Artistry & allusionism in “The Sopranos”

From Leo Tolstoy to the Cold War

Katrina Russell


‘In the depth of his heart Vasili Andreevich knew that it could not yet be near morning, but he was growing more and more afraid, and wished both to get to know and yet to deceive himself. He carefully undid the fastening of his sheepskin, pushed in his hand, and felt about for a long time before he got to his waistcoat. With great difficulty he managed to draw out his silver watch with its enamelled flower design, and tried to make out the time. … Bringing the face of the watch under the light he could hardly believe his eyes -- it was only ten minutes past twelve. Almost the whole night was still before him.’

Leo Tolstoy, Master and Man (1895)


 ‘We looped back on ourselves! How’d we do that?’

Christopher Moltisanti, “The Sopranos,” ‘Pine Barrens’ (III.11)


At one point in “The Sopranos” Season 2, protagonist and mob boss Tony Soprano asks his pedantic neighbour to keep hold of an empty package containing something ‘special’. His neighbour, conscious both of Tony’s mob affiliations and of neighbourly norms, finds himself unable to refuse (and equally unnerved by what might be in the box). This playful move is an apt nod to the ways the show itself toys with viewers, its episodes loaded with instances that would seem to hold deeper meanings at which we can’t help but grasp. In a recent New Yorker article on the importance of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” - published a few weeks before ‘This is America’ landed - Tad Friend reminds us that “The Sopranos” shattered preconceptions of mainstream drama, citing the early moment Tony, ruffian and morally rogue, murders an informant. In terms of character development, this bold move created a new schema for the anti-hero as a palatable lead in a mainstream serial. But if “The Sopranos” established new norms, its contemporary and continuing popularity relies on, and skilfully re-interprets, a wealth of pre-existing pop cultural convention. Analysis is central to the show, in an intra- and extra-diegetic sense – we begin with Tony’s venture into psychiatry, while creator David Chase invited viewers to analyse along the way (the ambiguity of the final episode being the clearest example of this). While some allegories and historic parallels are perennial (e.g. Tony’s mother is called ‘Livia’, as was the murderous mother of Emperor Augustus), each episode is a self-contained labyrinth of cultural references and postmodern allusions. This article will indulge in that labyrinth, through a reading of ‘Pine Barrens’ (III.11).


Moral wilderness; cultural familiarity

‘Pine Barrens’ has often been deemed an exceptional episode, likened to a three-act play or short novel. Directed by Steve Buscemi, the principal story takes place over the course of around 24 hours. This framework, unravelling over one day that slides into a gruelling night, gives us a kind of mise-en-abyme, a portrait of a number of themes. What makes ‘Pine Barrens’ immediately refreshing is the shift in focus, away from Tony and onto two of his ‘guys’, Paulie and Christopher. In short, Tony tasks his men with collecting a debt owed by a Russian target, Valery. In collecting the money, they engage in a dispute and kill Valery, then drive to NJ’s bitterly cold swampland to dispose of the body. Here it turns out the execution was unsuccessful – Paulie and Christopher order Valery (beaten and wearing ‘pyjamas’) to dig his own grave in the snow; in the process, he manages to take flight, outrunning them both. The men spend the ensuing day and night attempting to track him down in the wintry woodland.

In making Tony’s world peripheral, Buscemi and screenwriter Terence Winter create a space for experimentation. This is represented geographically; ‘Pine Barrens’ is located in New Jersey’s caliginous swampland. Out here, we aren’t bound by the spatial tropes and motifs that underpin the majority of series (the diners, the overwhelmingly beige Soprano household, the strip club) and instead enter on a new world. In this alternative space, a more playful, ulterior familiarity is constructed by wider pop cultural convention, drawn from literature, Hollywood, and American history.


The central narrative begins with Paulie and Christopher chatting blithely before entering their target’s apartment, a motif that echoes the opening scenes of Pulp Fiction, in which Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta debate foot massages in the corridor before embarking, unawares, on the violence that shapes the film. (Buscemi, before directing and acting in “The Sopranos,” appears in Pulp Fiction – acting as a waiter dressed as Buddy Holly.) The casual nature of the men’s conversation, oblivious to their imminent, gruesome saga, is similar to the flippant dialogue between Jackson and Travolta in Tarantino’s film. The intertextuality continues with a plot that has elements of Fargo (1996), in which Buscemi also starred.  The multiplicity of these references might be what makes the episode so distinctive and compelling; it turns the show into a more undisguisedly self-referential text, bridging the gap between the distant world of “The Sopranos” and the one in which the spectator sits.

