The Sopranos S3E11: “Pine Barrens”

Directed by Steve Buscemi  |  Story by Tim Van Patten & Terence Winter  |  Teleplay by Tim Van Patten  |  60 min   

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

By Colin Hart

10 / 10

“Pine Barrens” can be described as a symbolist masterpiece or a self-contained chef-d’oeuvre of postmodern irony. This is all true, but it is perhaps remembered best as The Sopranos’ funniest hour, a true comedy classic.

Chris and Paulie get lost in the woods, deep in the South Jersey wilderness of Pine Barrens, having unsuccessfully attempted to dispose of a body. With the use of a few atmospheric transition shots by director Steve Buscemi, their isolated plight becomes metaphorical, allegorical, Biblical. But because of their inconsequential human nature, their actions paint a picture of humor, realism and vulgarity. Chris says it best when the two enter a heated argument: “Captain or no captain, right now we’re just two assholes lost in the woods.

I had originally wanted to write a scene-by-scene detail of “Pine Barrens,” but soon realized it wasn’t as self-contained as I had originally thought. There are three central storylines: Chris and Paulie lost in the snowy wasteland, Tony’s disenchantment with the depressive Gloria, and Meadow’s dissolution with the douchebag Jackie Jr. Around the 40-minute mark, the trifecta reaches its climax with Chris pulling a gun on Paulie, Gloria throwing a steak at Tony’s head and Meadow discovering Jackie Jr. with a whore. Not a good night for nobody (another important note: the episode largely takes place over one long day).

But the plotline for which “Pine Barrens” garners its incomparable accolades is Chris and Paulie’s episode-within-an-episode. There comes a moment halfway through in which time seems to stand still — the atmospheric transition shots that pan over the snowy tundra and barren treetops. It is a small moment but, coupled with the mysterious disappearance of Valery the Russian, it brings a supernatural aura to the proceedings. At this moment, the episode becomes transcendent, matching “College” in terms of greatness.

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Paulie and Christopher’s day begins with the task of retrieving Silvio’s money from a Russian associate, Valery. This whole scene — from their small-talk to the roles they act — echoes the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, with Paulie playing the arrogant Jules Winnfield and Chris as the subdued Vincent Vega. As they wait outside Valery’s apartment, their conversation of Russians and the Cuban Missile Crisis calls to mind foot massages and Royale w/ Cheese.

Unfortunately for them, Valery is basically The Sopranos’ equivalent of Pulp Fiction’s mysterious briefcase. After Paulie’s antagonizing nature goes overboard, a struggle ensues that results in Valery tied up, presumably dead, in the trunk of their car. Like the rest of “Pine Barrens,” even the fight scene is darkly comic, gaining humor because it is so credibly realistic — Chris and Paulie get their asses kicked before they are able to overcome the hulking Russian. They drive to South Jersey to dispose of the body down in Pine Barrens.

The camera’s slow crane from the treetops down to the lonely road is the first sign that “Pine Barrens” is more than it seems. I love the little visual inflections that director Steve Buscemi adds to the fore, turning the episode into a somewhat surreal pastiche, all about atmosphere. Buscemi would join the main cast in season five but contributed as a director in the meantime. “Pine Barrens” is by far his best work, and this scene in particular — occurring just around the 18-minute mark — is his greatest achievement.maxresdefault-1.jpgChris and Paulie intend to dump Valery’s body somewhere in the woods, but are startled to find that he is still alive. No matter — he’s bound, beaten and unarmed; what problems could he pose now? They make him dig his own grave.

Buscemi gives a shot from what seems to be Valery’s POV — the camera shakily looking around at the barren trees as he is marched through the woods. The shot establishes unease, emphasizing the isolation of the storyline, while also providing a clue to a more famous POV later on.

Feeling at home with the setting, Valery gets pumped up. The moment Chris lets his guard down (“So how far is it to Atlantic City?”), he smacks him in the face with a shovel and makes a run for it.

Chris and Pualie run after him, not unlike their chase through the poison ivy patch after Mikey Palmice in season one. Just when Valery is almost out of sight, Paulie fires what appears to be a kill shot, a torrent of blood shooting out of the Russian’s head, stumbling out of view.

