Along with Hill Street Blues and The Wire, and as well as being an outstanding show in its own right, The Sopranos deserves a place in cultural history as a revolutionary moment in television drama. It was The Sopranos that proved that it is not necessary for a protagonist, or protagonists, to be particularly sympathetic in order for their story to be compelling. Cinema was, of course, already well aware of that, but it is one thing for audiences to slum it in seedy company for a couple of hours and another thing altogether to keep them coming back week after week.
The episode that really set the tone for this was 'College' early in the first season. It starts off a bit like the sort of independent movie that was fashionable in the Nineties and early Noughties, before everything got too serious, a charming, fairly light coming of age/family drama in which a teenage girl gets to know her father as they visit potential universities for her. Then it suddenly turns into ...something else.
It has been called "the episode that changed television forever" and there is a very strong case to be made that 'College' is the best episode of The Sopranos. It certainly deserves an honourable mention here as "First Runner Up," but it is not the definitive episode. That has to be found in the later seasons, because The Sopranos, like all good things in this life, only got better with age.
Among those more mature episodes, there are many other credible candidates to be the best, but in the end 'Pine Barrens' is still the obvious choice for two reasons. First, in a show notable for long story and character arcs, it is relatively free standing. Even if one views it out of sequence or watches it without having seen the show before - neither of which is recommended - one can pick up very quickly on what is happening. If someone asked to see an episode of The Sopranos that sums up every everything excellent about the show, and could not be persuaded to watch the whole thing from the start, then 'Pine Barrens' is an easily accessible point of entry.
This leads neatly to the second reason for its selection: it excels, even by the high standards of The Sopranos, in plot, dialogue, character development, performances, direction, camerawork, editing, musical cues, and use of location. It is possibly the episode most fans remember best, and it has several of the series' most quotable and quoted lines.
The man who put it all together was director Steve Buscemi. This is the same Steve Buscemi whose presence as an actor is practically compulsory in every project with aspirations to be a "cult" film. He has been employed memorably by, among others, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Tim Burton, Armando Iannucci, and the Coen Brothers, who keep killing him for some reason. He has become something of a "cult" item in his own right.
As if this is not enough, Buscemi is also a very accomplished director. He began by directing an episode of the highly respected Homicide: Life on the Street, a show in which he had appeared previously as an actor, and by the time he came to direct 'Pine Barrens' in 2001, he had already directed two full length feature films. Both were realistic examinations of the murky underside of the "American Dream," good preparation for The Sopranos, and both attracted deserved critical acclaim, even if their pessimistic tone limited their box office appeal. It was the first, 'Trees Lounge,' which included Michael Imperioli - Chris in The Sopranos - in the cast, and which prompted David Chase, "showrunner" of The Sopranos, to ask Buscemi, with whom he had not worked before, to direct 'Pine Barrens.' The other, 'Animal Factory,' is a brutal prison drama which might have even the most hardline rightwinger on law and order wondering if it can be desirable to treat any human beings that way.
After the success of 'Pine Barrens,' Buscemi went on to direct three more episodes of The Sopranos and in the fifth season was persuaded to appear in the show in front of the camera as Tony Soprano's rather tragic cousin, Tony Blundetto. He subsequently went on to the leading role in Boardwalk Empire, a historical crime drama obviously influenced by The Sopranos, and a trophy cabinet full of Awards.
If the director of 'Pine Barrens' is best known as an actor, it is in keeping with its eccentricity that one of its writers is best known as a director. Tim Van Patten has directed episodes of The Wire, Game of Thrones, Rome, Deadwood, and Touched By Angel, as well as Homicide: Life on the Street, Boardwalk Empire, and The Sopranos itself - note how certain shows keep coming up here. The story goes that Van Patten had a dream one night in which the characters Chris (Imperioli) and Paulie (Tony Sirico) were lost in the Pine Barrens wilderness in New Jersey, and believes the dream was prompted by tales his father used to tell of an imaginary creature living in the Pine Barrens.
Although Van Patten shared the writing credit, and subsequent Awards, the actual teleplay was assigned to a specialist writer already on the staff, Terence Winter. A hardworking jobbing scriptwriter whose previous credits included the Flipper television series starring a young Jessica Alba and three episodes of Xena Warrior Princess, Winter really made his bones on The Sopranos, rising through the ranks there from Co-Producer to full Executive Producer (it is a classic example of "title inflation" that everyone is some sort of Producer now, and for writers promotion usually comes as a matter of course if they remain on a show's permanent staff). He held the middle rank of Supervising Producer when he got the 'Pine Barrens' assignment.
It was to prove a pivotal moment in his career, as it was for Van Patten and Buscemi. 'Pine Barrens' would earn Winter and Van Patten a Writers' Guild of America Award and an Edgar Award, as well as an Emmy nomination. Winter would go on to act as "showrunner" in Buscemi's Boardwalk Empire, and would also write the screenplay for Martin Scorsese's 'The Wolf of Wall Street' - Scorsese having directed the Boardwalk Empire pilot written by Winter.
