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:
* God, Vin Makazian. One of the show's best-drawn recurring characters, made so immediately vivid by the script and by John Heard's performance as this self-destructive loser who can't quite admit what he's become.
* Tony's near run-in with Silvio is the first time we see more of the Montclair office building where Melfi's practice is located. From what we see of that hallway, and how far the offices are spaced apart, it doesn't seem to match what we know of the layout of Melfi's waiting room and actual office, but maybe the building's irregular on the outside.
* We meet three of the other Family captains: Ray Curto, who tries to duck boss-dom because his son has MS; Larry Boy Barese, who suggests they try running things like a council; and Jimmy Altieri (played by Joseph Badalucco, whose brother Michael won an Emmy in '99 for his role on “The Practice”), who says they need a supreme commander.
* Tony continues his lie of omission to Carmela about Dr. Melfi's gender. You don't have to be a veteran viewer of the show to know this will not end well for him. Also, interesting to note that she's flashing almost as much leg in the scene where she vents to Tony about what Makazian did as she is in the dream that opens the episode. He fantasizes about her, but she's also not dressing Amish for those sessions.
* Loved Tony's crew arguing about how exactly Moe Greene died in “The Godfather,” and how that compares to Brendan's murder. “The Sopranos” only occasionally resembles the classic mob movies, but its characters can quote them chapter and verse.
* Party Like It's 1999: AJ pranks Jeremy be sending an obscene message to his pager, while MegaMob.com is such a sterling example of late '90s web design that it should probably exist on a GeoCities or Angelfire server. (Also, love that Meadow prints out pages from it for AJ to read later. This is a thing we used to do. Bill Simmons alone was likely responsible for the deforestation of many acres with his vintage mailbag columns.)
* We saw in the previous two episodes that finding the humor inside the mob world wasn't always easy to match tonally with the rest of the show. The scene here where an oblivious Tony is gregariously waving an ax at Jeremy's terrified father is a much better example of it, as well as a fine example of what a good comic actor James Gandolfini was.
* For that matter, the one Tony/Livia scene this week (other than her brief cameo in Melfi's clothes in the dream sequence) is a delight, particularly when he notes that he visits her to get cheered up and asks, “You think that's a mistake?” Sadly, this is about the best he can hope for from an encounter with her: a minimum of yelling, and Livia in her incredibly roundabout way asking him to leave a few of the macaroons for her, not that she'd ever admit that this is what she's doing.
* “I'll never forget where I was this day.” God bless the Bing girls, each and every one.
* This week's closing credits song: “Look On Down From the Bridge” by Mazzy Star.
* If you're looking for more of my writing on “The Sopranos,” here are links to my Star-Ledger episode reviews from the later seasons. The show was also the centerpiece of my book, “The Revolution Was Televised.” It's getting an updated edition this fall, dealing primarily with the ends of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” and some of the larger changes to the TV business in the last three years, though there will be some other tweaks. (“The Sopranos” chapter, for instance, will touch on David Chase's recent comments about the show's ending, but the bulk of that one's unchanged, if you're eager to read now.)
And now we come to the spoiler section, where I talk about how events in this episode will have ramifications later in the season or series. If you're new to the show and watching one week at a time, you can safely stop reading now.
* Okay, so Ray Curto? Please remember that he looks like this, and is not to be confused with Patsy Parisi, even though many “Sopranos” fans did, because Ray appeared infrequently and both men had receding hairlines and wore similar glasses. This gets complicated starting in season 3, when we learn that Ray is a cooperating witness for the government.
* Larry Boy will be in and out of jail for the rest of the series (with his kid brother Allie Boy taking his place during his incarcerations), while Jimmy isn't long for this world, as his crew (which handles most Family construction in North Jersey) will be taken over by various Tony irritants (Richie, Ralphie, Vito) in later seasons.
* Tony has discussed dreams in prior episodes, but the nightmare that opens “Meadowlands” would be the first of many visual representations of Tony's unconscious mind. Though the majority of the complaints about the dream sequences – on a show whose very first scene took place in a psychiatrist's office – would come later.
* As I noted last week, Jackie Aprile was a mixed consolation prize for Michael Rispoli not getting the part of Tony. He's only in these three episodes – plus a cameo in the flashbacks of season 3's “To Save Us All From Satan's Power” – so it didn't turn out to be a lucrative, steady job for Rispoli, but at least it's a memorable one. And at the time, Chase had no idea the show would ever exist beyond this first season, so it's not like he was deliberately short-changing the guy. Here's my question: what longer-lasting “Sopranos” role – whether someone introduced this season, or later on – would Rispoli not only have been good at, but arguably better than the person who actually played him? He's a stronger and more versatile actor than Steve Van Zandt, and certainly would have made a fine Silvio, but Van Zandt's weird screen presence is part of what made “The Sopranos” distinct. He's not old enough to play Richie, it's hard to imagine anyone being better than Joey Pants as Ralphie, someone like Eugene wouldn't have given him anything to do before his death episode… is there a good answer for this?
* Tony will continue using Melfi as an unwitting adviser for many years to come. Once she solves the riddle of the panic attacks in season 3, getting her help in dealing with the Ralphies of this world is as much a reason to go as his feelings of attraction towards her.
* Also, while later events this season suggest Tony is largely justified in his fear of what would happen should other wiseguys find out he's in therapy, there's also that great scene coming up where he tells the guys in his crew, and they're largely fine with it. The times, they are a-changing.
Up next: “College,” easily the series' most important episode, and a landmark episode in TV history.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com