“Pine Barrens” (season 3, episode 11)
In which Paulie and Christopher get lost in the woods.
There’s a kind of what-will-happen-next chaotic rhythm that the very best episodes of The Sopranos take on, an editing rhythm unlike any other show in the history of television. The show will spend the first half of an episode carefully developing three or four storylines, bring them all to a point of maximum tension, then throw them in the air and start cutting between them, seemingly at random. If you look at the back half of “College,” you can see this principle play out. And if you look at the back half of “Pine Barrens,” it’s there as well. David Chase and his writers (Terence Winter gets credit for this script, from a story by himself and Tim Van Patten) build to the moment when Meadow realizes Jackie, Jr.’s an ass, when Tony is forced to sit down for another cup of coffee with his in-laws and leave Gloria waiting, when Paulie and Christopher slowly realize just how lost they are, out in the Pine Barrens, and then the episode starts pinging between storylines, seemingly, thrillingly, at random.
“Pine Barrens” is most famous (and it may very well be THE most famous Sopranos episode) for its Paulie and Christopher subplot. What’s easy to forget is that this doesn’t dominate the hour as much as it might if the episode were made today. Breaking Bad’s recent episode “Fly” garnered lots of comparisons to “Pine Barrens,” for essentially being a two-character play set in an isolated location. But “Fly” really IS that tiny, two-character play. If it were a replica of “Pine Barrens,” we would keep cutting away from Walt and Jesse’s predicament to hang out with Skyler or Gus or Saul or some of the other characters, just as we do here. “Pine Barrens” probably spends the MOST time with Paulie and Christopher, but it spends a substantial amount of time with everybody else. And it’s that structure that keeps the episode engaging to this day. Since The Sopranos, TV dramas have, by and large, gotten slower, more drawn out, reaching a point where atmosphere and character moments are everything. “Pine Barrens” is a nice reminder that The Sopranos, despite being a slow show in its own right, was always more jittery than that.
Silvio (who appears in the background of exactly one scene) is owed some money by a Russian named Valery. Unfortunately, he’s unable to collect, so Tony sends Christopher and Paulie in to do the job. Needless to say, this ends up being a mistake, as Paulie’s growing resentment of seemingly everyone (but especially his boss) has grown all-encompassing. When Paulie dicks around with Valery’s remote and Valery asks him to return it to the docking station, Paulie drops the remote on the floor, shattering it. Then, Paulie picks a fight with Valery, despite Valery’s size advantage, because he doesn’t like what Valery says to him. The fight turns into two-against-one, with Valery more than holding his own, but the two finally bring him down, theorizing that a crushed windpipe has felled him and will keep him that way, if he doesn’t die. The two call Tony, who’s got a meeting with Valery’s partner and pal, Slava, later in the day, and he tells them to make sure whatever they do, it happens far away from him. The guys head to south Jersey, to the wilderness area Pine Barrens, to deposit the corpse, though they’re far from dressed for the chore.
You can probably guess what happens from there. Valery wasn’t as dead as he seemed, and when the guys attempt to make him dig his own grave (with what looks like a snow shovel), he whacks Chris in the face with the tool, making his escape—in pajamas, no less—into the snowy woods. The guys give chase, and while Paulie seems to clip him in the head, he gets up and races off again, leaving Chris and Paulie far behind. The two soon realize that they’re well away from where they started and don’t have much of an idea how to get back to the car, even if they’re willing to leave Valery for dead, assuming Paulie’s shot took him out. Chris has a bad cut on his forehead. Paulie loses a shoe after tumbling down a snowy bank. The two kill a deer and spend a night in a truck, finally calling Tony to come and get them. (Thank God for cell phones, or these two would almost certainly have never gotten out of there.) It’s a storyline that’s primarily comic—maybe the most comic storyline the show ever did—but it has thick undercurrents of a tragic nature. Just look at how lost these guys are out of their element. Just look at how quickly they turn on each other, on their boss. Just look at how little trust any of these people have for each other when the normal rules go out the window.
