(Yeah, this is a little later than noon Central. Writing these is taking longer than I thought it would - longer than the Deadwood write-ups took, actually, and I may have to figure out some sort of new schedule. But we'll figure that out later. - TV)
"Meadowlands" (season 1, episode 4)
The first season of a TV show is often about figuring out what does and doesn't work within your storytelling universe. There will be weird experiments. Characters who will rarely carry storylines in the future will get them in full force. And storylines will often meander a bit. Even on a show like The Sopranos, where the series has a surprising amount of self-confidence in what it's doing, there are going to be episodes that try to stretch the template and don't always succeed. There's a lot of good stuff in "Meadowlands," but there's also some stuff that doesn't work. On the other hand, the episode pulls most of this together in the end, so it's not like the episode is anything approaching a failure. It's just a bit of a step down from the previous three.
First, though, let's talk about The Sopranos' storytelling model.
In the past few years, the accepted storytelling model for "great drama" has become the idea that all seasons (and series, really) should tell bold, novelistic type stories that have an epic sweep and many moving parts that all come together in the end to tell one cohesive story. The Wire, of course, is the most obvious example of this, but in just the last five years, we've seen series like The Shield, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica come to ends that suggest the creators thought of them as big novels that came to (mostly, in some cases) satisfying conclusions. All of these shows, of course, were heavily influenced by The Sopranos in ways both big and small. But The Sopranos is not nearly so epic in sweep. It's novel-like in places (especially as it draws the many strands of its story together in the final two seasons, particularly the fifth), but it much more closely resembles a collection of short stories.
A good example are the first three episodes after the pilot (with the pilot serving as a prologue). They more or less tell a complete, three-act story about Tony and Junior nearly going to war as Jackie Aprile slowly fades away before Tony's idea for a truce prevents more bloodshed. The first episode - "46 Long" - shows the rumblings of conflict that threaten to spill over. "Denial, Anger, Acceptance" pushes everyone into a dark corner and ends with a murder. And "Meadowlands" pushes everyone to the brink before Tony can figure his way out of the corner. They're a pretty neat little unit, and, honestly, if this storyline had stretched over the first season (or even the first two seasons), it likely would have made for good TV nonetheless.
But by confining the storyline to just three episodes, David Chase is suggesting he's less interested in the mob stuff than his fans ever were. The head of the DiMeo crime family, someone who might have been a very important figure in just about any other mob narrative, is only a shadowy figure at this point in the series (and, spoiler alert, remains mysterious throughout the series, in keeping with the series' sense that the past was a better place we can no longer visit), stuck away in a federal prison where he has little to no influence. Jackie Aprile's death could have triggered an all-out war, but instead, it triggers a muted truce, with most of the tensions off the table (for now, at least). Chase was always more interested in writing short character sketches than plot-heavy tales, and that was where he and a lot of his viewers parted ways. It's also where I draw the idea of the structure resembling a series of linked short stories about the same characters. The series takes on some of the epic sweep of a novel, but it actively resists it at most turns, preferring to tell these small-scale tales of hoodlums who don't really realize the costs of their actions, not yet. (We'll see a sterling example of this in the very next episode.)
"Meadowlands," then, has most of its burden on the plot, and that's somewhere that The Sopranos was never as successful going to. There were marvelous plot payoffs throughout the series - I'm thinking, in particular, of the end of this season and the ends of the third and fifth seasons - but the show was always more fascinated by the way events in life will seem to build up to something huge and then fizzle out in a dull anticlimax. The school of thought that holds that fiction, particularly serialized fiction, is meant to tell a tale that's slightly larger than life and offer up a narrative that slowly coheres into something meaningful (on at least a thematic level) always saw this as the greatest failing of The Sopranos. They could see the series heading toward these sorts of storylines, but it always shied away at the last minute. Chase, who I think thought this was more true to real life and always seemed to actively hate his audience's lust for bloody payoffs, offered this up as a way to keep guessing. You can't know the bloody payoff is coming. That robs it of its power. What kept viewers hopping through most of six seasons (let's just forget the back half of season six) was Chase's nervy sense that the storyline should never be completely predictable.
