Saturday, August 2, 2008

Sometimes I wish he was my uncle, too

Season 3 Episode 11: “Pine Barrens
Top five Sopranos characters:

1. Paulie Gualtieri

2. Christopher Moltisanti

3. Bobby Baccalieri

4. AJ Soprano

5. Junior Soprano

Any fan of the series will be able to spout that one out for you with relative ease. While the plot twists of the business and the findings of the therapy sessions keep us on the edge of our couches (I once watched four episodes in a row. Season Four. No regrets.) it’s the characters that keeps us relaxed and at home. Sopranos writers rewarded viewers over the years by taking the care to develop each character of the ensemble through the show’s tenure. To me there’s an understanding between creator and viewer, a closeness that’s hard to come by. David Chase was in touch with the rabid fans and rewarded them by paying a special, precise attention to each character on the show. And never were viewers rewarded as we were with “Pine Barrens.”

Tony sends Paulie and Christopher out to make collections for a sick Silvio. (This is already exciting for me, not only are these my two favorite characters, but two personalities that are always going at it.) Among those due for a visit is a Russian named Valery. Madness ensues.

They drive to the Pine Barrens on the southern coast. Turns out Valery ain’t dead. And when he runs away, Paulie shoots him, but we never find him. Never find out what becomes of him. (Apparently David Chase still gets asked whatever happened to the Russian) And when it’s all said and done, Paulie and Chris have no idea where they are or where the car is. They spent the night wandering the barrens, freezing, eating ketchup packets, and threatening to kill each other. Between Christopher’s dim-wittedness and Paulie’s tendency to FREAK THE FUCK OUT the experience is phenomenal.

Eventually, Tony decides that he needs to drive down to the Pine Barrens himself to find the two before they kill each other (freezing to death being in a distant second). At the suggestion of Uncle Junior, Bobby, an experienced hunter, is called to help. While Bobby would become a prominent earner in later seasons, at this point he is only known as the mild-mannered, shy assistant to the ailing Junior who plays a really lousy Santa Claus. But the moment Bobby walks into Junior’s kitchen decked out in his hunting gear, the lovable dork has secured his spot in the hearts of every Soprano viewer. It’s priceless. As is the laughter brought on Tony and Uncle June as Bobby walks through the door.

Talking to people and looking around the internet, I’ve found that this episode seems to rank up there with everyone. And not for the reasons you’d expect. This is a unique episode that relies on the interaction of its characters. The hilarious exchanges between the irritable Chrissy and Paulie. The heartwarming conversation about Uncle Junior between Tony and Bobby (“Sometimes I wish he was my uncle, too”). It’s an episode that stays with you, as you watch these people grow.

Season 4 Episode 10: “The Strong, Silent Type” Christopher’s drug problem comes to the forefront when he, after shooting up, sits on Adrianna’s dog Cozette and kills her. This effectively brings forth an intervention which ends with Paulie, Silvio, and Benzie beating the shit out of Chrissy. But it’s a success, he goes to rehab.

In the previous episode Tony killed Ralph Cifaretto after finding out that Ralph set fire to his horse stable, killing his horse Pie O My. Tony’s deep connection with Pie O My comes to a head in his rehab session as we see him sobbing over the death of the horse. The emotions that we see in Tony, as Dr. Melfi notes, are comparable only to the ducks from the beginning of the series. The complexity to Tony’s connection with animals is very deep, though puzzling because the man feels nowhere near the same empathy towards people. During the intervention, he remains focused on the fact that Christopher killed Adrianna’s dog. Not that he gave Adrianna a black eye. Not that he needs professional help. There is nothing but Cozette.

And the relationship between Tony and Pie O My also leads to some unforgettable actions from Paulie. When a painting Tony had made of him and the horse arrives at the Bing, T storms out of the room, abandoning the discussion and on-going game of pool (which Paulie notes as a forfeit, making his team the victors). Despite Tony’s orders to torch the painting, Paulie takes it home because, as he puts it, it’s classy and valuable. But after taking the picture home, Paulie gets spooked out by it. Haunted by the image. He takes it to a professional and asks him to paint an old war outfit on Tony. To get rid of the eeriness. It’s classic Paulie, the superstitious fuck. (Marone! Now I’m talking like I'm on the show!)

This episode may be my favorite out of them all. It brings together many of the elements of the show that I adore. The psychology of Tony Soprano takes very poignant turns. The process of trying to really get into his head. How he can weep over a horse dying and not flinch over the human lives he has taken and the suffering he’s caused? Tony visits Ralph’s son (who had an accident earlier in the season) in the hospital and there is a very sullen moment where Tony is just sitting at the foot of the boys bed watching him sleep. He feels guilty for Ralph, but that guilt is transferred completely onto the situation Ralph’s boy is in. A terrible situation. One that makes you question "what kind of God would let this happen?" And Ralph’s death certainly adds to guilt. Anything that Tony has done, though, is transferred onto the events that put the boy in the hospital. And T is allowed to blame the world for being a fucked up place. His hands are clean.

We see him reaching out to Christopher, taking care of his problem with as much love as he can, but still having to face that this is a problem effecting business. And what has always made the relationship between those two interesting is how much Tony’s love for Chrissy effects his ability to be boss. He has so much invested in Christopher being the future, but he’s a fuck up. But he’s also his nephew. And Tony is often faced with toeing this line. And constantly examining this line.

But as I mentioned with “Pine Barrens,” the characters make the show shine. Paulie being Paulie. Silvio being Silvio. These are the people that keep it all exciting for me. I get enjoyment out of every single thing these characters do. The madness of the intervention, seeing a bunch of stubborn, old school guys turning this “non-confrontational, non-judgmental” process into a complete fiasco is absolutely perfect. The moment Paulie knocks Christopher out of his chair, it’s settled. Classic Sopranos.

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