The Weird, Wild Detour of “Pine Barrens”

The Weird, Wild Detour of “Pine Barrens”


Man, did I have trouble picking an episode for this assignment. It’s been a while since an essay caused my indecisiveness and intermittent perfectionism to rear their heads to such a degree. It was the specificity of requesting a review of a “surprise episode” that threw me off. Is it better to pick a good surprise or a good episode? Does it have to be an obvious surprise or could it be a more subtle one? I had originally decided on the Mad Men episode “The Suitcase,” but, tragically, I did not have access to rewatch the episode. I then resolved to pick an outside-the-box episode, but no option that I came up with felt right. Nothing appealed to me and nothing felt good enough. And so, after agonizing over my options forever, I went with a very inside-the-box choice: The Sopranos’s “Pine Barrens.”1

“Pine Barrens” is surprising because it detours from the main storyline of the show into a series of events and setting whose purpose and meaning I still struggle to fully understand. Though the episode features two small subplots belonging to protagonist Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), “Pine Barrens” mainly stays with mafia soldiers Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie (Tony Sirico). The episode follows the two as their day goes bizarrely awry when they end up “killing” a man and decide to dump his body in the Pine Barrens woods of South Jersey. “Pine Barrens” is not outside of the continuity of the show, but the episode is mostly self-contained. Some critics have even referred to it as a bottle episode despite the fact that it does not exactly fit that definition. To me, “Pine Barrens” is as if The Sopranos suddenly said, “Wait a second…let’s do something different.” And so, instead of sitting in the back of Satriale’s or having arguments in Tony’s kitchen, we spend the majority of the episode wandering through the wilderness with Paulie and Christopher wondering if this situation is really happening. 

Contrary to what I see as the show’s public perception, The Sopranos always had a surrealist bent. Hints of the surreal appeared before “Pine Barrens,” such as in the season two episode “Funhouse,” where Tony realizes one of his men is an FBI informant while having a fever dream due to food poisoning. Or the season three episode “Proshai, Livushka,” a personal favorite, where Tony’s mother passes away, and the episode is haunted by eerie imagery alluding to the afterlife. As the show went on, “Pine Barrens” would even be dethroned as The Sopranos’s strangest episode by season five’s “The Test Dream,” which includes a twenty-minute-long, rather confusing dream sequence, and season six’s “Join the Club,” which follows Tony imagining a different life for himself while he is in a coma. However, “Pine Barrens” remains unique in the show’s catalog because it is the only time that the surreal truly enters into the real world. No one is asleep or sick, yet it feels as though it could still be from that perspective. “Pine Barrens” surprises because of the way the two characters stray outside of the main plot into a darkly funny and unexplainable side quest—the strange and bizarre crawls out of the shadows and entraps Paulie and Christopher in the wilderness—before being allowed to escape.

The episode begins normally enough. Tony is having drama with his new mistress, Meadow believes her boyfriend is cheating on her, and Paulie and Christopher are sent to collect money from a Russian man named Valery (Vitali Baganov). When they get to his apartment, Paulie impetuously insults Valery, the three brawl, and Valery is seemingly killed. Paulie and Christopher panic for a second, but then agree to bury the body in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. They choose that location specifically so that they can head to Atlantic City after so “the day isn’t a total waste.” To them, this unintentional murder is more of a hassle than a tragedy. Once they arrive in the forest, however, is when things take a turn. The visuals of the empty, snow-covered woods give the episode an unsettling, almost fantastical feel. The snow was not planned in the script, but a consequence of the weather that the crew felt worked with the tone of the episode. It creates an extremely organic and foreign setting that is ominous in a show that does not usually depict nature. The fact that Paulie and Christopher cannot or do not follow their footprints makes the episode more surreal. Even the forest’s very name, and thus the episode’s title, “Pine Barrens” evokes the wild and unforgiving. Our protagonists might as well be in Siberia rather than New Jersey—an allusion that, it becomes clear, is certainly relevant. See, Valery, it turns out, is not actually dead. He has somehow recovered from Christopher and Paulie’s assault, so they force him out of the car to dig his own grave. As the group walks through the forest, Christopher and Paulie shiver in their light coats, but Valery, in pajama pants and a t-shirt, is perfectly fine. It’s a sign of the threat Valery poses that Christopher and Paulie don’t see, and the second they let their guard down, Valery attacks them and takes off into the wilderness. Christopher and Paulie scramble after him, shooting. Paulie even thinks he hits him in the head. But Valery disappears, and Christopher and Paulie are now lost in the woods. 