So when Tony and Junior sit down and iron out their differences with only Brendan's corpse between them, it's sort of a template for where the series is going to go in the future. In the real world, people usually figure out a way to iron out their differences before things get too hot, and when Tony and Junior did here, it felt like a bold storytelling stroke, not necessarily a plot stall (though it's also that). "Meadowlands" is an episode that's all about image, about the fact that sometimes it's better to be the power behind the scenes and not get all the glory than to be the person getting the glory. Christopher wants to be a big-time mobster, but no one will take him seriously. Junior wants to be the boss, but even he knows that everyone will always listen to Tony more than they will to him. Even the weird little side-plot about Tony sending the cop to track Melfi and her date becomes just as much about how removed from whatever bestial nature they possess the doctor and her companion are. But once they get into a situation they can't handle, very animal reactions like panic come out full force.
The show is trying to most express this through the story of AJ, getting involved in a fight over some money and some insults at school. Despite the fact that the series improbably nails how junior high kids were talking to each other in 1999 (I haven't thought about the word "fartknocker" in years), this plot's a little weak, particularly when compared to last week's Meadow storyline, which was, by equal turns, funny and perceptive. I like where this storyline eventually goes - having Meadow tell AJ just what their dad does and then having her go to the circa-1998 GeoCities-like site to give him a printout - but the stuff at the school is pretty pointless, playing out as a sort of miniature version of the Tony and Junior conflict and ending much the same way. What doesn't work here is that Robert Iler isn't really up to the material, even though the story isn't all that complex. As the series progresses, he'll grow as an actor some, but in the early days, any AJ plot can be pretty dire. (If nothing else, this episode proves how much acting talent Jamie Lynn Sigler had as a teenager. That look she tosses Iler at episode's end is fantastic.)
Meanwhile, the series goes in for the first of many, many dream sequences with a rather awkward look into Tony's subconscious, as he objectifies Melfi, fears that his crew will find out he's going to therapy, and then places his mother in Melfi's seat (in a direct lift of the famous shot from the end of Psycho). It's not an altogether convincing sequence, and the show would do better dream sequences later, but it at least reminds the audience that the show is deeply interested in these characters' subconscious thought processes. Better yet is the show's return to its idea that everyone is venal or corrupt. Tony, of course, has a cop on the take (the wonderful John Heard in his first appearance as Vin Makazian), and the show nicely uses the symbolic device of a box of macaroons to show how Tony's corruption spreads out to just about everyone he touches, even folks he'll never meet at the assisted living facility.
"Meadowlands" isn't a world-class episode of The Sopranos, by any means, but it is a pretty good summation of many of the things the show is going to be interested in going forward. In some ways, this episode is the one of the early episodes that feels the most of its time, with the dream sequence feeling like something lifted from Twin Peaks and numerous mentions of things specifically of the era (when was the last time you heard anything about the Promise Keepers?). Looking back over criticism of the episode written at the time, it seems like the episode was one that people loved at the time - and it even won a Writers Guild Award for the script! - but it would be overshadowed by episodes to come, including the one that aired the very next week, which has a legitimate claim to being the series' best episode.
- I try not to be pedantic about stuff like this, but my roommates and I played Mario Kart 64 all the time, and Tony is playing it ALL WRONG.
- Another character who's mostly completely recognizable this early in the game: Adriana, who seems confined to one-off scenes in the episodes she's in this season but is nicely realized already. Also, I had forgotten just how gorgeous Drea DeMatteo is/was. Man.
- I haven't said a lot about Christopher above, mostly because I said most of what I think about the show's interpretation of him in season one last week. But man, he's funny in this episode. Every time he wanders around in his neck brace and spouts an aphorism or two, it's comedy gold.
- Another great sight gag: Tony reading about elder care at the Bing.
- The stripper saying "I'll never forget where I was this day" while watching the announcement of Jackie's death on TV is another Chase device. We all try like hell to make ourselves and the moments of our own lives out to be more important than they actually are. It's the only way we know how to cope.
- The Foley work, particularly in the scene where Tony beats Mikey, is really overdone. I get that sound mixing isn't the easiest thing in the world, but it sounds a little too much like an old Western.
- An eerie line (that wasn't meant to be) when the dying Jackie says he's "in the World Trade Center."
