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 collective starts in TV history. It’s only natural that an episode like “Meadowlands” comes along to calm things down. But this isn’t a bad episode at all — the script is smart and well-written, and features excellent directing (the first of many to be helmed by John Patterson). “Meadowlands” 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 decides to focus on. Now, I surely don’t speak for everyone, but I’m definitely not the only one who finds AJ Soprano’s middle school hijinks to be a bit of a bore.
Last episode, we spent some 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 was at least tolerable due to Jamie-Lynn Sigler’s poised and believable performance. In “Meadowlands,” we get to spend significant time with the other Soprano kid — the less interesting one with the worse actor.
AJ is a dimwitted juvenile rascal who rocks a bowl cut and laughs at stupid shit. This is more or less how he gets into a fight at school. The climactic final showdown (“3 o’clock, the pit”) never occurs, however, because the would-be challenger is frightened by the reputation of AJ’s big bad mafia dad. AJ, who is unaware of what his father does for a living, 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 they are necessary for bringing the show’s main themes together. “What kind of man is Tony Soprano?” AJ probably isn’t that much of a deep-thinker, but he’s definitely now looking at his father through a new lens.
But aside from that, this is simply an uninteresting plot. I don’t completely hate AJ, but he’s still one of my least favorite characters overall. He’ll get to 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), his subconscious fearful of what may happen if the guys find out he’s seeing a shrink. It’s a bold way to open the episode, but a little clunky in execution. Compared to the surreal greatness of future benchmarks 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 from his dream 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’s 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 center on Dr. Melfi’s life outside the office have a somewhat similar effect.
The majority of the episode’s emotional heft is driven by Jackie Aprile’s death. After his condition significantly worsened last episode, his fate was inevitable. But while “Denial, Anger, Acceptance” focused on the emotional implications of his impending death, “Meadowlands” focuses on the power struggle that results in its aftermath. Tony and Uncle Junior are pitted against each other, both contending for the top spot. 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 into practice — giving the elderly the illusion of control. Dr. Melfi was originally referring to his situation with Livia, but Tony uses her advice instead to cede leadership over to Uncle Junior, avoiding any unnecessary bloodshed in the process (except for Brendan’s, which was already necessary to begin with).
Uncle Junior is now figurehead of the Family, but Tony has the support from the majority of the capos. Junior is boss in name only, leaving leaving him as the unwitting lightning rod for the feds.
The ending of “Meadowlands” is superb, lifting an average episode to something more profound. The final minute is what makes it, and a lot has to do with the music.
By now, AJ has gone through his own standalone arc in which he comes to learn the truth about his father’s livelihood. As everyone pays their final respects at Jackie’s funeral, Mazzy Star’s “Look on Down from the Bridge” drifts onto the soundtrack, the subtle fanfare of the organ chords befitting of the cemetery burial backdrop. It’s a great choice that fits 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 up 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 likable 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’s doing this because, as his dream indicated, he’s afraid someone will find out that he’s spilling his innermost thoughts to a shrink. On the other hand, Vin’s doing this because he’s a degenerate gambler whose life is all fucked up. He naturally assumes that Melfi is just another one of Tony’s comares, so when he sees her on a date, he reacts accordingly: by beating Melfi’s boyfriend senseless.
-One of the funniest sight gags: Tony reading the “Elderly Care” book recommended by Melfi 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?”