In 1997, National Lampoon released a movie called The Don’s Analyst, which was about what it would be like if a mob boss had to attend psychotherapy. Never mind the stupid title, it was a mediocre-at-best comedy. However, supposedly it was ripped off of a script written in 1995 by longtime TV producer David Chase, who wanted to make a movie about a Mob Boss who goes into therapy with his mother. Eventually, they decided to make it a TV series instead. The big difference was that it wasn’t a comedy. Sure, there were funny moments in the show, especially in this episode, but it wasn’t ever played strictly for laughs. It was a character-driven drama, despite the fact that its premise was immediately assumed to be a joke by others. To tell you how well it worked in comparison, nobody remembers The Don’s Analyst, while seasons of The Sopranos managed to get 12 million people to watch.
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is a capo, and eventually the boss, of the DiMeo crime family. At the beginning of the series, he suffers an anxiety attack. He then starts therapy with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Throughout the series, they maintain a professional, and sometimes closer, relationship, despite the fact that while Dr. Melfi is humane and dedicated to rationality, Tony tends to have people killed, and his emotions vary wildly throughout different sessions for reasons that sometimes even confuse the audience. Their sessions usually focus on how Tony balances his relationships with his family and his relationships with “the family.”
The structure of the show is often described as being like a novel, with each episode forming another chapter feeding in to the overall arc of the season, and, ultimately, the show. However, there is a notable exception to that. An episode that is almost entirely independent of the larger arc. That episode, directed by none other than Steve Buscemi, is “Pine Barrens.”
One thing that makes this episode different is that by far the most memorable plot was filled not by Tony or his family, but by two of Tony’s crew, Christopher and Paulie (Michael Imperioli and Tony Sirico). The two characters have constantly clashed up until this point, with Christopher resenting Paulie because Paulie still outranks Chris even after Chris gets becomes a made man (if you don’t know that term, please watch Goodfellas). So, when the two of them get sent by Tony to do a routine collection from a Russian named Valery, the bad mood between them leads Chris to mock Valery until eventually a fight breaks out and Valery ends up on the floor with what appears to be a cracked windpipe. The two decide that, having already botched the collection, they should just tie Valery up, roll him in a carpet, drive him out to Pine Barrens, New Jersey, and dump him. In the middle of Winter. Because mobsters always have creative solutions.
After driving out to Jersey, the two open the trunk to find that Valery has not only survived his injury, but has already freed himself. The two give him a shovel to dig his own grave, but Valery escapes, despite being shot in the head. Valery then manages to completely disappear in the snow, giving the two the slip, while the audience learns that Valery is actually former Soviet Special Forces. Paulie and Chris then get lost in the woods and end up staying in an abandoned van to avoid freezing to death. After a confrontation in the van, the two finally make peace.
Tony finally comes out to save them as they wander through the wilderness, but they find that Valery has not only survived a night out in the snow, he stole Paulie’s car and escaped. The group gives up on finding Valery and heads home. Valery’s fate is left unrevealed, and the showrunners refuse to say any more about it, or his seeming immortality.
The B-plot of Tony dealing with a mistress who is even more emotionally disturbed than him is also great, and apparently involved Steve Buscemi having to throw a steak at James Gandolfini.
What makes this episode great, aside from the interesting plot point of an invincible Russian mobster completely defeating two mobsters, is that the fight between Paulie and Chris is completely understandable. Paulie sees Chris coming up in the ranks, and is threatened, even telling Chris he’s going to “pull rank on him,” to which Chris says the great line “F**k you, Paulie. Captain or no captain, right now, we’re just two a**holes lost in the woods.” Conversely, Chris sees Paulie as trying to punish him for being ambitious. Paulie even ends up telling Chris not to leave him behind. It’s every inter-generational fight expressed it in a superb and darkly comic way. In a show famous for its writing, the dialogue rarely, if ever, reached this level again.
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