So 'Pine Barrens' is not just another episode of The Sopranos. It represents the coming together of three talented men when all were at that ideal point of being hungry to make their marks having mastered their crafts through years of experience. They held nothing back. Van Patten and Winter put all their best ideas and lines into the script, and Buscemi took more time and trouble over the episode than would usually be allowed to a television director. He seems to have been highly committed, personally throwing a steak at star James Gandolfini, and later getting a genuine laugh from him on camera through a very crude visual joke that cannot be described on a family friendly website.
The result is a masterpiece.
It starts innocuously, with no hints of what is to come. In describing 'Pine Barrens' as a "relatively free standing" episode, the emphasis is on the "relatively." This is The Sopranos after all. So the episode begins by checking in with a couple of longer running story arcs.
We see that the rather forced romance between Meadow Soprano (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and Jackie Aprile, Jr (Jason Cerbone), is going nowhere. This is not exactly a surprise. Apart from anything else, it is surely no spoiler to suggest that Jackie might as well have had a big 'X' on his forehead, a target painted on his back, a vulture seated hopefully on his shoulder, a red Star Trek uniform, and a big guy in a black robe with a scythe following him around from the moment he was introduced.
Meanwhile, Gloria is back. It is typical of Tony Soprano's vivacious but volatile mistress, played perfectly by Annabella Sciorra, that she has been hanging out in exotic Morocco and she returns self confidently to the stains of Van Morrison's, er, 'Gloria.' It is not long before she resumes her affair with Tony and starts getting angry with him when he is distracted in her company - hence the steak throwing.
One might imagine that a woman having an affair with a married mob boss might grasp that he might have other commitments. Tony himself (Gandolfini) certainly sees it that way, but is equally lacking in self perception. In one of his sessions with psychiatrist Dr Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) he has one of his hilarious "Why Me?" moments. He considers that he does right by his family and so does not deserve the trouble he is having with his mistress.
Dr Melfi hints that Tony's trying to please an unstable woman whom it is impossible to please mirrors his relationship with his late mother. This is not something a good Italian boy like Tony wants to hear.
Incidentally, as the tension in the main thread of the episode begins to increase, this same Tony, the good family man, is shown losing his cool on the telephone over what he tries to describe euphemistically as a missing "package" - when a brief but brilliant shot reveals his son AJ (Robert Iler) sitting in the foreground only a few feet away, obviously hearing every word. It is not difficult to work out the nature of said "package" and it is clear from the look of horror on young AJ's face that he has done so.
This brings us to the story of the "package," the actual Pine Barrens part of 'Pine Barrens.' At first, it all seems innocent enough, a regular pick up - but since when has anything been innocent in The Sopranos?
Sensible Silvio (Steven Van Zandt), Tony's Consigliere, is due to collect some money from a Russian as part of an ongoing deal, but he feels unwell, so the task is assigned to not so sensible Paulie "Walnuts." A loyal and effective "soldier," Paulie has recently been promoted, perhaps overpromoted, to Caporegime or "Captain," and is very conscious of his new dignity. He is accompanied by Chris, a distant cousin of Tony's wife whom Tony treats as a nephew and protégé. At this point, Chris is still learning the ropes and is a bit unsure of himself. He therefore follows Paulie's lead, despite it being very obvious that Paulie is far from the brightest bulb in the box.
The money is delivered without difficulty, but then Paulie insults the Russian childishly and gratuitously. As happens so often in The Sopranos, a mundane situation becomes very violent very quickly as neither party feels able to back down. The Russian is tough - as Russians tend to be both in drama and real life - so things might have gone very badly for Paulie had Chris not jumped in without hesitation to help.
Soon the two Mafiosi have a body in the boot - or trunk, as Americans would say - of their car, and are driving to the eponymous Pine Barrens to dispose of it. This is a clear reference to Scorsese's classic 'Goodfellas,' in which the hard working Imperioli also appeared - again, note how the same names keep coming up in this genre.
The 'Goodfellas' comparison becomes even closer when it turns out the body in the boot is not quite dead. Remember: Russians are tough - and this one is particularly tough, as Chris and Paulie are about to find out when they reach the Pine Barrens.
At this point, it has to be said that the Pine Barrens in 'Pine Barrens,' are not the actual Pine Barrens, a million acre reserve in southern New Jersey. The episode was filmed in New York State. The real Pine Barrens are coastal, flatter, and swampier, making them the ideal place to dispose of a body, but perhaps not quite so telegenic.
By a singular Providence, it snowed on location just before filming began. The script had called for the actors to act as if they were cold, but now everything actually looked cold too. The bleak white landscape sums up the great theme of Man's insignificance in the face of Nature.
By the time they reach the woods, the Russian - tough, remember - far from being dead, seems well recovered, so Paulie and Chris hit on an unwise strategy to save themselves some work. Rather than just shoot him and bury him, they decide to make him dig his own grave. What could possibly go wrong?