- Tony lets Carmela think his therapist is a man. I wonder if that will pay off …
- "I thought we made some progress on your narcissism."
- "Don't ever say you hate life. That's blasphemy."
- "I come here to get cheered up. You think that's a mistake?"
- "Leave some out for the lunatics."
- "You want someone who's sensitive to your needs, but still decisive enough for an occasional grope in the closet."
Speaking with the Fishes (thanks, Madson!):
- Vin, of course, will return throughout this season, and his end is one of the season's better moments. I still think Heard deserves a part worthy of the work he turns in here.
- One of the great, understated dark jokes of the series is the way that Tony turns Melfi's advice into ways to deal with his problems in the mob world, and we see the first glimmerings of that here, as we cut from Melfi saying that sometimes you need to let a child think he's in control to a shot of Christopher, who constantly needs to be managed in this fashion. The show is aware of this before the characters even are.
- Similarly, is this the first time that we start to see Tony let Melfi in a little more into what actually happens in his life (by talking about his Uncle, the dead body, etc.)? It's clear that Melfi knows what he does from the pilot, but here seems to be the first time he's a little more open with her.
- Here's something I've genuinely forgotten: Do we ever see Melfi's kid? Or is she/he to join the realm of great, unseen Sopranos characters whose influence hangs over everything we think we know about the characters we see?
- This episode also features the first really big Tony and Carmela fight, and you can almost feel the show realizing just what it has in this prickly chemistry.
"College" (season 1, episode 5)
There are two important episodes in the development of a TV series. There's the episode that makes you say a show is worth following, that you'll stick with it for a few episodes or for a half season or a season. This episode is often the pilot or the second episode. Sometimes, it's an actor or creator, someone who's earned your trust as a TV viewer, where you want to see what they do next. (There's a ton of people still watching Treme just because David Simon created it, and I stuck out the pretty pointless last four episodes of John from Cincinnati just because David Milch was behind it.) But the other episode is more important. It's the episode that takes a show from just being one you watch to one you know you'll follow to the ends of the Earth, no matter how bad it gets, the episode that takes the show from just a TV show to a fully realized fictional world, with people you care about and settings you might like to visit, given the time.
In most cases, the episode that takes a show from just a show to an obsession is different for everyone. The episode that really got me into Buffy is probably not the episode that really got you into Buffy. And it took me until "Peter," late in Fringe's second season, to think that the show was going to be something other than one I wasted time on every week. But there are a few cases where one episode is such a clear statement of purpose, such a clear statement of "Look what we can do!" that it seemingly knocks everyone who watches that show back and leaves them to collect the pieces. "Walkabout" from Lost is one of those episodes. The fourth episode of The Wire (the one featuring the "fuck" scene) is one of those episodes. And "College" is one of those episodes. The Sopranos would do a lot of episodes as good as "College." It would stretch its creativity in new and different directions as the series went on. But I don't know that it would do a better episode than this one. This is The Sopranos, distilled almost completely to its essence. (Those of you who think I'm not hard enough on this show might want to check out now. I love this episode, and it's likely one of my favorite episodes of TV of all time.)
The storyline, honestly, feels almost insultingly simple, of the sort that anyone should be able to think of. And yet, the genius of the episode is that the storyline blends almost every aspect of the show's world so completely that it feels like a natural thing we're watching, not really a story being told. Similarly, when I think about a series about a mobster who's also a family man, I don't know that I would think of this particular premise. A mob captain taking his daughter to see colleges and running across an old informant who went into hiding is the best kind of premise because it's so simple that you smack yourself for not thinking of it, yet you'd never think of it all the same until Chase and co-writer James Manos, Jr., present it to you like this.
The episode follows two major paths. In one, Tony and Meadow are on a road trip to visit schools in northern New England (Maine, for most of the episode), and Tony sees a guy who ratted out a bunch of his family to the feds. He has to balance taking his time to confirm that this guy is actually the rat with showing his daughter around and keeping her from getting into trouble, a perfect representation of the central conflict of the show that HBO was selling at the time - "If one family doesn't kill him, the other family will." Meanwhile, Meadow's starting to ask questions about the family business, questions that Tony is willing to answer, but only up to a point. By episode's end, the half-answers he was giving have been shut down all over again, and we're right back to where the two characters were at the start.
