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"Just two assholes lost in the woods": Why 'Pine Barrens' is unquestionably The Sopranos’ best episode

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This is the first article in a new series, My Favourite Episode, in which our writers pick out their single favourite episodes from classic shows – the episode they would show a friend to tell them what the show is all about. First up, it’s Sam Diss, with The Sopranos’ ‘Pine Barrens’.

“Fuck you, Paulie!” says Chrissy as he flops his old boy out and pisses next to their broken down van, much to his van-mate’s consternation.

“Captain or no captain: right now we're just two assholes lost in the woods.”

There’s a scene in the other Greatest Show of All Time, The Wire, from the third episode of its very first season, where D’Angelo, a buck-toothed drug dealer in a too-big leather jacket, teaches some younger kids – Bodie and Wallace – how to play chess as they all sit on a fucked-up sofa surrounded by desperate drug addicts.

He teaches these little dudes that life is like chess – kings move slowly because they don’t have to do the work (“like your uncle”), queens fuck shit up and do whatever they please (“reminds me of Stringer”) and pawns can become queens one day but not kings: “The king stay the king, a'ight?”

This sorta ham-fisted allegory serves as exposition for the rest of the show: a labyrinthine-plotted Greek epic of tragedy and comedy, betrayal and drive, where everything is always laden with doom – societal, economic, personal. Doom. Doom everywhere.

“Look, the pawns, man, in the game, they get capped quick. They be out the game early,” says D’Angelo.

“Unless they some smart-ass pawns,” says Bodie.

By design, nobody stays in The Wire very long. Entire casts disappear season on season, hammering home the reality that for the at-risk in poor areas, very few success stories ever appear.

That first line, at the top of this article, from The Sopranos episode “Pine Barrens” is that show’s “The king stay the king”, serving as a perfect summation of the entire series.

And what an episode. Sixteen years since its first airing, its impact has not dulled: It’s the episode – mostly set in upwards of 1.1 million acres of dense woodland on the New Jersey border, and directed by Steve Buscemi – that everyone tells people who have never seen the show to watch. It’s the perfect tragi-comedy, standing alone as the best episode of the show’s best season, and the best thing the show has ever done, equally enjoyable on its own or as part of a whole meal.

This episode belongs to two of The Sopranos’ best – and weirdest – characters, Paulie Walnuts and Christopher Moltisanti, but here’s a quick list of amazing throwaway moments in this episode – just to get them out of the way:

Paulie asking for “the satin finish” while getting his nails done; The entire Czechoslovakian/interior decorator farce; Tony Soprano getting a “London broil” steak thrown at his head; Bobby Baccalieri in full hunting regalia, like a bear who got lost in Millets, while Tony pisses himself laughing; Paulie losing his shoe and then standing there, dejected, and whining “I lost my shoe!” (one of the finest pieces of vocal work ever committed to television); that fucking huge Russian breaking free and running through the woods...

It starts like most Sopranos episodes start: Tony and his girlfriend are arguing on a boat while Paulie and Chris go and see Valery – a textbook one-episode arc baddie; a comically tall Russian mobster in grubby pyjamas – about some money owed. Tony and Gloria storm off the boat and, when Valery gives him some lip, Paulie smashes him in the back of the head with some tacky bric a brac lying around the Russian’s apartment. Now they’ve gotta go bury him, way out in the Pine Barrens, out in the snow.

For a kick-off: the Russian ain’t dead. They just whacked the big, out-cold bastard in the boot of their car. Paulie wants to pay Valery back and make him dig his own grave from the frozen earth… Of course, everything goes to tears. Valery fights back and flees. Paulie and Chris chase him through the woods, one of them fires and catches the Russian in the back of the head with a bullet. Blood flies off. The Russian gets up and keeps running. They freak out and give terrified chase again. Paulie loses a shoe, Chris loses his bearings, they both lose their mind.

Knackered, shitting themselves, Paulie shoeless, hair all mussed up and snowy, Chrissy’s head all bloody and throbbing thanks to a spade to the face from Valery, they find a van with a dead engine and wait there for rescue.

Starved, they find only a Nathan’s takeaway bag with frozen packets of sauce for sustenance. They tuck into them in a state of ecstasy, Paulie taking it upon himself to mix the packets together, as a little treat.

Whether or not I've ever begun to do it justice here, the whole hour is just hilarious; the most outright funny episode they've ever done. The cocksure bravado slipping into hysterical panic and paranoia, and grown men with faces covered in relish sat in a busted van in the middle of the night.

“He could be out there, Paulie, stalking us...” says Chris, at every snapped branch noise.

“With what? His cock?”

Tony is forced to come and find the sorry pair with the help of a very cosy Bobby Bacala – who turns out to actually know his shit when it comes to hunting in a scene where he earns Tony’s begrudging respect in a brilliantly subtle sequence (and who also, so the story goes, first revealed his outfit in the episode while wearing a massive strap-on dildo just off-screen, hence Tony’s laughter) – and the Russian gets away.

That fucking Russian. Valery. More words have been devoted to this chunky lad in nightwear than any other character: whether or not he is dead, whether or not a man with half a skull and no underwear could survive the snowy Pine Barrens, and what would happen if he ever did survive and told his Russian gangster mates.

It’s a plot-point that’s never picked up again in the series, which has only made things worse. “Who gives a shit about this Russian?” Sopranos creator David Chase said in a recent interview. “We did that show! I don’t know where he is! Now we’ve got to go and figure that out?”