If none of that comes across as funny, then I am not describing it correctly. Christopher and Paulie are already two of the most amusing characters on the show. They both tend to think highly of themselves, but, in actuality, are not always the brightest. Thus, when placed in such a ridiculous situation, they only become funnier. They are baffled by their captee’s disappearance (“Fuckin’ Rasputin, this guy,” Paulie observes), and bemoan how things could have gone so wrong. They also become increasingly bedraggled as they wander through the forest: Paulie loses a shoe to the snow, Christopher bleeds from his face, and the two become desperate for food, having not eaten all day. When night falls, they find shelter in an abandoned van and eat ketchup packets for sustenance. The two become irritated with each other throughout their time in the woods, and, at one point, things get so heated that Christopher pulls a gun on Paulie. They try to call Tony, but can only get enough signal to talk to him for short periods of time. All of this gives the sensation that Paulie and Christopher are trapped in some sort of hellish parallel dimension. They’re not actually that far from home as Paulie points out: “How could we be lost like this? We’re in New Jersey!” But they cannot reach the outside world and must fend for themselves. Meanwhile, Tony goes to therapy as usual, and Meadow confronts her boyfriend. They are oblivious to Paulie and Christopher’s suffering.

That’s not to say Tony and Meadow storylines are paradise. Like Paulie and Christopher’s, Tony and Meadow’s plots deftly combine drama with humor. In Tony’s case, the drama comes from his increasingly unhinged, and thus entertaining, “comare,” Gloria Trillo (Annabella Sciorra). Their relationship, unlike Paulie and Christopher’s storyline, is connected to past and future episodes, both plot-wise and thematically. “Pine Barrens” even ends, not with Paulie and Christopher, but with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) alluding to Gloria’s personality being similar to Tony’s mother, a looming presence in his life. Meanwhile, Meadow’s storyline is also consequential to the overarching narrative, but I like to think of it also acting as her own minuscule version of the misfortune in the Pine Barrens. Like Paulie and Christopher, she and her friend from Columbia University (IMDb tells me her name is Ambujam) drive to a second location, in their case to investigate if Meadow’s boyfriend, Jackie (Jason Cerbone), is cheating on her. Like Paulie and Christopher, Meadow also undergoes both emotional and physical suffering during this trip, as she is extremely sick with a fever and is devastated to learn Jackie is, in fact, cheating. Unlike Paulie and Christopher, however, Meadow and her friend do not turn on each other. The moments when Ambujam aggressively yells at the girl Jackie is with and later comforts a heartbroken Meadow (“Whatever, Mead. He was such a drip.”) have always stuck out to me, perhaps because they’re a rare portrayal of genuine female solidarity in a very masculine show. But I digress. When she returns home that night, Meadow has also had a very distressing day. 

That same evening, Tony recruits another soldier, Bobby (Steve Schirripa), to drive down to the Pine Barrens with him to find Paulie and Christopher. When they get there, it’s too dark for them to do anything, so, as if they are suddenly in the eighteenth century, they “wait for light.” It’s another moment that feels somewhat out of step with past episodes of The Sopranos. The men in the show, especially Tony, tend to act rashly and do whatever they want. Here, they take a much more passive route and elect to simply wait in the car. This is partly due to the fact, though, that the much more introverted Bobby is in charge. The forest is not Tony’s terrain. This is a situation that he cannot charm or menace his way out of. The next morning, the two finally find Paulie and Christopher in the woods. It seems that Paulie’s car, however, has disappeared, and so has the money. The group debates continuing to search for Valery, but Paulie urges against it. And so they head home, unhappy and unclear with what they just experienced.

