Boss Jackie Aprile succumbs to cancer, and war over his succession is averted when Tony allows Corrado to take
the position. AJ gets a better understanding of the type of man his father is after talking to Meadow.
EPISODE 4 - ORIGINALLY AIRED JAN 31, 1999 WRITTEN BY JASON CAHILL DIRECTED BY JOHN PATTERSON
Dream sequences are an important part of The Sopranos, and they function in a variety of ways within the series. This episode begins with a dream sequence that does several things: it establishes the Sopranos’ convention of projecting characters’ dreams directly onto our TV screens; it continues the Sopranos’ practice of creating viewer confusion (just as it took some time for us to understand that Tony was in a psychiatrist’s office at the beginning of the Pilot episode, it takes some time for us to understand that Tony is dreaming here); it shows the weird ways in which dreams can connect various concerns and desires. In this particular case, Tony’s issues with his mother, his growing fondness for Melfi, and his apprehension that the Mob will discover that he is a therapy patient all intersect in surreal ways within his dream.
The episode itself progresses in a dreamlike way. Wistful, half-understood nautical connections stitch together various scenes. For example: we see The Love Boat playing (and hear its boat-horn) on Brendan’s TV; a later shot presents an image of a bridge while a boat-horn sounds in the distance; the Sit Tite Loungenette sits on Ocean and Seaview streets; Jackie, in his delirium, nonsensically says “the fish is in my pocket.” It is difficult to know what—if anything—these nautical/water references represent. Perhaps the water references are playing off the episode title “Meadowlands.” The Meadowlands are a wetland, and its gentle name evokes images of a beautiful natural landscape. In actuality, the area is infamous for its industrial pollution and environmental degradation. It is also, reportedly, a favorite dumping ground for dead mobsters and mob victims, possibly including Jimmy Hoffa. (Emil Kolar, the series’ first victim, is buried there.) Instead of being a nurtured, relatively clean travel-destination like some other wetlands (like the Florida Everglades or the Louisiana Swamps, for example), the Meadowlands are mostly a place to steer clear of. It reflects the sordid and industrial side of New Jersey.
I’m a big fan of John Heard’s portrayal of “Vin Makazian,” the washed out cop on-the-take. Makazian fits right into the grungy, criminal underside of NJ. Chase uses a variety of methods to signal what a sordid character Vin Makazian is. When we first meet him, he’s peeing by the Green Grove parking lot, right in front of some elderly women out for a stroll. Makazian is often filmed against grungy, industrial backdrops and cityscapes. One of his scenes in this hour begins with the image of a darkly-lit industrial bridge, and another shows him disheveled against a backdrop of rusty machinery. The street where he beats up Randall, Dr. Melfi’s date, is dark and deserted enough to have a certain film noir quality. (Note how the camera tilts—a typical film noir convention—as Makazian attacks Randall, underscoring that he is not an upright man – Vin Makazian is not “on the level.”)
Makazian’s brutal beating of Randall is a primal example of how those who come into Tony Soprano’s orbit, even marginally, are vulnerable to horrendous abuse. Ordinary citizens are not safe. Dr. Melfi is also a victim here because her personal relationship with the traumatized Randall gets damaged by Tony’s actions. (Ironically, just before Makazian pulls them over, Melfi and Randall are discussing the type of man she is interested in. She giggles gleefully when Randall suggests she is looking for a man “who’s sensitive to your needs but still decisive enough for the occasional grope in the closet.” I’m not sure what type of guy Randall was before the attack, but afterwards, he is little more than an emasculated, pathetic shell of a man.)
THE SOPRANOS, A CONTEMPORARY MOB-STORY
This episode sets up the strong possibility of a gangland bloodbath occurring. Boss Jackie Aprile succumbs to cancer and the ensuing power struggle between Tony and Corrado has the potential to be very bloody. The NJ captains support Tony, but Corrado has the backing of New York. Christopher is thirsty for blood too. Chris was angry to find Brendan Filone’s body in the bathtub, but he goes completely over the edge when he learns that Corrado has infiltrated his drug corners. He rushes into the Bada Bing in a fury: “This ain’t negotiation time. This is Scarface, final scene, fucking bazookas under each arm. ‘Say hello to my little friend.'” In his essay “Tony Soprano as Ethical Manager,” Ronald Green notes that…
Christopher’s acting out of a scene from (a remake of) one of the most famous gangster movies entirely suits his personality. Raised on a diet of television and movies, he often models his behavior on Hollywood formulas, leaving little time for more patient and careful deliberation.
