing this because, as his dream indicated, he’s afraid someone will find out he’s spilling his thoughts to a shrink (Silvio’s dentist is located in the same building as Melfi’s office). Vin’s only doing this because, uh, he’s a degenerate gambler whose life is all fucked up. He assumes that Melfi is just another one of Tony’s side chicks. When Vin sees her out on a date, he reacts accordingly.
Melfi’s non-therapy scenes are decent enough, but they seem like they come out of left-field a little. Nothing wrong with that, just the writers still figuring out some of the kinks. On the other hand, the therapy scenes back at the office are among the episode’s best. It is also the first instance of Tony taking Melfi’s therapy advice and spinning it for mafia-related purposes.
Jackie Aprile dies this episode. It was inevitable. While “Denial, Anger, Acceptance” focused on the emotional implications of Jackie’s death, “Meadowlands” focuses on the power struggle that results in the aftermath. Tony and Junior both vie for the top spot and, when a very-paranoid Chris discovers Brendan Filone’s dead body, it looks like a full-scale war is about to break out.
Tony uses Melfi’s advice to give the elderly the illusion of control (she was referring to his situation with his mother) on Uncle Junior, ceding leadership over to him and avoiding any bloodshed (aside from Brendan’s). And, with the backing of all the capos, Tony will be boss in everything but name only. This also leaves Uncle Junior as the lightning rod for the feds.
The ending of “Meadowlands” is superb, lifting an average episode to an above average episode. Much of it is through the use of music.
Tony and the rest of the wiseguys and their families all pay their final respects to Jackie at his funeral. By now, AJ has gone through his own episode-contained arc in which he realizes the truth about his father’s livelihood. Mazzy Star’s “Look on Down from the Bridge” comes onto the soundtrack, the subtle fanfare of the organ chords befitting of the cemetery burial setting. It’s a great song and it fits in perfectly with the closing images—Tony surrounded by his mob associates, he smiles and winks towards AJ, who is watching from afar with a glum look on his face.
- Another reason why “Meadowlands” is relatively weak is because it is sandwiched between two amazing achievements: the first three episodes, which are among the strongest season-opening trios of all time, and “College,” which is probably the greatest episode of TV ever.
- The Sopranos was nowhere near the likes of its HBO counterpart The Wire when it came to depicting African American characters. Case in point: our first cartoonish yo-yo wielding black drug dealer! Aside from the poor dialogue and stereotypical caricature, Chris ends up choking him with his own yo-yo.
- Chris continues to be an asshole, but last episode left him in a little more sympathetic state. Here, he spends time in a neck brace, paranoid that Tony was the one who ordered the mock execution (for giving crystal meth to Meadow last episode). He’s getting slightly more likeable every week because he is responsible for some of the funniest lines.
- One of the funniest sight gags: Tony reading the “Elderly Care” book recommended to him by Melfi while at the strip club.
- “Look on Down from the Bridge” is a very, very good song. Mazzy Star is a worthwhile dream pop / alternative / indie group from the early ‘90s and their best song is probably “Fade into You,” something definitely worth checking out. But “Look on Down” was a fantastic choice to close off the episode.
- “I heard the nurse say you went number two in your pants. Is that what happened?”
- “You’re always with the babies out the windows.”
- “You know, I come here to get cheered up. You think that’s a mistake?”