It's also worth noting how explicitly the episode opens with the surface luxuries of American life: Gloria, Tony’s lover, drives up to a yacht in a Mercedes, cloaked in a fur coat. Elsewhere, Paulie is getting a manicure, with “a satin finish”. Throughout the series, we’re shown the aesthetics of simulation (leopard print waistcoats; landscaped gardens filled with stucco Greek sculptures; Carmela’s acrylic nails). Not infrequently, the composition and lighting of scenes in which the Sopranos family (and ‘family’) meet resemble Renaissance paintings. The characters’ world is built on fragile, all-American imitations of a non-existent past. Precisely these foundations are challenged in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens - a site devoid of the artillery of consumer culture.


Master and (made) man

As James Gandolfini has put it: “[The Sopranos] is a show about America, and anyone who watches with any degree of intelligence understands that right away.” In this case, the episode title indicates that this is more about a place than any particular character - 'Pine Barrens' explores the wild, dangerous depths that sit silently beside the dazzling glamour of American myth. But this is also a story of the human condition in a more residual sense, evidenced in its affinity with, among ancient tragedies, the work of Leo Tolstoy, whose short story 'Master and Man' (1895) holds multiple parallels to 'Pine Barrens'. In both, a boss and his subordinate, driven by financial gain, get lost in the snow, constantly circling back on their own tracks in one seemingly eternal winter's night. Tolstoy is known for his investigations of greed, salvation, rationality and love. "The Sopranos" gravitates around similar subjects. Like Tolstoy’s story, ‘Pine Barrens’ questions the status and autonomy of a subordinate. Paulie becomes imbricated in the plot to kill Valery wholly reluctantly, under Tony's orders. In turn, ordered by Paulie, Christopher is embroiled in events over which he has no control. 

Paulie loses his shoe (and it seems no accident that we begin the episode with him receiving a manicure). Tolstoy's primary character, Nikita, is similarly subjected to the threat of frostbite when a hole forms in his boot. These affinities are not to suggest that Buscemi/Winter were consciously channelling Tolstoy with their storyline – although the show’s debt to Tolstoy is indicated in a Season 5 episode title, ‘All Happy Families’, an allusion to Anna Karenina and the dual meaning of ‘family’ in the mafia world. Still, here as in Tolstoy’s work, the bond between two men is tested and, eventually, reaffirmed. Yet whereas the Russian writer redeems our faith in fraternity, in the American tale it is the resilience of the Russian character that provides the threat, not the solution. 


The coldest war

What makes this episode so resonant might equally be its evocation of relatively recent history between America and Russia (or, the USSR), with Christopher and Paulie’s struggle becoming a cold war in the most literal sense. Before entering on Valery’s apartment, Christopher expresses disbelief when Paulie tells him the Cuban Missile Crisis was all ‘real’ history, not Hollywood. This opening dialogue establishes the question of what Americans (don’t) know about the Russians, and the violence caused by cultural amnesia.

After the men call Tony to confess their predicament, he - storming past a church - intones that the Russian “cannot come back to tell this story.”

A fruitless search continues, and the men take refuge in an abandoned truck. Here, they find a paper groceries bag, offering salvation in the form of a handful of ketchup packets. In the 1980s, America’s plethora of fast food outlets became a proud point of victory for capitalism as the promise of abundance. The irony of finding unopened, saccharin condiments in this moment is a witty signal of the failings of that all-American bounty. “The Russian”, meanwhile, clad in t-shirt and potentially shot, is presumed to be a mighty and violent threat. This in itself points to the paranoia underpinning the Cold War; the anxiety induced by a nation that at times couldn’t clothe and feed its populace, but might well be lethally powerful no less.


‘Pine Barrens’ evokes many of the learnings of the Cold War, but connects them to more timeless truths and culturally engrained narratives. Fear is a mechanism more coercive than tangible realities; intangible strength is more powerful than the accumulation of ‘stuff’. In this episode, the freezing cold is a metaphor for the tides of fate, equally unmovable. The snow buries and obscures what lies beneath (history), but as much as it makes the past invisible, it also freezes and entraps it. Even the name 'Pine Barrens' evokes a forest and a desert; fertility and then sterility. Culture - like Christopher and Paulie’s route - ‘loops back on itself’.