This episode demonstrates how far removed The Sopranos is from “Hollywood formulas.” There is no bloody climax to the NJ power struggle; Tony concedes the top spot to Corrado – and gets the Bloomfield casino and control of the unions in return. (Not to mention that the FBI will now be focused more on his uncle than on him.) The manner in which Tony reaches this agreement is also a major departure from standard gangster-genre fare – he took the advice of his psychiatrist. Dr. Melfi could not have known that this is how Tony would take her suggestion to give Livia and Corrado “the illusion of being in control.” Tony was ready to drop therapy after suffering another panic attack, but once he recognizes that Dr. Melfi’s advice is helping him become a better mobster, he decides to stick around. He tells Melfi that therapy is good because he “got a lotta good ideas here…” (“…on how to cope,” he artfully adds).
David Chase conscientiously displaces the tropes and conventions of traditional gangster narratives throughout his series. In this hour, we expect mob warfare to erupt but it never comes. Larry Barese says that “No one goes to the mattresses these days,” using an idiom for Mafia combat that entered popular culture through The Godfather to point out that the contemporary mob is less violent than in the past. Though we expect warfare, “Meadowlands” is in fact the first episode in which no one is killed. (The only death this hour comes via cancer: Jackie Aprile.) At one point, we think that perhaps Mikey Palmice is gonna get whacked, but he only gets literally “clipped” – Tony staple-guns him. (And in a gesture straight out of The Godfather, Tony lets the staple-gun fall to the floor much like Michael Corleone dropped his gun after killing Sollozzo and the corrupt police captain.)
FATHERS AND SONS
“Meadowlands” gives us our first real understanding of AJ. He is a problem child, undisciplined and prone to fight. AJ’s troubles are a recurring issue, and will be present even in the last episode of the series. AJ antagonizes Jeremy Piacosta throughout this hour, and the two kids plan to duke it out at the baseball field – but it doesn’t happen. There is a direct parallel here between AJ and Tony: the episode builds up to a fight between AJ and Jeremy as well as a bloody duel between Tony and Corrado, but neither confrontation takes place.
AJ learns here that his father is a mobster. We can imagine how difficult it would be for AJ to reconcile that fact into his mental picture of his beloved dad. We too, as viewers, are conflicted in how to think about Tony Soprano. We shudder as Tony utilizes his therapist’s advice to manipulate his uncle (and strengthen his own position, to boot); but we can appreciate how this manipulation avoids a bloody showdown. We see how Tony’s actions victimize civilians, but we also understand that he himself has been victimized by his mother’s deficiencies. (Livia is so bitter about being put in Green Grove by her son that she won’t even accept her favorite macaroons from Tony. [But we chuckle when she insists, while practically licking her chops, that he “leave some out for the lunatics.”] Livia’s recounting of “mothers throwing babies out of skyscraper windows” is an early example of her filicidal preoccupation, and foreshadows her attempt on her son’s life later in the season.) We’re bound to have mixed feelings about this complicated man with the complicated life. Ben Macintyre describes the knotty, naughty hero:
Tony Soprano was the grinning, charming sociopath, who could smile and smile and be a villain: a Shakespearean hero, impossible to like but also hard not to love, conflicted and elemental and awe-inspiring: Coriolanus with a knuckleduster and a paunch. (“The Sopranos: Every Inch A Shakespearean Drama”)
MORE POINTS & REFERENCES:
- While he sits tight at the Sit Tite, Corrado quotes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “…sitting here like patience on a monument.” As many have noted, Corrado has a propensity to make literary or obscure references.
- When Tony sits with Jackie at the hospital, he wonders “What kind of a God…” This is a key existential question, one that haunts the series throughout its run.
CONNECTIONS TO FUTURE EPISODES:
- When Jackie says, “The fish is in my pocket,” there is a quick cut to Big Pussy. It’s impossible to say with certainty that this was done conscientiously, but the Season 2 Finale does strongly associate Pussy Bonpensiero with fish.
- Eliot Kupferberg, Melfi’s therapist, is mentioned by Makazian but we do not see him until a later episode.
- We learn here that Ray Curto’s boy suffers from M.S. Later in the series, we will learn that Ray is an FBI informant, and the story will suggest that Ray may have flipped in order to avoid jail to take care of his son.
- Jeremy Piacosta’s dad, who runs in fear from Tony here, sits amicably with him in “Fortunate Son” (3.03).
- Corrado repeats his Shakespearean line (“…patience on a monument”) in “Pie-O-My” (4.05).
- The slow, haunting song that plays over Jackie’s funeral and closes the hour, “Look On Down From the Bridge,” connects bridges with death in this episode that introduces Vin Makazian; this may be notable because Makazian’s last episode, later this season, will strongly associate bridges with death.