'The Sopranos' Rewind: Season 1, Episode 4: 'Meadowlands'
Welcome to the fourth installment of our summer trip through "The Sopranos" season 1. When I revisited early seasons of "The Wire," as well as the whole run of "Deadwood," I did separate versions of each review for newcomers and veterans, but over time realized that the newcomers weren't commenting much, if at all, and that it therefore made sense to simply do one review. Any significant spoilers for episodes beyond the one being reviewed will be contained in a separate section at the end of the review; so long as you avoid that, and the comments, you should be fine.
Thoughts on the fourth episode, "Meadowlands," coming up just as soon as I take a five minute cool down period...
"Here we go: the War of '99." -Big Pussy
Later seasons of "The Sopranos" would wax and wane in their interest in the mob stories — particularly in comparison to many fans' obsession with who was going to get whacked next — but this first season has two advantages: 1)David Chase had some version of this arc floating around in his head for years; and 2)Uncle Junior, is, well, Tony's uncle. There would be other attempts at family/Family ties with later nemeses, but never were both halves of the show as firmly linked as they were this year.
That's particularly apparent in an episode like "Meadowlands." After a couple of outings where the lowercase family material was notably more compelling than what was happening with the wiseguys, this one achieves a strong balance between Tony's two worlds, in part because the lines between the two are so blurred.
Tony's nightmare about members of his crew learning that he's in therapy, coupled with discovering that Silvio's dentist works in the same building as Dr. Melfi, puts his paranoia into overdrive, to the point where he sends crooked, degenerate gambler cop Vin Makazian to look into her. Brendan's murder, followed by Jackie's death, forces Tony into a confrontation with Junior he was hoping to avoid, while Jackie's funeral — with all the wiseguys in attendance, and all the FBI agents photographing them — is an eye-opening experience for AJ, who's only just been told what his father actually does for a living.
The Tony/Junior tensions that have been simmering for weeks hit a full boil here, though the only gun Tony winds up using is the staple gun he swipes from the hospital to let Mikey Palmice know how much he disapproves of Brendan's murder and Christopher's beating. But for all of Chris' indignant demands for retribution, and the support of his fellow captains in potentially taking out Junior, Tony instead — with some unintentional help from Dr. Melfi — figures out a way to win the peace, by letting Junior think he's the new boss when he's really just a figurehead. It's an elegant solution, for now, and the scene where Tony marches into Junior's favorite lunch place — having taken his uncle's advice to come in "heavy" — and surprises his uncle with the offer to make him leader is as tense as the show has had so far, and a great indicator of what a savvy tactician Tony is. It's not just that he's setting up Junior to take all the heat while he theoretically makes all the decisions, but that he manages to exact a hefty bonus (control of Bloomfield and the paving union) from Junior in the process.
As ways to learn your family's dirty secret go, AJ being spared a schoolyard beating because the bigger kid has been warned by his father not to touch Tony Soprano's kid isn't a bad one. I always appreciate how the writers let AJ be a completely unremarkable kid: inarticulate, clumsy (the two scuffles he has in the hall with Jeremy are among the most realistic underage fights I've seen on TV), and slow on the uptake, even as Meadow is trying very hard to walk him up to the idea that their dad is a prominent mobster. AJ's dawning recognition as he surveys the scene at Jackie's funeral is a strong way to end an episode that's been all about the crumbling walls between Tony's work and home lives.
And then there's the situation with Dr. Melfi. Even before she backs into playing war consiglieri in Tony's dispute with Junior, we see Tony battling three dueling impulses at once. First, he's attracted to his shrink. Second, she's helping him deal with his panic attacks, and with the ongoing emotional turmoil that comes from being Anthony Soprano. Third, if Silvio or Hesh or, worse, Uncle Junior, should find out that he's spilling his guts to an outsider — even someone theoretically bound by doctor-patient confidentiality — he could quickly wind up in the ground with his friend Jackie.
That third impulse is understandably the most powerful, and the one that drives him to sic Vin Makazian on the poor doctor and her boyfriend Randall, wrecking that relationship in the process. This is Tony trying to protect himself, but the secret of his therapy is so powerful that he can't even tell Makazian who Melfi is to him, which inspires his faulty, violent assumption that Tony's mistress is stepping out with another guy. When Melfi tells him — in a surprising instance of her own walls coming down in front of a patient — Tony's frustrated, but more out of Makazian being an idiot (and potentially exposing Tony's involvement in this) than any guilt in what happened to Randall.
In the end, Tony decides to keep the relationship going because Melfi unwittingly makes him realize another benefit of therapy: her knowledge of human behavior, and how to manipulate intractable people like his mother and uncle, can come in very handy as he rises to the top of the unofficial Family tree. That's good for Tony, and for the show, but Melfi might have been better off scaring Tony out of her life forever, no?
Next week, we'll talk about "College" and its impact on the series' overall legacy. But that's structurally an outlier episode. "Meadowlands" is much closer to a typical "Sopranos" episode — if a show at this nascent stage can be said to have a typical episode — and it's fantastic in its own right.
Some other thoughts: