The Sopranos 3×11: “Pine Barrens”
There’s a reason that “Pine Barrens” is one of the most highly regarded Sopranos episodes in the show’s run. Not only is it dark and existential, it features some of the funniest character work from Paulie and Christopher, two characters that could hold a scene on their own, but until now weren’t necessarily able to hold an entire episode on their own. Of course, we remember this episode for Paulie and Christopher’s excursion through the woods, but there’s a lot more to it, and there’s a lot more to Paulie and Christopher’s story than meets the eye.
“Pine Barrens” has a great deal of commentary on intelligence, on the inability to look at one’s faults, the inability to see the inevitability of your own failures. Just look at Jackie’s Jr’s inability to spell more than three-letter words in Scrabble, or Tony’s inability to see how Gloria is like his mother, or how neither Paulie nor Christopher have the intelligence to avoid being stranded in the woods. None of these people are able to see past their own delusions, their own perceptions of their ego, in order to gain insight into the truth of the situation. Jackie Jr. will never be as important as he wants to be, Tony will always choose women that represent his mother (except for Carmela, which we’ll talk about in “Amour Fou”), and Paulie and Christopher aren’t the tough guys they want to be (just look at Paulie expressing his feminine side as he gets that manicure).
Jackie Jr’s plot isn’t necessarily the most interesting, but it doesn’t begin his quick descent from now to the season finale. Meadow was the one person that could bring Jackie Jr up, but he was unwilling to change, not only because he didn’t have the intelligence to get through school, but because he was unwilling to but forth the effort to gain that intelligence. He was willing to move through life as a spoiled brat, and he should have known that Meadow was smart enough to catch on to the obvious fact that he was cheating on her. When Meadow says that she can “hear it in his voice”, it’s pretty obvious when Jackie Jr. says that he has to take his mother’s car in at night. And when Meadow does catch Jackie Jr, there’s a certain level of tragedy to it. Jackie doesn’t have anybody to bring him up anymore. All he has is the poisonous influence of Ralphie and his idiot friends, none of which care enough about him to help him be the best person he can be. The more we delude ourselves, the further we get away from what we could be.
Paulie and Christopher could have gotten through this episode without ending up in the Pine Barrens. All Slava did was ask Paulie to put the universal remote down, and it just escalated from there. The Sopranos often loves to trace the origin of people, of ideas, such as how Tony evolved from a mother and father that were far from good parents. And here we have Terence Winter chronicling the birth of a major altercation, from the seeds planted in Slava’s tone. There’s a certain inevitability to it, where we knew that Paulie or Christopher was going to be pissed off by Slava’s unwillingness to cater to either of their fragile, masculine egos. And so things just spiral out of control, and both Paulie and Christopher end up stranded because they aren’t willing to acknowledge the reality that Slava is tougher than them. Because even though both Paulie and Christopher have killed people, Slava is far, far tougher than either of them. Just look at how they devour ketchup packets after not eating for less than a day. They’re both ridiculously spoiled (look at their on-the-fly plans to eat steak and gamble in Atlantic City) where Slava actually knows how to survive in the Pine Barrens. If either of them were able to acknowledge reality, then they wouldn’t be getting themselves into situations like this one with Slava.
But I wanted to talk about Tony last, because the relationship between Tony and Gloria is what consumes a fair portion of the remainder of the season. Dr. Melfi brings up the notion that Gloria is representative of Tony’s mother, and while “Amour Fou” literalizes that a little too clearly, we can see that Gloria is somebody that Tony is with that he wants to control but cannot. When he doesn’t arrive to dinner on time, Gloria throws a steak at him. When he gets a call from an ex-girlfriend, Gloria throws his Christmas present away. There’s no real way for this relationship to work, but Tony doesn’t want to deal with that. He would rather simply believe that he’s a good husband by sleeping with Gloria and pushing everything off onto her, even though he believes that she enjoys being with him. In reality, we can see how toxic this relationship is and how there’s no way that this would work if either side of the equation was able to see an ounce of clarity.
“Pine Barrens” is a reminder to what we do to ourselves, how when we lie to ourselves, it’s a betrayal, a way to push us further from what we truly want. Because we all have dreams in life; we all want to be somebody important. But it’s scary to try, to really attempt to become somebody worth something in this world. It’s a lot easier just to give up and pretend that you’re trying. But we see what happens when you give up, how you just dig a hole deeper and deeper until it simply becomes your own grave.
The Sopranos 3×12: “Amour Fou”
Leave it to the penultimate episode to bring all of the plotlines to a head: Tony breaks up with Gloria, who is basically a stand-in for his mother, Carmela comes to terms with her depression, Christopher rejects the way others disrespect him as a made man, and Jackie Jr. will do anything to be noticed by Tony and his crew. If Season 3 begs the question “What makes us who we are”, one answer that “Amour Fou” replies with is the notion of delusion. Our inability to see who we are dooms us; while we have all of these driving forces condemning us to our fates, we have the ability to react to everything around us, to train ourselves to look at things in different ways. And “Amour Fou” goes to show that those moments of clarity are few and far between.
Even Carmela scoffs at her own clarity when she says “What is wrong with me?” while watching that Pedigree commercial. She can obviously tell that something is wrong; she’s having a moment of clarity. Her depression has a hold on her and she’s unable to understand exactly why (even though she had previous moments of clarity in “Second Opinion”). Although, this time she looks to combat that clarity with delusion, going to a priest instead of a psychiatrist in order to solidify her belief that she should stay with Tony. If she can forget how awful Tony is to her, if she can forget where his money comes from, then maybe she can handle being with him. Of course, this approach isn’t going to be worth a whole lot, as she’ll constantly be reminded of how horrible Tony is, but it staves off the depression and keeps her content for the time being.
Tony and Gloria’s relationship, on the other hand, gets to the point where a moment of clarity has to happen. Gloria forces this moment of clarity when she pushes against Tony’s perception of what their relationship is supposed to be, when she wants something more than to be used by him. Of course, the show kind of portrays her as unstable and crazy, but this is juxtaposed with Tony’s portrayal as a sociopath. But when Gloria starts screaming “Poor you!” and “Burn me at the stake”, Tony can’t help but finally realize how much his comares are like his mother. I said in my “Pine Barrens” review that “Amour Fou” emphasizes Gloria being like Livia a little too much, but it’s entirely possible that the obviousness of that juxtaposition is there because Tony needs that in order to make the connection.
Tony’s conversation with Dr. Melfi is revealing, not only because it explains his relationship with Gloria, but also because it shows this tug-of-war effect between free will and destiny. Tony may always sleep with women like his mother, women that only exist within their own suffering, but there was one decent choice he made with regards to women: Carmela. Tony likes to think that he could one day leave Carmela, but she really is the one woman that completes the façade that is his life. Without Carmela, Tony has nothing. Carmela and his two kids are the only people that exist outside of his life of crime, the only people that make him somebody that isn’t a complete sociopath. And when Dr. Melfi says that, Tony realizes the truth in it. Of course, Tony was the worst decision Carmela ever made. And she knows that as well. So when she prepares for her real estate exam, she’s looking for a way out.
But we see what happens when that moment of clarity doesn’t occur, or when it occurs too late. Jackie Jr. wants so badly to be noticed that he’s willing to take down Ralphie’s card game to do it (Ralphie sort of instigates this by telling them about the time Tony and Co. took down a card game and was recognized for it). We can see that nothing good will come from them doing this, as they spend the time they should be planning instead talking themselves into it and watching the most famous scene from Basic Instinct. It’s obvious that the card game takedown is going to go badly, but we never really expect it to go that badly. Two of Jackie Jr’s friends are gunned down, the card dealer is murdered, and Furio is shot in the leg. Instead of Jackie being recognized for his “balls”, it’s instead debated whether or not he should be taken out. Jackie has been unwilling to deal with his own problems for the entire season, and now they’ve escalated to their point where he’s in danger of being killed.
“Amour Fou” wraps up the vast majority of Season 3’s plotlines, only leaving Jackie Jr’s story hanging until the finale. If “Amour Fou” translates to “crazy love”, it isn’t because of Tony and Gloria’s love affair, which features Gloria as the “crazy one”. The show is smarter than that. It’s because everybody has a crazy love affair with their ideas of who they are supposed to be, love affairs with their own delusion. It’s easy to become enamored with our own suffering, to place value on things that are toxic. It’s much harder to do something that elevates who we are, something that allows us to transcend past the delusion and the self-loathing. And what makes it even harder is the idea that we have to not only have these moments of clarity, but act on them again and again and again, for the rest of our lives.
What do you think of “Pine Barrens” and “Amour Fou”? Aren’t they both fantastic episodes? Let me know in the comments!