Back in New Jersey, Carmela and Christopher spend a long evening full of torrential rain in very different ways. Christopher waits by a phone for his boss to call and give him new marching orders (in a bit that feels amusingly dropped in from some sort of existentialist play), while Carmela is surprised to find that the family priest, Father Phil, has dropped by for some of her baked ziti and to watch Remains of the Day on Tony's new DVD player (gotten via illicit means, remember). Tony and Meadow are in Maine. AJ's off with a friend. And it's clear from very early on that Father Phil's feelings for Carmela are not strictly in keeping with the priest/parishioner relationship.
And that's it. As mentioned, it's a simple episode (all the best ones are), but it's also a tremendously rich episode, full of subtext and emotional conflict that will be mined as the series goes on (all the best ones are). After wrapping up the business of the prior four episodes, The Sopranos now begins to push some of its other ideas more fully. Perhaps the central question of The Sopranos is voiced here when Carmela says, in her ad hoc confession she arranges with Father Phil, "I have forsaken what is right for what is easy." Given how the series ties its story in to the larger story of where America was as a nation in the late '90s, this seems like it has reverberations for the nation as a whole when she says it, but the series wisely keeps it focused directly on these characters, who have built their house on a foundation of blood. The Tony and Meadow stuff gets the most praise from viewers and critics (and justifiably so), but the scenes between Carmela and Father Phil are some of the most thematically successful of the whole series. This is not just going to be a show about the mob or even about people who do evil. It's going to be a show about the cost of doing evil and the ways that evil eventually trickles down to everyone a person touches, even innocent children.
There's a rhythm this episode gets into somewhere in its second half that is intoxicating. I'm thinking, in particular, of how the show cross-cuts among four different characters after "Febby" finds out that Tony's after him. You'll be following Tony as he's out looking for more information on who this guy is in the evening streets of Waterville, Maine, then you'll cut to Febby checking out the bar Tony just left (with Meadow drinking with some college girls in the background), and then you'll cut to Christopher in the rain, about to receive a phone call, the tight dolly in on the phone booth making things seem even more apocalyptic than normal for the show. From there, it's back to whatever Carmela and Father Phil are up to or back to Tony's search or back to Meadow getting hammered. It's an uneasy rhythm the episode develops, and it uses it completely to its advantage.
Rather famously, HBO didn't want Chase to have Tony kill Febby. Chase responded that if Tony didn't kill Febby, the audience would lose more respect for him than if he did. Chase was probably right, and his use of cross-cutting and point-of-view camera angles (via the brilliant director Allen Coulter) is very effective at putting us in the headspace of both Febby and Tony as they slowly stalk each other, circling closer and closer and readying for the kill. When Tony finally nabs the guy, it comes as a relief, not because we think Febby deserves to die, so much (he seems to have mostly reformed and is living what looks like a nice life), but because we don't want to see Tony taken from us. The episode that ends with neither dying - the one that HBO wanted - wouldn't have been as fraught with tension, and it would have fizzled out just when it didn't need to. I praised the show's ability to switch up when it delivers big climaxes with when it delivers anti-climaxes above, but this episode is a good example of why there does need to be a payoff every once in a while. Without Febby dead, this episode is diminished, and Tony doesn't seem like nearly as potent of a character.
But there's so much more to this episode, really. That final scene, where Tony and Carmela confront each other over their supposed indiscretions (with Carmela, for once, being the one who's more "in the wrong," if we only compare these specific incidents) is a great capper on the episode. The scenes where Tony and Meadow talk about what he does and where she tries to confess to taking speed, only to realize that confessions between parent and child can only go so far in either direction are similarly terrific, and well-played by both Sigler and James Gandolfini (who was somehow never more sympathetic than he was in this episode). The brief cameo by Dr. Melfi, calling to reschedule an appointment (and how interesting that both Carmela and Melfi suffer from the flu?), even works, causing Carmela to spin off in an entirely new direction emotionally.
