Like a modern-day Hansel and Gretel, Paulie and Chris get lost in the woods. Tony learns just how unbalanced
Gloria Trillo really is, and Meadow learns how much of a loser Jackie Jr really is.
EPISODE 38 - ORIGINALLY AIRED MARCH 6, 2001 WRITTEN BY TIM VAN PATTEN AND TERENCE WINTER DIRECTED BY STEVE BUSCEMI
I’ve been grinning and rubbing my hands together for the last few weeks, looking forward to the prospect of writing about “Pine Barrens.” It is one of the most memorable hours of The Sopranos (and one of the most unforgettable hours in the history of television). Now that the time for me to write about it has finally arrived, however, I feel a little overwhelmed. I think it is an important and brilliantly constructed episode, and I am not sure that I’m equal to the task of deconstructing it. Well, here goes nothing.
Chris and Paulie’s misadventures together make up the bulk of the episode. The pair go to Valery the Russian’s home to collect a debt when his simple request—“Put remote on docking station”—leads to a violent brawl. When the dust settles, Valery is dead. (Or so it seems.) Paulie makes the decision to dump Valery’s body in the Pine Barrens of South Jersey. A series of shots introduce us to the location, but also hints to viewers that the Pine Barrens is more than just a geographical area – it is a place of metaphor and symbolism:
As Paulie’s Cadillac veers onto an exit and heads down a deserted, tree-lined road, we get the sense that the fellas are getting far off the beaten track. They’re entering some forsaken hinterland. The camera tilts down from an overhead shot of trees to catch the Cadillac reaching the end of the line: the road ends, and with it, all connections to civilization. Trees have been previously associated with death, decay and questions of mortality on the series. Some examples: Tony thought he saw a rotting tree in Melfi’s “Korshack” painting; a shot of overhead trees preceded an assassination attempt against Tony; and the sight and sound of fallen trees closed out Season 1.
“Pine Barrens” builds upon these associations, and then takes them to new heights. This is the forest primeval, a place of mythology and ancient archetypes. In our global cultural imagination, forests have long combined the natural world with the supernatural, as we find in Hansel & Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood from times past to Shrek and The Blair Witch Project in more recent times. Sometimes, humans take on almost super-human qualities in the forest (think of Michael Vronsky in The Deer Hunter or John Rambo in First Blood). Valery the Russian is an almost supernatural figure here, seemingly defying the laws of nature and logic – and thus fits right into Chase’s otherworldly Pine Barrens. Just a few weeks after this episode aired, David Chase expressed surprise that some viewers didn’t recognize the symbolic/mythological dimension of the character of Valery:
‘I had no idea people would expect him to come back,’ Mr. Chase said. ‘I just never thought about it. It was a spectacularly different kind of episode, and the Russian guy was like something out of a fairy tale. Well, not a fairy tale exactly. He’s more like a spirit.’ [NY Times, July 16, 2001]
Valery seems to take a bullet to the head, but still somehow manages to escape. Chris and Paulie think they are hot on his trail at first, but the trail—impossibly—goes cold. Chase captures Chris and Paulie from above as they stare incredulously at the footsteps that lead them to nothing:
Some viewers have read this camera angle to mean that Valery took to the trees to escape his killers. While Valery may certainly have used this strategy, I think it is too literal an interpretation for such a metaphorical episode. I think the overhead camera angle evokes God’s point-of-view. God may have the answers that Chris and Paulie seek, but He ain’t sayin’ nothing. The Pine Barrens becomes a place that represents the ultimate uncertainties of our existence as well as the universe’s utter disregard for any anxieties that these uncertainties produce within us. Chris and Paulie are not just geographically lost in this forest – they’ve lost their metaphysical bearings as well.
