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. Allow me to explain—The Sopranos‘ first three episodes (the pilot, “46 Long” and “Denial, Anger, Acceptance”) make up one of the strongest starts in TV history. It is only natural that an episode like “Meadowlands” comes around and calms things down. Yet this is not a bad episode at all—it is well written and features excellent directing (the first of many episodes helmed by John Patterson). It is an episode that is only made to seem weak by impossibly high Sopranos standards.
The main reason “Meadowlands” feels inferior is because of a particular storyline—nay, character—that it focuses on. Now, I don’t speak for everyone, but I’m sure I am not the only one who finds AJ Soprano’s middle school hijinks to be a bit of a bore.
Last episode, we spent a little time with Meadow Soprano, watching as she and her annoying friend Hunter tried to score crystal meth in order to study for SATs. It was the weakest plot of the hour by far, but it really wasn’t all that bad because Jamie-Lynn Sigler delivered a poised and believable performance. In “Meadowlands,” we 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 into a fight a kid at school. The climactic final showdown (“3 o’clock. The pit.”) never actually occurs because the other kid is scared of AJ’s big bad mafia dad. AJ is unaware of what his father does for a living, but figures out the truth by episode’s end (with a little assistance from Meadow).
The scenes that take place at the middle school are dated and poorly acted, but are necessary for bringing the together the show’s themes. “What kind of man is Tony Soprano?” AJ probably isn’t that much of a deep-thinker, but he is definitely looking at his father through a different set of eyes now.
But aside from that, this is simply an uninteresting plot. I don’t completely hate AJ, but he is still one of my least favorite characters overall. He will be a central part of a much better episode later on in the season (“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 fearful of what may happen if the guys find out he is seeing a shrink. It is a bold way to open up the episode, but it is a little clunky in execution. Compared to the surreal greatness of episodes like “Funhouse” or “The Test Dream,” this first foray into Tony’s nighttime subconscious 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 in the form of some late-nite Mario Kart. It is in these quieter character moments in which The Sopranos continues to make strong progress. However, when the show branches out beyond its comfort zone, it tends to struggle. AJ’s adventures at middle school feel like a different series. Likewise, the scenes that show Dr. Melfi’s life outside the office can have a similar effect.
Melfi’s non-therapy scenes are decent enough, but they feel like they come out of left-field. Nothing wrong with that, just the writers still figuring out some of the kinks. On the other hand, her scenes back at the office are among the episode’s best. It is also the first instance of Tony taking what Melfi suggests in therapy and spinning it for mafia-related purposes.
“Meadowlands” is the episode that Jackie Aprile dies. After his condition worsened last episode, it was inevitable. While “Denial, Anger, Acceptance” focused on the emotional implications of the Boss’ impending passing, “Meadowlands” focuses on the power struggle that results in the aftermath. Tony and Uncle Junior both contend for the top spot, pitting two camps against each other. When a very paranoid Chris discovers Brendan Filone’s dead body, it appears that a full-scale war is about to break out.
Tony diffuses the situation by putting Melfi’s advice of giving the elderly the illusion of control into practice. She was referring to his situation with his mother, but Tony uses it by ceding leadership over to Uncle Junior, avoiding any unnecessary bloodshed in the process (except for Brendan, which was probably necessary anyways). And even with Uncle Junior as figurehead of the Family, Tony is still secretly backed by the majority of capos. He is boss in everything but name only, leaving Uncle Junior as the lightning rod for the feds.
The ending of “Meadowlands” is superb, lifting an average episode to something more profound. Plenty of this owes to the music.
Everyone pays their final respects at Jackie’s funeral. By now, AJ has gone through his own standalone arc in which he comes to learn the truth about his father’s livelihood. Mazzy Star’s “Look on Down from the Bridge” closes the soundtrack, the subtle fanfare of the organ chords befitting of the cemetery burial setting. It is a great choice of song and fits in perfectly with the final images—Tony, surrounded by his mob associates, smiles and winks toward AJ, who watches from afar with a glum look on his face.
-The main 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 single episode in television history.
-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 ended by giving him a bit of sympathy. 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). He’s getting slightly more likeable each week because he is responsible for some of the funniest lines.
-Tony orders his drunk, gambling, crooked-cop friend—a hapless wretch named Vin Makazian—to gain some intel on Melfi. Tony is doing this because, as his dream indicated, he is afraid someone will find out that his innermost thoughts are being spilled to a shrink. Vin is doing this because he is a degenerate gambler whose life is all fucked up. Naturally, he assumes that Melfi is just another one of Tony’s side chicks. When Vin sees her out on a date, he reacts accordingly— by beating the boyfriend senseless.
-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 terrific song, and Mazzy Star is a worthwhile dream pop/ alternative/indie group from the early ‘90s. Another song of theirs worth checking out is “Fade Into You,” 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?”