“Meadowlands”

“Meadowlands”

Season 1, Episode 4

Written by Jason Cahill, Directed by John Patterson

 

Plot: Christopher, his life spared by Mike Palmice under Junior’s orders, finds his friend Brendan Fallone hasn’t been as lucky.  AJ gets into a conflict with a friend at school, only to find it mysteriously resolved.  Tony and Uncle Junior come to blows, but when Jackie Aprile finally dies of cancer, an unlikely resolution happens.

 

Analysis:

Although the first three episodes of The Sopranos – the ones screened for critics – had been widely praised, it must have been “Meadowlands” that taught its audience they were watching a creation that transcended all of television quality that had come before it.  It’s hard to know for sure, at least for me, because I’d never seen the episode before I’d been through much of the rest of the show, and now, watching it, there’s no way to undo my knowledge of the rest of the series.

 

Season 1 of The Sopranos are 13 self-contained episodes that, in and of themselves, constitute a great narrative – a mobster with depression, his therapy, his mother, his uncle, his wife and kids.  The pilot episode shows Tony confessing to Dr. Melfi that he feels like he’s “Come in after all of the good stuff,” and the series itself follows characters trying to reconstitute a life that doesn’t make sense anymore.  Tony has panic attacks and needs analysis, and in a way, he’s one of the luckiest characters in the show to have an outlet for the conflicts he’s feeling.

 

That becomes especially clear in “Meadowlands,” which is an episode of people facing up to the truth of what they’re doing and what they’re involved in.  Tony does that, rather conveniently, by connecting the frayed mental health of his mother to the needy insecurity of his uncle.  His mother, doddering sadly away at Green Grove, can’t look positively at the idea of going into New York City for some fun as “all those mothers throwing their babies out of skyscraper windows”, and Junior, feeling his power threatened, wants to take Christopher out and steal his routes.  Tony realizes the answer to both – via Dr. Melfi helping him with his thoughts about his mother – is to present the illusion of control, to create decision-making that doesn’t exist.  For Tony, it’s a knowledge that his kids and adults operate on illusion.

 

At the same time, Christopher’s illusions are gone.  Christopher has just been beaten and held at gunpoint with a gun he wasn’t aware was unloaded.  When Adriana picks Chris up from the hospital, she tells him the doctors have told her Chris, when found, had “gone #2 in his pants.”  This comes up throughout the episode, prompting violent reaction from Christopher, but the essential truth is still there – Christopher saw the truth of what he does, saw what its possibilities, and literally shits his pants with the knowledge.

 

Because knowledge can’t go back.  I can’t rewatch The Sopranos with fresh eyes, as much as I’d like to recapture the wonder I felt seeing “Meadowlands” the first time.  Now watching the episode, I find myself restructuring the plots in my head – Raymond Curto, for example, a side character who is intentionally never developed except as a red herring of an FBI informant later in the series, here is said to have been another obvious choice to take over for Jackie once he dies.  I know that that never comes up again. 

 

But this is an episode that only gets better the more you know, and it’s because you never forget the extraordinary wonder of its final scene.  AJ in this episode finds himself fighting at school with Jeremy Piocosta, only to have his conflict mysteriously resolve.  It’s not mysterious to us – an oblivious Tony was carrying an axe when he ran into Jeremy’s father at a plant shop, not understanding what was going on when a terrified Mr. Piocosta says, “I’m not even sure how close the boys are anymore.”  He is sure, and is sure Tony knows too, which he doesn’t.

 

As Meadow explains to AJ about their father’s “Other family,” something takes over, and we don’t fully comprehend it until a wink shared between father and son at Jackie’s funeral.  The song picked to end the episode, “Look On Down From The Bridge” by Mazzy Star, is what must have astonished me most – what is “looking down from a bridge”?  In one sense, Jackie looks down on his friends and family he’s left behind.  In another, Tony looks down on AJ and passes on information about what awaits him.  In a third, AJ looks down on his own ignorance and removes the innocence from what he used to know.  Life is full of disappointments and unmasking behind the truth of our nature, of why and how we act.  As the era of Jackie April goes into the ground and Tony’s era forges ahead, what awaits?  “Meadolwands” is when that question is truly asked, and the rest of the series is its answer.

 

A great trend begins… of notable actors playing way against type in daring, small guest performances.  Here, we are introduced to Vin Markazian, a dirty Jersey cop and alcoholic that owes Tony money from gambling so does favors for him.  He’s played by John Heard, the father from the Home Alone movies.  He and Tony have some sort of friendship, and some sort of disdain for each other, but each have an understanding of the intense desperation Vin feels.  Heard is extraordinary, and he starts a trend picked up by other sorta-famous actors like Anabella Sciorra (as Gloria Trillo, Tony’s depressed, angry girlfriend), Juliana Marguilles (as Christopher’s crackhead lover Juliana Skiff), Robert Patrick (as self-destructive gambling addict David Scatino), Robert Loggia (as beyond-his-prime mobster Feech LaManna), and, eventually, Joe Pantoliano and Steve Buscemi in starring roles.  Apparently the ugliness of real characters could draw movie talents to the small screen – and make the actors better than they’d ever been before.

 

A scene you might not have noticed:  After a nightmare in which Tony sees his friends showing up around Dr. Melfi’s office, he awakes to the sound of a truck honking on the highway.  I don’t know if this is consistent throughout the first season, though I imagine it is and want to check, but after that scene, the sound of cars on the highway is omnipresent throughout the episode, as it is, truly, around Newark.  This is one of those outstandingly placed Sopranos details that goes unnoticed because of how accurate it is, and takes on symbolism in its specificity – outside their doors, life moves callously on, and the noise is like the panic that’s begun to surround Tony’s thoughts on life.

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