Many commentators of the episode have likened Chris and Paulie to Vladimir and Estragon from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The hour may indeed contain some outright allusions to Godot. Beckett’s play begins with Estragon struggling with his boots, and the boots become an important element in the drama; similarly, Paulie’s lost shoe becomes an important element in “Pine Barrens,” and he continuously struggles to protect his exposed foot, even creating a makeshift shoe with wire and carpet:
Trees may make another formal connection between the two works. I believe that trees (with their various associations) are important to “Pine Barrens”; in most productions of Godot, the only major piece of set decoration on its minimalist stage is a tree:
Many readers have interpreted Vladimir and Estragon’s wait for the mysterious Godot to actually be an allegory of mankind’s wait for God. (A futile, fruitless, absurd wait in which God, like Godot, never appears.) Prof. Thomas Cousineau, in his book Waiting for Godot: Form in Movement, describes the role of Christianity in Beckett’s play:
The fundamental insight that informs all of Beckett’s work consists in the recognition that our relationship to the world is based on a misunderstanding: while we assume that our individual selves are the center of the universe, the truth of the matter is that the universe, having no need of us whatsoever, acts in accordance with principles that are completely indifferent to our individual needs and aspirations. Christianity occupies an important position in Godot because it is one of the most potent and enduring myths through which the truth of this simple recognition has been obscured. Beckett treats the hope of salvation as an illusion…
I argued in my previous write-up that Chase left the question “Who will save us from Satan’s power?” unanswered. Jesus may be the answer but He may possibly just be an illusion. In a sense, the previous episode functioned as a prelude to the current episode. Like the previous hour, “Pine Barrens” refuses to provide definitive answers. “Pine Barrens” is an allegory of existential dislocation and uncertainty. When AJ grappled with existential questions last year, his grandmother bleakly told him that “It’s all a big nothing.” The Pine Barrens in which Chris and Paulie have lost themselves is an elemental, physical incarnation of Livia’s “big nothing.”
Chris and Paulie are in a serious predicament. All of the worldly concerns that normally occupy them are falling away in the Pine Barrens. Their sole concern now becomes survival. They are reduced to worrying about the bare essentials: an abandoned van becomes their only shelter and packets of ketchup their only sustenance. The Pine Barrens are particularly tough on Paulie. We know Paulie to be a man of simple convictions (he believes all his sins can be paid off with a 6000 year stint in Purgatory) and simple rules (“As of the wedding day, anything that touches her pussy is off-limits”). These strange woods in which the rules of navigation, logic and physics don’t seem to apply completely throw him for a loop. At the beginning of the hour, Paulie Walnuts is his usual confident and well-coiffed self, even taking time out to get a manicure. But by the episode’s midpoint, he is coming undone:
Paulie and Chris come very close to starving and/or freezing to death in the forest. They are fortunate to have just enough cell phone reception to request Tony’s help. It might be a bit of luck that ultimately saves their lives: Paulie fires a gun at his makeshift shoe out of frustration, which alerts rescuers Tony and Bobby to the lost men’s location. Back in the warm safety of Tony’s Suburban, Paulie seems to reflect upon his absurd experience in the Pine Barrens:
As he looks out the window, perhaps Paulie is coming to the realization that the universe is not as neatly packaged with cut-and-dry answers as he had always believed. The image of Paulie deep in thought, surrounded by trees as an Italian aria begins to play softly, signals that this may be a transcendent moment in Paul’s life. But his reverie is momentarily interrupted by Tony, who is annoyed by the dollop of mayonnaise on Paulie’s chin. In The Sopranos, the sublimity of life and the fuckin’ regularness of life continually coexist side-by-side.
“Pine Barrens” obviously leaves a big question unanswered: Whatever happened to Valery? It is a question that has followed David Chase, to his great annoyance, ever since the episode aired. He addressed the issue in a February 2007 Entertainment Weekly interview:
Who knows where he went? Who cares about some Russian? This is what Hollywood has done to America. Do you have to have closure on every little thing? Isn’t there any mystery in the world? It’s a murky world out there. It’s a murky life these guys lead. And by the way, I do know where the Russian is. But I’ll never say because so many people get so pissy about it.
Terence Winter, one of the co-writers of the episode, is one of the people that got pissy about it. He believed strongly that the mystery of Valery needed to be solved and hounded David to revisit the issue in Season 6. Chase relented, and a scene was written in which we learn that Valery survived the gunshot but suffered such massive brain trauma that he was unable to finger Paulie or Chris as his attackers. But Chase changed his mind and the scene never appeared in any episode. This phantom scene is probably what Chase referred to on Sam Roberts’ show 5 years after the series ended:
The “closure-junkies” (to borrow Prof. Paul Levinson’s term) that insist they know Valery’s fate sidestep the importance that David Chase gives to ambiguity. If this hour tells us anything, it is that SopranoWorld is a murky place where events can be unexplained and meaning can be oblique. The closure-junkies that insist otherwise miss the forest for the trees.
