Widely considered one of the better if not the best episode of the series, 'Pine Barrens' took the show's trademark dark humour to a new level and demonstrated the tragicomic talents of Imperioli and Sirico, under the helm of Steve Buscemi.
In this, his debut episode as director, Paulie and Chris have a body to dispose of in the eponymous woods of South Jersey after a collection from Valery, consigliere/sovetnik to Russian mob boss Slava (both of whom were introduced in the previous episode), went awry. Sil was down with the flu, so it fell to our not-so-dynamic duo. But things are about to take yet another turn for the worse when they open the boot a la GoodFellas to find their comrade very much alive. Catching them off guard while he digs his grave, he makes a run for it. A bullet to the head doesn't seem to finish the job, as Val inexplicably gets back on his feet and staggers off into the wilderness.
Tony needs them to track him down because he's just about to meet with Slava, and worries he might be "about to walk straight into a buzzsaw". But that's not his only concern. The seemingly perfect Gloria has her darker side revealed to Tony here, as it was to us in the previous episode. She's not as strong as she seemed to him, and he soon discovers the reason for her psychiatric needs. His new comare is, as Melfi once again must once again make abundantly clear to him, "impossible to please", "difficult" and "depressive". "Does this remind you of any other woman in your life?" she asks him. It'll take another episode, but yeah, he'll remember.
Meanwhile at Columbia, the veil is lifted from Meadow's eyes regarding Jackie when she realises her own expendability to him. Like her father, she needs to experience what is familiar regardless of how painful it may be. Only she wants Jackie to please her in the way her father couldn't, rather than please him as Tony hopes to please Gloria. Oedipus conceived Electra in the Sopranos mythology.
They're not the only ones walking in circles though, as we return to our pair in unfamiliarly rural territory looking for their car after quickly giving up on the hunt for Valery, who it turns out, may have become the hunter. A former 'Russian Green beret', he killed sixteen Chechen rebels singlehandedly for the Interior Ministry, Tony informs them over a faltering phone connection after returning from his meeting with Slava intact. Camera angles suggest the pajama-wearing commando watches them from atop the trees and snapping twigs only serve to heighten the tension at night when they hide in a van, awaiting a rescue effort by Tony and Bobby Bacala.
In the end, we know not whether Valery escaped in Paulie's car or died in the snow. With hindsight, Slava and Tony's business relationship appears to have continued unaffected, which would indicate Valery didn't hang around. The creator himself has 'revealed' since the episode's airing that Valery was saved by boy scouts who rang Slava's number, which he had on his person, and was sent back to Russia. It seems unlikely that such a close friend would not ask questions about a gaping head wound. And Chase is known for his acerbic sense of humour.
Like many online commentators, this reviewer has a theory of their own. Since we never hear from the mad Russian again and know Paulie's car to have been stolen, it's safe to assume he made a clean getaway. There is romance in being a rat too, as we witnessed in the first season, in the aspect of abandoning one's life and starting afresh. Valery may have left America and returned home, or be residing in a different city. We know he wasn't enjoying his new life in New Jersey. The shot of Paulie gazing wistfully out the window at the trees passing as they return to North Jersey is lent meaning later on when it is once again invoked in the season five episode 'Long Term Parking'. Adriana La Cerva imagines escaping the life briefly before waking to find herself watching the trees go by as she and Sil leave their urban setting for a less familiar woodland, where she is shot.
At first viewing, a unifying theme for the episode may seem elusive. The A story certainly affords the viewer more freedom than any other ambiguous episode in reaching their own conclusion, and with hindsight near-total freedom in that no arc is ever made of the potential 'Valery' storyline. The B/C stories of Tony's and Meadow's do not appear to share the usual thematic link with the relatively self-contained A-story. On an esoteric level, however, it is about the circuitous nature of these characters' lives. Meadow looks for her father Tony in Jackie and Tony for his mother Livia in Gloria, whilst Paulie and Chris literally tread familiar ground in their search for the car. By show's end, they no further than they were when they began: Sil's money remains uncollected and no one has any deeper insight of themself.
Robert Frost's poem 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening', quoted earlier in the season without any apparent relevance beyond some broad allusion to death in the wake of Livia's passing, has it's cryptic payoff here: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep But I have promises to keep And miles to go before I sleep..." Paulie and Chris cannot afford to linger in the woods, as their pre-diagnosed-by-the-show alexithymia does not allow them. Their promise is kept without question and both intend to die in their off-the-truck loafers. Their horse whose bells shake is the phone with poor signal -the device that reminds them where they are from and where they should be. Woods are places where people get shot in their world, not where you get lost.
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