Television critic Alan Sepinwall revealed that Chase and episode writer Terence Winter did come up with a way to solve this (via Slate):

Tony and Christopher pay a visit to the local Russian mob boss, where they find Valery sweeping the floor, not recognizing Christopher thanks to a traumatic brain injury suffered when Chris and Paulie were shooting at him. (It would be explained that a local Boy Scout troop found him with part of his skull missing, and saved his life.) At the last minute, Chase changed his mind, and he recalls a despondent Winter insisting, “God, you’re making a huge mistake leaving that on the table!”

But I, for one, am glad they didn’t go with the mobster-Lurch-from-Addams-Family and stuck with something far more interesting:

One comment on a frankly exhausting 20,000 word blog post about the series’ controversial final episode titled ‘The Sopranos: Definitive Explanation of ‘The END’” suggests that ‘Pine Barrens’ was key to whether or not Tony died in the show’s last scene:

On the subject of who actually killed him, is it too far-fetched and too long ago to suggest the Russian from series 3? I found that the Pine Barrens episode seemed like it would be significant in the future when I first watched it; it seemed strange to me at the time that it was left unknown as to whether Paulie and Chris actually got the guy and then they return to find Paulie’s car gone, Chase doesn’t seem like the sort to put something random like that in without it meaning anything...

But why do things have to mean things? The Sopranos is a show unlike many in that things just happen sometimes, mimicking the randomness of life through the not-inconsiderable lens of a mid-level non-New York mafia family. Nobody in The Sopranos actually knows what they’re doing - not Paulie or Chrissy, who never know when or where their next payday is coming from or whether it will be their last.

“After all we’ve been through,” Paulie says to Chris as they freeze in the van, “do you really think I’d kill ya?”

“Yeah,” says Chris. “I do.”

Carmela, who can’t tally her moral grandstanding with her love for new sofas and vases, is rarely much better. And Tony, who can never tell who he can trust and who he can’t, slowly realises that power and status and rank are all just empty concepts. The Feds, who tail Tony and his gang so long they start to grow an affinity for these reprobates, see that their daily work is mostly futile. Even the whole state of New Jersey, which acts as much a part of the show’s cast as any one man, is caught in a crisis of identity; constantly forced to justify itself against its showier neighbours in New York.

For everyone’s struggle for power, nothing really matters; but it doesn’t matter in a way that’s different to The Wire: the people of Baltimore are kept down by the very nature of the American system – they’re told that they can have nothing and they leave with nothing. The characters of The Sopranos are handed a stack of money, a gun, and a lifetime’s supply of Artie Bucco’s good eatin’ and told: “OK, now what?” They are given power and frozen by it; given the raw materials only to shatter to pieces under the pressure.

‘Pine Barrens’ acts, too, as a transition episode: before it, things were dark and bloody and awful and people were maimed and cheated and murdered, strangled with bare hands, with metal wire… but things never felt bad. The first two and a bit seasons are relative boom times: successes and social climbing. And then ‘Pine Barrens’ shines a light on these two fucking idiots in the woods, no clue what they’re doing, blind chasing the blind, scared chasing the possibly-already-dead. This little comedy oasis showed just how futile all of the characters’ existence was outside of their own heads. It makes everything else around it way more depressing by proximity.

I’ve probably seen every Sopranos episode four or five times, but this episode I’ve seen ten or fifteen. My dad, too. When we watch it, it feels like a little treat. We save it for the Christmas holidays. It holds a special place in both of our hearts. Despite putting the horribleness into focus, it feels a rose-tinted look back at the good old days.

To this day, the mere sight of thick forest is enough to make my dad smile. Whenever I sit down to have dinner with my parents, if my dad spots some ketchup and mayo in little ceramic ramekins, I see his eyes widen with glee. “Hey…” he’ll say, jabbing my arm with a fork as he backhands the sauce towards me. “Mix it with the relish!” like Paulie wildly foisting his culinary nous on his desperate criminal subordinate.

It’s a very dad show, The Sopranos, and a real source of bonding: it’s one of the first shows that I ever shared with him. To nick a line from the show: it was this thing of ours: The show is exactly complicated enough to remain intellectually nourishing while simple enough that you can watch it in various states of fugue: drunk, tired, hungover, sad. The jokes are silly, the violence spiteful and quick, the language colourful, the mannerisms endlessly imitable. During its six seasons, the show covered stories cribbed from every run of the mill show imaginable – marriages, divorce, unplanned pregnancies, dream sequences, induced comas, gambling addiction, drug addiction, family feuds (as well as Family feuds) – and yet it used them all as a skeleton on which to hang platefuls of cured meat: thin but satisfying, tasty but leaving a salty taste, good for your soul but bad for your heart.

My dad would sit me down, aged 10, to watch the episodes on E4, much to the protestation of my mum and my dad’s sisters. “He’ll grow up with issues!” my aunt shouted.

I didn’t grow up with issues – as far as I know, anyway – or else none I can blame on some tubby Italian-American lads in cheap tracksuits – but I learned a lot about what matters and what doesn’t matter:

Things that matter: family, friends, songs with choruses.

Things that don’t matter: cholesterol, blind loyalty, ducks.

You just do what you can do with what you have and hope that, in whatever small way, you can make a mark on the world, because besides that? We’re all just assholes lost in the woods.

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