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Sopranos: Meadowlands (Review)

It’s interesting how slowly The Sopranos approached the violence of what Tony does. Of course, the pilot episode (The Sopranos) featured Tony brutally beating a debtor in an attempt to earn his money back and the subsequent episode (46 Long) featured Tony beating up an employee at the Bada-Bing for failing to work the telephone properly, but the show generally eased us into seeing Tony as a truly “bad” guy.

It was never ambiguous about his mob connections or the crimes and violence that he committed or that he authorised others to commit, but the first few episodes generally keep that violence somewhat insulated from Tony. Paulie and Pussy brutalise the car thieves to reclaim a teacher’s lost car, while Tony’s threatened castration of a Jewish man refusing to play ball is kept off-screen. While Tony would commit his first on-screen murder in the next episode (College), Meadowlands feels like the first episode to truly present Tony as a borderline sociopath, and to demonstrate just how aggressive and possessive he can be.

Paying respects...

That’s not to say that Tony isn’t sympathetic or well-developed. In fact, allowing us to see his sympathetic side early on allows the series to go to some very dark places quite early. We know that Tony is capable of kindness and compassion – consider, for example, his attempt to spare Artie’s restaurant from a mob hit in the very first episode. Sure, his manner of protecting Artie’s business, by blowing up the restaurant, wasn’t the most peaceful resolution to the problem. And Tony was still a little selfish – clearly wants to be recognised as a good friend for the effort, taking offence to Artie’s legitimate whining about the explosion. However, it seemed like the most decent action possible for all involved.

As a result, his actions towards Dr. Melfi seems all the more shocking, a brutal reminder that Tony isn’t a normal guy. In a way, perhaps the audience has been able to rationalise the violence and aggression Tony has demonstrated towards others. He was pursuing a debt when he brutalised the guy outside the H.M.O. in the first episode. He was trying to offer the Jewish guy any reasonable way out before resorting to violence and the threat of castration. Even the poor Bada-Bing employee just caught Tony at a really bad moment. Tony’s strange compassion and understanding towards animals and his fear for the security of his family lulls us into a false sense of security, and perhaps might lead us to think that he’s not such a bad guy.

Like father, like sons...

It’s to the credit of David Chase and the writing staff that they aren’t afraid to respond by demonstrating he is such a bad guy. He has a corrupt cop follow and shake down Dr. Melfi, his therapist. He’s probably convinced that she’s going to talk or to rat on him, but she has outlined the terms of their relationship in the sessions. Part of me suspects that this is Tony acting out in a petulant and childish manner. He has, after all, been shown to be resentful of Melfi’s college education. perhaps he even resents the fact that she is very clearly in control of the therapy. “I thought we made some progress on your narcissism,” she observes at one point, and it’s hard to imagine Tony responding to such criticism in a constructive manner.

Tony is presented here as essentially an over-grown and spoilt brat. When he plays Nintendo with his son, Anthony, he’s hyper-competitive. While he’s clearly enjoying the experience of playing with his son, it seems impossible for Tony to fathom losing. While his attempts to distract Anthony might seem playful, the intent is fairly serious. He doesn’t want to lose, even if it’s just a pointless video game cart race with his young son.

Adriana!

Of course, Tony’s not the only cast member like that. In fact, as featured in the show, many of the mobsters are presented as little more than hyper-active man-children that never learned to control their impulses or to emotionally mature. “I guess I’m out-of-touch with the climate of rage in American society,” Melfi muses at one point, “the casual violence.” The mobsters exude that sort of rage and casual violence.

In fact, they seem to be the very few who don’t need to restrain or repress it. When Anthony acts out on the primal rage he inherited from his father, the other boy is forced to back down – he’s forced to button up and contain his anger. Similarly, Tony seems to cause an understandable amount of unease, as if simply radiating that sort of violence in a way he can’t turn off – witness the awkward scene at the garden centre, for example.

His neck's on the line...

In contrast to the child forced to back out of the fight with Anthony because of his concern about the bigger picture, most of our cast don’t seem to need to worry about the bigger picture. Christopher, as ever, seems blissfully disconnected from reality – even after an attempted murder, he’s still unable to fathom the potential impact of his actions on the greater scheme of things. The only thing that matters to Christopher is Christopher.

There’s a hilarious moment where he tries to smooth everything over with Meadow, who is getting ready to go to college. “Remember like when you were little?” he asks. “I’ll get you one of those Happy Meals?” Even Adriana, his girlfriend who has barely known Meadow a week, seems to realise how blissfully out of touch Christopher is. “Where the &%#@ are you?”she ponders. Even his response to finding that his corner has been claimed by another gangster is less than subtle. Despite the potential for a gang war, he’s still very short-tempered and incredibly self-tempered. All that matters is Christopher proving to everyone else that he’s a real gangster. And quelling that rumour that he pooped his pants.

Hospital-ity...

Indeed, Meadowlands offers us a wonderful insight into the mob operation. It’s always been a strange blend of business and family. Tony’s business literally is his family. Those scenes with Uncle Junior are delightfully awkward, as the pair hug and embrace like affectionate relatives while discussing the “asking price” for various favours and decisions. In fact, there’s a pretty powerful illustration of the differences between Tony’s generation and the older Uncle Junior in their choice of surroundings. Uncle Junior occupies a coffee shop, while Tony and his colleagues operate out of a strip club. The generation gap at work.

As with pretty much all of the episodes so far, there’s a strongly reflexive relationship with mob cinema. I remember reading that the actual Italian mob only adapted the practice of kissing the ring after they saw it in The Godfather. Here the characters affectionately reference “Francis”, as if on first name terms with the director, while Junior cracks racist jokes referencing lines from the film. Although, given the fondness the characters have for the gangster films, I can’t help but wonder what the cast of Goodfellas must look like to them. After all, about half the cast appeared in Scorsese’s celebrated classic, and I wonder if they’d recognise themselves.

Grave concern...

Meadowlands isn’t quite as strong as the episodes around it, if only because it doesn’t seem to have quite as much going on. Still, the first season oft he show continues to do an excellent job developing the character of Tony, and it’s only going to get better from here on out.

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