As episodes of TV shows go, it’s hard to top “Pine Barrens” from late in Season Three of The Sopranos. In that installment, fans had Steve Buscemi in the director’s chair for the first time and got to see two favorite characters out of their element, deep in the woods of South Jersey.
The episode begins up north, where we find Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) out of commission as he recovers from a flu. To handle his routine collections, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) sends the unlikely duo of Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) instead.
With these two together, things were rarely easy, but in this case the situation spins completely out of control. It starts when Paulie picks a fight with a Russian gangster lounging at home. But it ends ambiguously, following a botched murder and even more botched forest burial.
Even after Paulie manages to shoot the Russian in the head during a frantic chase, the man doesn’t die. In fact, no one ever sees him again. And Sopranos fans (not to mention writers and critics) never let the show’s creator (David Chase) forget it. Looking back, Chase said he always planned for him to disappear.
‘Sopranos’ writers thought his disappearance was the best ending.
In The Sopranos Sessions (2019), you’ll find a great interview with Chase, Buscemi, and writer-producer Terence Winter (the brain-trust behind “Pine Barrens”). Author Matt Zoller-Seitz brought up the subject of the Russian in that talk.
For Chase, it was never a question of bringing back the Russian for revenge — or even finding out what happened to him at all. “I felt that was more in keeping with a Russian folktale or something, that the guys just disappears,” he told Zoller-Seitz.
If you’re wondering about the connection between The Sopranos and Russian folktales, you’re not alone. “We didn’t do folktales every week, but it seemed appropriate for this,” Chase added.
In other interviews, Chase has spoken of his love of classic French and Italian cinema, and how he wanted to do Sopranos episodes little movies. Thinking in that vein, you might connect “Pine Barrens” to Antonioni’s L’Avventura, in which the missing woman is never found (and it doesn’t matter).
Writers did work on a story with the Russian’s return later in the show.
While Chase had no interest in bringing the Russian back for any reason, Winters (who later created Boardwalk Empire) did have ideas about his return. He told Zoller-Seitz how hard it was for him to abandon the storyline completely.
“We all grew up watching TV and wanted closure,” Winters said. “Over the years, I lobbied for it.” Just when he thought he had Chase convinced, Winter made the mistake of telling the Sopranos showrunner people would love it. “We shouldn’t do it for that reason!” Chase replied.
But Chase also saw the Russian’s departure in practical terms. “We didn’t want to do a thing where Tony fought the Russians,” he said in the interview. “There just isn’t any combat between the Italian and Russian mobs.”
Also see: ‘The Sopranos’: Tony Sirico Insisted on Doing His Own Hair as ‘Paulie Walnuts’
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