2017 will see me revisiting some
films viewing experiences that I think need or deserve a fresh take. It will be a series of columns cleverly called, “2017 Re-Watch.”
At the 2017 Split Screen Festival, a special screening of the classic televison episode, “Pine Barrens” from The Sopranos aired before David Chase was presented with the “Vanguard Award.” After the award was given, Chase, Terrence Winter (co-writer), and Steve Buscemi (director) discussed the making of the episode. It was an awesome experience.
I’m not here to talk about the award “ceremony” or panel discussion however. I’m here to discuss this classic episode of television that preceded all of that.
Even with the reputation as being one of the very best television episodes from one of the very best television shows, “Pine Barrens” probably is *still* not fully appreciated as a masterful work of art.
The episode is largely (and understandably) remembered for the plot involving “The Russian” and the comedic duo of Paulie Walnuts and Christopher Moltisanti getting lost in the woods. That does not do the entire episode justice though as there is greatness to be found in all corners of the episode.
The episode is really about the people in Tony Soprano’s life being pushed to their limits and extreme situations due to Tony’s selfish and deluded decision making. Emotionally restricted all of his life, Tony’s preferred (and only) method of coping is through delusion.
His inability to recognize and/or confront reality makes his life much harder than it should be. We get to see the impact of Tony’s decision in three different corners of his life in this episode.
The most obvious consequence encountered in the episode was of course Christopher and Paulie getting stuck in a wintry wilderness of “South Jersey” hunting down a Russian gangster. It all happened of course because Tony delegated the task of collecting five thousand dollars from this gangster to Paulie Walnuts.
Tony’s failure to recognize just how poorly equipped Paulie was for such a situation (handling a simple transaction with a foreign player) goes to show the basic level of delusion that Tony operates at on a daily basis. Any objective and brief assessment of his “roster” would tell you that the volatile, insecure, and easily offended Paulie would be the absolute last person who should have been given this particular task.
Naturally, it all goes to hell, and Tony then had to spend a hundred times more effort fixing the situation when he easily could have just done it correctly in the first place.
The b-plot of the episode revolved around Meadow Soprano and her deteriorating relationship with Jackie Jr. Meadow was partially pushed into the relationship with Jackie during the third season due to the actions of her father.
Tony immediately attempted to intimidate and threaten Meadow’s first college boyfriend, Noah. Why? Because Noah was black and Tony is a racist asshole who cannot handle the idea of his daughter dating a black man.
While Noah was pretentious as shit and it seemed unlikely that he was Meadow’s future husband, he was multiple steps up from the replacement Meadow found in Jackie Jr. (a fact that Tony and Carmella surprisingly seemed to recognize during the following episode).
In a weird act of teenage rebellion, Meadow sought revenge on her father (whom she now despises), by seeking out a younger version of him. Naturally, Meadow experienced much of the heartbreak that her mother must confront all the time.
Meadow discovers Jackie’s unfaithful behavior in this episode, and it results in a quick finish to their romance. This will of course push Jackie Jr. further off the beaten path and only cause more headaches for Tony and his business in the final two episodes of the season.
Once again, Tony’s delusion makes his life harder.
Tony’s troubles do not end there though. Tony has been telling himself that his relationship with Gloria Trillo is a healthy one. As he says to Dr. Melfi at one point, “Being with Gloria makes me happier than all your Prozac and therapy bullshit combined.”
Gloria of course is anything but a stable person. In this episode alone, being with Tony seems to cause her to fly off the handle at a moment’s notice which all built to her throwing a London Broil at the back of Tony’s head.
Tony only sees what he wants to see here though and does not recognize his own agency in any way. He doesn’t recognize how he seeks out unhealthy women. He doesn’t recognize how his selfish actions push them way past their limit. He doesn’t understand how bad he is for the people he seeks out and then how they made him more unhappy in the end.
In a very small plot of the episode, we learn that Carmella’s father is diagnosed with glaucoma. Tony initially acts the role of the dutiful son-in-law but then gets easily distracted by the issues with The Russian and Gloria.
Tony’s decision at that point was predictable: abandon his family in their time of need and go off to take care of the nonsense he has in his life. A loaded, “My father has glaucoma” line from Carmella though is all Tony needs to remember that he is not going anywhere.
That’s the only way that Tony is comfortable with making “the right decision.” He has to force his wife to constantly push him in this right decision while he lies and deceives her at every turn.
The ideas of the episode (and the whole show, really) are beautifully wrapped up at the end with Tony in a therapy session. Dr. Melfi bluntly points out the similarities in the destructive personalities of Gloria Trillo and Tony’s infamous mother. When confronted with this glaring and obvious truth, how does Tony respond?
Denial and delusion.
That’s the whole point of the show in general. Tony Soprano encapsulates the tragedy of the modern human.
He sees that he has a problem.
He recognizes a need for change.
And he is not doing a single thing to actually confront his issues and make progress – and his life is so much harder for it.