You could have done a story like the main one in “Pine Barrens” before 2001, but it would have been much harder. What makes the story work is that Chris and Paulie get a constant influx of information (and are able to send a constant stream of information OUT) from Tony, connected as they are via cell phones. The episode gets plenty of laughs out of the terrible connection in the Pine Barrens, one that bedevils all parties on both ends, and out of Tony’s attempts to talk over the echo of his own voice or the cutting-in of other people’s conversations. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but I haven’t had either of these problems in at least five years. Has the nation’s cellular network gotten that much stronger?) Even better is the scene where Tony goes to meet with Slava. You know he’s not going to be hurt because he’s Tony Soprano, but the episode gets mileage out of the possibility that Slava already knows, that Valery has somehow escaped the woods and gotten back to his friend, that Tony’s about to walk into that buzzsaw. Instead, he learns that Valery is some sort of Russian green beret, responsible for killing a bunch of Chechen rebels singlehandedly, information he relates to Paulie in one of the episode’s funniest exchanges. The cell phones tie this episode together, make it work as well as it does, letting the writers have the characters stay in touch but also show how fundamentally incapable of communication they are.
It’s not as though Paulie and Chris are the only headache Tony has. What’s fascinating is how “Pine Barrens” may spend so much time with the two guys in the woods, but it’s very much framed like a TONY story. The episode opens with his first meeting with Gloria since her holiday trip, and it closes with Melfi making her famous proclamation about why Tony tends to take the mistresses he does. (They all, on some subconscious level, remind him of his mother, in Melfi’s estimation.) The big things that change in this episode all have to do with Tony’s relationship with Gloria, where he finally begins to see some of the cracks in her façade, thanks to how poorly she reacts to situations taking him away from her. Annabella Sciorra is handed a pretty thankless role to play here—she’s the “difficult woman”—but she does a fantastic job making Gloria’s outbursts feel like forces of nature, forces that would almost provoke Tony to react, but not quite (that long moment when he stands at the door and looks back at her after she throws the roast at his head is particularly terrifying).
The most interesting turn here comes between Tony and Melfi, actually. He finally tells her that he’s seeing someone he met at her clinic, even when earlier in the episode, he and Carmela had a joint session where they talked of how little they’re arguing anymore, and she correctly pins him down as lying to everyone about the source of his happiness. Melfi hasn’t called Tony directly on his bullshit a lot to this point in the series, choosing, instead, to push him to come to these breakthroughs on his own, but here’s one case where she does. He tries to compare Gloria to her; she compares Gloria to his mother. He tries to suggest that he’s happy, so everything is hunky dory; she says that what he’s doing is predicating his happiness on a lie. And when, at episode’s end, she’s engaged in something that’s almost an act of “I told you so,” it’s hard not to read it as a sort of subconscious strike back at a patient who’s given her so much trouble. Gloria’s a mess, sure, but, more importantly, TONY’S a mess, and he seems resolutely uninterested in fixing himself, beyond the most cursory changes.
Meanwhile, in Manhattan, Meadow is back in school and very sick. She plays Scrabble with Jackie, Jr., and it’s the one scene in the episode that doesn’t really work. Jackie is TOO obvious of a lummox at this point, so when he plays the word “ass,” where it could be kind of funny from another character (especially following Meadow’s play of “oblique”), here, it’s just sort of too-obviously stupid. The same goes for when Jackie’s going out on the town, and Meadow calls up to check in on him. The scene where she catches him cheating works, mostly thanks to the actors, but Jackie, at this point, it just so obviously an asshole that there’s really nothing more to this storyline. It’s a wonder that it’s taken this long for the usually pretty smart and capable Meadow to catch on, though I guess we haven’t really seen her in too many other relationships before this point. She just doesn’t know how to pick ‘em quite yet.
But what links all of these little duets? What’s the link between Paulie and Christopher out in the woods, Tony and Gloria, Tony and Melfi, Meadow and Jackie, Jr.? Normally, the show is pretty good about laying out its thematic connections without doing so in a way that spells everything out with a lack of subtlety. But the comic exploits, turning toward betrayal, of Paulie and Chris’ riff on Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead don’t seem to mesh with the much more fundamentally serious stories of Sopranos in love. At the same time, I think the answer is staring us right in the face: The characters have all metaphorically been lost in the woods this season, trapped in situations where everything looks the same, and there’s no real sense of where to turn at any given moment. Tony being trapped in that relationship with Gloria is just different enough from every other relationship in his life for him to think it’ll be a happy one, but he’s very quickly just trapped in the same old thing (notice how his old Russian girlfriend pops up for the first time in a while), unable to find his way out. The same goes for Meadow, who’s new to getting her heart broken but again finds a guy treating her like shit. And while Paulie and Chris are literally stuck in the woods, they’re also lost in their relationship to each other. Where they were once pretty close, they’re drifting apart, to the point where Paulie tries to get Chris to take the fall for what happened, even if Tony’s skeptical. And that’s to say nothing of Paulie’s relationship to his boss, which continues to be strained.