Yet when they go to investigate, the Rasputin-like figure is nowhere to be found. A trail of footprints and blood abruptly stop, leaving Chris and Paulie clueless. An overhead shot from the treetops watches as they stand in disbelief below.

This bird’s-eye-view POV is Buscemi’s most famous work, and also one of David Chase’s greatest mysteries. Because we never find out what happens to the Russian, this plotline has taken on a mythic quality. It may not mean anything—just like Pulp Fiction’s briefcase — but that still hasn’t stopped people from trying to solve the unsolvable.

But for all it’s worth, the real answer will never be revealed. What an asshole David Chase is to say that he alone knows what happened to the Russian in the woods.

trail-ends
Image from Sopranos Autopsy

Throughout the episode, miscommunication is a crucial factor. Every cell phone conversation features static crackle and random garble, which only furthers Chris and Paulie’s complete isolation, an entirely different wavelength. Even the phone calls between others — like Meadow and Jackie Jr., or Tony and his ex-girlfriend Irina — feature miscommunication in the form of bald-faced lies.

Meadow’s realization that Jackie is nothing more than an entitled douchebag has been a long time coming. Her moment of clarity comes when she looks over at the Scrabble board: POO, ASS, THE.

Jackie Jr. a.k.a. “Little Lord Fuckpants” has bottomed out (again). Meadow finds him with a whore at his apartment in Jersey, his fate now essentially sealed. However, Meadow also regresses by episode’s end, blaming herself for what happened, professing that her boyfriend “was the greatest.” Geez.2017-02-27-sopranos-header.jpgTony, after having endured a few headaches from Gloria, sets out on a rescue mission with Bobby Baccalieri to save Chris and Paulie, who have had a few headaches of their own. Their entire Waiting for Godot situation has built into a full-scale do-or-die argument. Their survival instincts have reached the point where they stop relying on each other and look to fend for themselves.

Chris and Paulie have one of the more interesting relationships of the entire series — two secondary characters who form a reluctant father-son bond. This season alone has seen the two biting at each other’s throats ever since Chris became a made man. They reached resolution in “Fortunate Son” with a Big Mouth Billy Bass. In “Pine Barrens,” during the heat of their argument, Chris threatens Paulie with a gun. The resolution is reached this time when Chris breaks down in hysterical laughter.

While the episode spends a lot of time with the pair, the focus seems to be more on Paulie. After all, he is responsible for what happened with Valery. In the end, after he and Chris are found, his attitude is now to not give a fuck. He looks out the car window with a glazed look in his eyes as an old Italian aria (“Sposa son disprezzata”) plays on the soundtrack.reflection.jpg“Pine Barrens” is a landmark in TV history, having revolutionized the art of the standalone episode. But just like season three’s earlier masterpiece, there is plenty more going on than a simple one-act play. Everything from the acting to the writing to (especially) the directing has made this one of the greatest single episodes in television history.

In the wake of Big Pussy’s death at the end of season two, the characters of The Sopranos have found themselves metaphorically lost, grasping at the last remaining straws of the idolized “good times.” For Paulie, there is no going back after an experience he has had — literally lost in the wilderness. It foreshadows his disgruntled role in season four, but also the entire minimalistic tone that season will bring.

“Sposa son disprezzata” tells of a scorned wife, “faithful, yet insulted.” In this context, it applies to almost every character in the series.

STRAY ROUNDS

– The episode is bookended by scenes concerning Tony and Gloria. It is clear to Dr. Melfi that he is drawn to her because of his mother’s influence, though Tony is not yet aware. He is an outstanding hypocrite during their therapy sessions, thinking he is “doing right by his family” by sleeping with Gloria.

– Another sequence of atmospheric transition shots — this time a look at the frozen tundra backed with a flock of birds in the sky — leads us to another of the episode’s signature frames: two shivering mobsters, guns drawn, wandering aimlessly across the screen. An important postmodernist landmark in TV history; a signature episode within an episode, setting the stage for Breaking Bad’s “Fly.”

That was real? I saw that movie. I thought it was bullshit.

Fuck it, let’s just go. The squirrels will eat him anyways.

 

 

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