The cinematic reference is now to 'Miller's Crossing' as the Russian is led into the woods. However, there is a big difference with 'Miller's Crossing' - the attitude of the intended victim. The stereotypically tough Russian seems to be getting even more stereotypically tough. Despite having been dragged from his home in the thin clothes he was wearing around the house, he is in his element in the cold and snow. He glories in it. Just as well that Chris and Paulie cannot read the subtitles.
The viewer is less surprised than Chris and Paulie when the Russian knocks them both down and makes a break for it. They shoot at him and he appears to be hit - in the head even - but he keeps going. Did we mention this guy is tough?
Bleeding, he is easy to follow, especially in the snow, but suddenly the trail stops and there is no sign of him. He has disappeared completely. At this point, the visual blessing of it having snowed might seem to have worked against the plot, but it actually gives the Russian's disappearance an eerie feel to it, as if the man has almost supernatural abilities. Rasputin - another Russian who was famously difficult to kill (poisoned, shot, stabbed, and possibly eventually drowned) - is mentioned by Paulie in a rare moment of erudition.
An overhead camera shot looking down on Chris and Paulie has fuelled viewer speculation that the Russian managed to find cover by climbing a tree and this is his point of view of them, but both Buscemi and Chase have denied this was the intention.
The shot rather conveys what fast becomes more and more obvious, that these two city dwellers, in their city clothes, are now lost and out of place in a vast hostile environment.
Much of the rest of the episode is dedicated to two more great themes of literature and cinema, how a man's true character comes out under pressure and how social bonds begin to fray when people are cut off from mainstream civilisation. Since Chris and Paulie are not exactly the noblest of characters to begin with, nor are their social bonds and links to civilisation of the strongest at the best of times, it is only a matter of hours before the pair of them, especially Paulie, go completely 'Lord of the Flies.'
At first they make a rather half hearted and hopeless attempt to track the Russian. They are not encouraged by a telephone call from Tony who has discovered the reason for the Russian's extraordinary toughness, even by Russian standards: he was with the Russian Ministry of the Interior special forces and killed sixteen Chechen rebels single handed.
There is very bad reception on the line as Tony gives Paulie this information, setting up one of the great comic moments of the episode.
Under these circumstances, Chris and Paulie soon give up on the hunt, only to discover that they cannot find their car. Cold and hunger bring out the worst in them, especially Paulie, and their relationship deteriorates rapidly.
Rewatching the episode from the perspective of having seen later episodes, and knowing what happens with this relationship, it is in fact a bit disconcerting at first to see how deferential Chris is towards Paulie in earlier days, and how Paulie evidently sees himself as a mentor to Chris. As the episode progresses, we begin to see Paulie diminish in Chris' eyes, and Paulie is aware of it, even if Chris remains surprisingly loyal to Paulie in the end. Both actors excel, but it is Sirico's finest hour. If his role is usually that of comic relief, he never lets us forget that a clown can still be a very dangerous man - and vice versa.
The point is well made that these men, formidable operators in their own environment, are totally out of their depth with the unfamiliar. The script shows how their general knowledge, especially of history, geography, and nature, is hilariously bad. Paulie's confidence in his military training (in fact he was in the Signals and discharged on psychological grounds) proves ill founded, to put it politely.
By contrast, Bobby Baccalieri (Steven R Schirripa), who seems out of place in the Mafia, is revealed to be a keen hunter and therefore turns out to have the knowledge necessary to rescue them. Tony laughs when he first sees Bobby in his hunting gear, but his mockery does not last. It is rather pleasant to see the amiable Bobby demonstrate his quiet competence and perhaps even earn a little of the respect everyone usually denies him.
So whatever happened to the Russian? We never find out.
This has led to enormous speculation. Indeed, as a topic of debate among fans, the fate of the Russian is second only to the meaning of the final cut at the end the very last scene in the very last episode of the show.
Chase says he knows what happened to him but refuses to tell because he thinks it would now upset too many people. From time to time he has dropped hints about him being found by a troop of boy scouts and going back to Russia with brain injuries. Or perhaps Paulie was right, for once, at least in principle if not in detail, and he was eaten by the local wildlife.
Your reviewer prefers to think he is still out there somewhere, running around in the snow in his underwear to show how tough he is. He has learnt to distil vodka from pine nuts which he shares with his friends the squirrels, he wrestles with the odd bear from time to time just to remind them that he is still the strongest thing in the woods, and he is perfectly happy.
Review: John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards is the author of the 'Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh' and the 'Bluffer's Guide to Small Business,' both of which have been reprinted more than twenty times in English and translated into several other languages. He was editor of the latest Bluffer's Guide to Management and, as a freelance writer, has had over 500 commissioned articles published.
He is also the author of ‘How to Build Your Own Pyramid: A Practical Guide to Organisational Structures' and co-author of 'The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Rome and Judea, 100 BC - 33 AD,' as well as the author of several novels under the name Charles Cromwell, all of which can be downloaded from Amazon. John has also written over 100 reviews for Television Heaven.
John's Website can be found here: John Winterson Richards
Published on June 16th, 2021. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.