The best Sopranos episodes created a kind of storytelling where events would inform each other but wouldn't necessarily lead to each other. You'd have one thing happen, and it would inform our knowledge as to why another thing would happen, but it wouldn't necessarily proceed directly from what came before. It was Chase's attempt to create a story structure that felt less like point-A to point-B TV storytelling and more like the way that life feels like an accumulation of events, rather than a long series of causes and effects. "College" is one of the best examples of the series attempting that (and pulling it off) that I can think of. From its use of random chance to save both Tony and Carmela - as Febby doesn't want to take out Tony with witnesses and Phil's stomach chooses the very moment when he and Carmela are about to kiss to rebel (though this could be read as his subconscious, I suppose) - to the way it pulls no punches about how bad of a man Tony is (especially with that Hawthorne quote), this might be the best Sopranos episode there ever was, a strangely funny, incredibly tense meditation on what it means to choose the easy path every single time.
- Chase won his first of three writing Emmys for the series for this episode. It was also the episode that won Edie Falco her first Emmy. Perhaps surprisingly, she was the only cast member to win an acting Emmy in the show's first season. (Though the show lost to The Practice, so maybe that's not that surprising at all.)
- Wikipedia informs me that in the DVD commentary for a fourth season episode, Chase lists this as his favorite episode of the series. It certainly seems like the episode when he and his writers realized just how rich the world they had come up with could be.
- Animals return, as the deer is what's making the noise that draws Febby outside for his last few moments and Tony watches ducks flying south after pulling off the hit.
- One of the big rediscoveries for the series for me has been that Michael Imperioli is seriously funny. He's great again, here, as he stands in the rain.
- A couple of years ago, TV Guide named this the second best TV episode of all time. I wouldn't go that far, but it would be up there. (Honestly, though, I have a handful of Sopranos episodes I like more.)
- Somebody wanted a death count, so you shall get a death count. After these two episodes, we stand at five deaths: Jackie dies of natural causes in "Meadowlands," and Tony whacks Febby in "College."
- "Did the Cusamano kids ever find $50,000 in kruegerrands and a .45 automatic while they were hunting for Easter eggs?"
Speaking to the Fishes:
- Other than the thematic material I pointed out above, there's not a lot here that recurs, much like later Sopranos standalones like "Pine Barrens." That said, Meadow doesn't bother going to any of these colleges and, indeed, ends up even closer to home (though the inability of Meadow and AJ to escape their parents is a major theme of the later seasons of the series).
- Father Phil comes back a few times, as I recall, but he never has a showcase quite like this one. Now, he's sleeping with Edie Falco on Nurse Jackie.
- This is the first episode of The Sopranos to have a significant number of cast members sit the episode out. This was likely a function of the show not having the budget to pay for every actor in every episode this early in its run, but that still makes it seem a bit odd when AJ pops in for, literally, a scene or two (though I liked his inability to make poached eggs).
- The Sopranos is probably our greatest Catholic series. A haunting sense of Catholic guilt permeates a lot of what transpires later, and, of course, the symbolism of the Catholic communion is dominant in this episode. Are there other great series with dominant Catholic themes?
- "Ass Dan" writes that he wishes they had stretched out the "Tony as capo" plotline for at least a season, if not longer, as the "Tony as boss" plotline eventually dragged a bit. While I don't disagree, I think that Chase's interests always aligned more with the character beats than the mob storylines, and I rather doubt that the series wouldn't have gotten more and more contemplative the more creative freedom he had, regardless of what the storyline was about. (Also, famously, Chase put every storyline idea he had into season one, which is why it seems to move like a rocket in comparison to other seasons.)
- Richelieu Jr. points out that AJ eventually comes to really resemble his dad. I agree. I don't know if that's a happy accident or what, but the way that the series draws parallels between AJ and Tony is one of the best things about its latter half, particularly in the last nine episodes of season six (where AJ legitimately becomes one of the show's most compelling characters).
- Vic Hedges says that the show lost some of its tension after Nancy Marchand died. I tend to agree, though I think that the way the series came up with various surrogate figures to stand in for her in the last four seasons was consistently fascinating, too. That said, it's easy to see how the show could have descended into one-note repetition of Livia's storylines after a few seasons, and having her ghost haunt Tony in a way he couldn't deal with ended up being just as dramatically compelling.
- Someone who refuses to give their name ranks the hottest Sopranos women. It's Adriana. Duh.
See you next week as tensions begin to mount again with "Pax Soprana" and "Down Neck."