Chase spells out for us (literally) that the world can be an oblique place – Meadow plays the word during a Scrabble game with Jackie:
I find it interesting that Chase cuts from Tony’s bullshit comment, “We’re learning how to communicate,” to “oblique” on the Scrabble board. Communication on The Sopranos is often oblique and muddled – rarely does meaningful, clear communication take place. The difficulties with the cellphones are the most obvious examples of this in “Pine Barrens.” The cellular static and interference that lead to Tony’s frustrations and Paulie’s misunderstandings (“He killed 16 Czechoslovakians. The guy was an interior decorator”) might make us laugh, but it underscores just how hindered communication and connection can be in SopranoWorld.
And it’s not just the communication between characters that is cloudy and oblique; the communication between the show and viewers themselves is marked by ambiguity and obstruction. The reason why we cannot know for certain whether Valery died or not is because the episode doesn’t clearly communicate this to us. Chase doesn’t believe in a world where every little thing is clearly communicated. He (like the Universe itself) throws hurdles at us as we try to make meaning of what see and hear. We may remember one notable example of this from “D-Girl” (2.07):
Pussy tries to share a philosophy of love and connection, contrary to Livia’s nihilistic philosophy, with his godchild AJ, but his words come to us in bits and pieces, marred by the static and interference of his FBI wire. As affirming as Pussy’s words might have been, it is Livia’s philosophy that has been the dark beacon guiding most of the events in SopranoWorld. The Pine Barrens is a geographical incarnation of Livia’s nihilism, a place—as its name suggests—that is barren of love or connection or logic or meaning. Livia manages to live on in the series through another incarnation as well…
The episode begins to the sound of Van Morrison singing “Glooooria, G-L-O-R-I-A.” No matter how Morrison sings it, Gloria spells trouble. Tony gets a taste of her bipolar, passive-aggressive personality right in the opening scene, when she tosses his gift into the bay. Just when Paulie and Chris are struggling to find their way out of the forest, Tony gets lost in the crags of Gloria’s rocky emotional landscape. After distressing events (Paulie and Chris missing-in-action, Hugh’s glaucoma diagnosis) have made Tony late for dinner at Gloria’s place, she throws a heavy London broil at him. (In a series that continuously ties food and violence together, this is certainly one of the more unexpected connections.) If Tony has not realized by now that his relationship with Gloria is essentially a variation of his relationship with his mother, he definitely understands it with Dr. Melfi’s help by the end of the episode.
Jackie’s contributions to the Scrabble board (ASS, POO, THE) spell out to Meadow how much of an idiot he can be. She starts to suspect that he is avoiding her, and with a friend’s help, she catches him cheating. Meadow storms away from him, but we will see that she does not become seriously distraught (despite some temporary sadness) over their breakup. Their breakup will be much more consequential for Jackie.
- This is the first of four episodes that Steve Buscemi directs. As incredible as his direction is, his greatest contribution to the series, of course, is as the character “Tony Blundetto” in Season 5.
- Time magazine’s James Poniewozik puts “Pine Barrens” second (after “College”) in his list of the greatest Sopranos episodes.
- Writers Terry Winter and Tim Van Patten won a Writers Guild of America award for this episode.
- The Italian aria “Sposa son Disprezzata” is heard twice in this hour, and will be used to great effect in the next episode.
- Dana Polan, in his book The Sopranos, describes this hour as a “meat locker episode.” The “trapped in a meat-locker” trope has been used in many TV shows, including The Brady Bunch, I Love Lucy, MacGyver, Three’s Company and the old campy Batman series. (Luckily for the Caped Crusader, he was wearing his Thermal Bat-Underwear.)
- Bobby Bacala shows some of his experience as a hunter here. (This thread is picked up again in Season Six’s “Soprano Home Movies.”) Tony, unaccustomed to seeing Bobby in his hunting attire, bursts out laughing when Bobby appears in full hunting regalia. Actor Steve Schirripa recounted to Entertainment Weekly that he was able to get this true reaction from James Gandolfini by walking into the scene with a 30-inch dildo swinging from his pants. It remains unclear why the props department had such a large dildo in their possession. Some questions are definitely better left unanswered.