One of the most discussed aspects of “Pine Barrens” among fans and critics, both when the episode was released and in the many years since The Sopranos concluded, is the fact that Valery’s disappearance is never resolved. He is never heard from or mentioned again. Creator David Chase was repeatedly asked by fans about the fate of “the Russian” throughout The Sopranos’s run. It’s a fair question, but it misses an essential aspect of the show: The Sopranos was never very interested in having things resolved. It would go on to make that definitively clear with the final moments of its series finale when the show famously cut to black rather than reveal if Tony Soprano is killed. The Sopranos always preferred to allow the audience their own interpretation, even if the audience themselves didn’t want it that way. Interpretation was a key theme and technique of The Sopranos, which often explored psychology, psychoanalysis, and philosophy. The series featured a multitude of dream sequences, flashback memories, and visions experienced by Tony and, occasionally, the supporting characters. It was not a show especially attached to reality and realism, instead preferring to sink into the subconscious and make things surreal and open-ended. Many times, the creators of the show had their own answers they wanted the audience to see, but sometimes they didn’t, as in the case of Valery. In a 2021 interview with The Ringer, David Chase declared: “I don’t know what happened to the Russian. I should have known why there was such a big hue and cry about it, but I just kept saying, it’s just a fairy tale.” He much prefers people read “Pine Barrens” as a fable rather than fixate on the reality of what happened.

The Sopranos would never return to the actual Pine Barrens, but the imagery of that forest would continue to haunt the show. In the season five finale “All Due Respect,” Tony flees from the FBI through a similar snowy forest in suburban New Jersey. It is an awkward and difficult escape that sees Tony sliding down snow-covered cliffs and wading through a freezing stream, all in a suit and dress shoes. Perhaps even more famously, woodland imagery appears in the previous episode “Long Term Parking” as the setting where Christopher’s girlfriend, Adriana (Drea de Matteo), is executed for being an FBI informant. Though the woods she is shot in are not the Pine Barrens, they still recall that setting (in fact, my mom even misremembered it as occurring there). 

So the question to me that has always remained is: what is The Sopranos saying about the Pine Barrens as a place? Is it a punishment for the immoral behavior of the characters and that’s why Paulie and Christopher suffer there? Or, is it an escape and a place to hide their crimes? I think the answer is that it’s both. In The Sopranos, the Pine Barrens, and all woods by extension, are the places where the characters have to acknowledge the things they have done. They may provide cover and a place to dump the dead, but it is also where they are at their most morally corrupt and reprehensible. There is no pretending in the woods. There is no demanding better treatment. They are in these woods for a very specific reason, so they must accept whatever happens to them there. You reap what you sow. 

That fascinating idea, the fate of Valery, and the detour-like plot are what make “Pine Barrens” so surprising and memorable. The episode is frequently listed as the best episode of The Sopranos despite the fact it strays so much from the normal storytelling formula of the show (hence why it felt like such an inside-the-box choice). The idea of a one-off episode was, of course, not at all invented by The Sopranos; it had been an essential part of television for decades when creators could not count on their viewers to have seen past installments. However, it was rather unique for a serialized show to employ such a format. In “Pine Barrens,” The Sopranos used the concept of the one-off episode to dig deeper into its characters and experiment with a new setting and tone. It proved an influential exercise and many other shows since then have attempted stepping away from the overarching narrative with a self-contained episode as well. A recent example is the episode of Barry entitled “Ronny/Lily,” which premiered in 2019. Bill Hader, the show’s creator, specifically cited “Pine Barrens” as the inspiration, and that is quite apparent in the story. Like “Pine Barrens,” the episode mixes comedy with the surreal as it sees Hader’s character hunting a very durable Taekwondo master and his feral daughter as part of a hit job. “Ronny/Lilly” may trade the snow-covered Pine Barrens for suburban California and the Russian for a shockingly violent little girl with almost superhuman abilities, but, spiritually, it is very similar to “Pine Barrens.” Naturally, upon the episode’s debut, it also received critical acclaim and is considered one of the best episodes of Barry. It demonstrates that, as satisfying as it is to unfold the overarching narrative of a TV show, it can be just as enjoyable to wander off into something tonally different with the characters. And even though they may complain, audience members do enjoy an extraordinary, open-ended question like that of Valery’s fate. As for me, I choose to believe Valery escaped into the snow, stole Paulie’s car, and reappeared in another state to cause headaches for another crime family with his Russian commando training and his seemingly bulletproof skin. But we’ll never know, will we?

  1. Terence Winter, writer, The Sopranos. Season 3, Episode 11, “Pine Barrens,” HBO, dir. Steve Buscemi, released May 6, 2001.
Back to Top