Tony and Bobby finally manage to track down Paulie and Chris, but when they get to the place Paulie says he parked his car, it’s not there anymore. Did the Russian take it? Will the season abruptly shift to a conflict with the Russians for its conclusion? Or did Paulie just forget where he parked? Is his car still sitting, still rusting away, out in the Pine Barrens, like the truck the two men sheltered in for the night? When Tony asks Paulie if he wants to head back out into the cold to figure out what happened to the Russian, the briefest sense of duty flickers across his face. Really, these guys probably SHOULD head out to try and find a corpse, especially with Bobby’s outdoor skills (no, really!). But sometimes, after you’ve been lost for a good long while, after the cold has seeped deep into your bones, it’s just nice to feel the warmth of the car heater, to feel the road beneath you, leading back home.
- The reveal of Bobby decked out in hunting gear is one of the series’ finest sight gags. The scene later where Tony apologizes for laughing after realizing Bobby DOES know his shit is also very well written.
- “Pine Barrens” is a tough episode to write about. Outside of the finale, “College,” and MAYBE “Whitecaps,” no other episode of this show has had as much ink spilled in explaining what works so well about it. One of the nice things about TV Club Classic is getting to revisit episodes that are hailed by nearly everyone as classics of the medium, and it was simply a pleasure to get to revisit “Pine Barrens.” Unlike plenty of other episodes of this show, it hasn’t diminished at all with time.
- This is the first episode in a while where Carmela is much less important to the proceedings than Melfi (probably since “Employee Of The Month”). Sure, she’s there for the couples therapy, and she insists Tony stay for coffee with his in-laws (after her father’s glaucoma diagnosis), but she’s very much a minor supporting character in this one.
- Interesting choice of opera song, as well. It’s a song about a “wronged wife,” which suggests that the real takeaway from this should be about how Tony’s behavior (like Jackie, Jr.’s) hurts his partner. Really, the parallels between Tony and Jackie, Jr., are pronounced, but the show uses the latter to make the case that the days when Tony broke in simply don’t exist anymore.
- Another great sight gag: Paulie and Chris gobbling at those left-over, half-frozen ketchup packets for sustenance. Whatever works, I guess.
- Apparently, one of the shots looking down on Paulie and Chris in the snow has been read by some fans to say that the Russian escaped into the treetops. Maybe that’s the case, but it seems unlikely to me.
- The talk about how the Pine Barrens used to be home to spooky, terrifying things from Bobby is another reminder from the series that the past was far wilder and woollier—and also a better place to be. (His talk also put me in mind of the Jersey Devil, one of the great regional monsters of the U.S.)
- Though nominated for the Emmy for writing, this episode lost to “Employee Of The Month.” And while I like that episode, it’s hard not to feel like this is the better, more lasting achievement.
- The music video A.J. watches, for Blur’s “Coffee And TV,” was always playing in my college’s dining hall, so I guess that’s your, “Hey, it’s 2001!” moment for the week.
- "I saw that movie. I thought it was bullshit."
- "Predicated on my ass! What's the difference?"
- "It's a bad connection, so I'm gonna talk fast. The guy you're looking for is some kinda ex-commando or some shit. He killed 16 Chechen rebels singlehanded."
- "You're not gonna believe this. He killed 16 Czechoslovakians. Guy was an interior decorator." "His house looked like shit!"
- "Captain or no captain, right now, we're just two assholes lost in the woods."
- "He was cute, but he was really boring."
Speaking With The Fishes:
- Naturally, the biggest question anybody from the show got before the abrupt end of the finale was whether the Russian survived or not. (I almost forgot this was a spoiler, in fact, since it’s such common knowledge by now that the Russian never turns up again.) My own theory is that he died in the Pine Barrens, but the loss of Paulie’s car—whether that’s the spot where he left it or not, it sure LOOKS like it, and what kids would be out stealing cars in a wilderness area in the middle of January?—definitely puts a wrench in that theory. David Chase says he knows what happened to the Russian, but he’s also not telling. At the same time, I love the choice to just have this loose end hanging over the rest of the series. It’s nice to have a little mystery, and the chase through the woods—particularly when Paulie and Chris shoot at what they think is him and kill a deer—seems to give him almost supernatural powers that give the whole comedic premise an overlying hint of spooky darkness.
- This isn’t intended as foreshadowing, almost certainly, but it’s interesting that Chris worries Paulie is going to choke him to death, considering how Chris eventually dies.
- Even IF the Russian survived, he sure seems to have escaped to elsewhere, as Slava never causes problems for Tony again.
Next week: The many story strands of season three build to a head in “Amour Fou.”