Bottle Up and Explode
Pine Barrens
Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general.

"Fuck you, you're not leaving me here!" "You don't trust me?"-Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie (Tony Sirico)

And now for something completely different. The purpose of this column is to evaluate bottle episodes in order to look at the strengths and weaknesses of these episodes while also putting them into context within the series from which they emerge and within television in general. So it may be surprising that I have chosen to write on "Pine Barrens," an episode that is not, strictly speaking, a bottle episode. This episode was not shot on one set, features guest actors, and generally breaks many of the rules I have laid out for what defines a bottle episode. So why have I chosen to cover it for this column?

Several reasons. First off, while "Pine Barrens" does not take place entirely on one set, its most famous plotline (and in fact, quite possibly the most famous plotline The Sopranos ever did) is largely confined to one location, though we'll get to that in a moment. Second, the episode was conceived in the same fashion as most bottle episodes. It was written to be shot in half the time it took to shoot most episodes of the show, though as we have seen with several bottle episodes already in this feature, it ended up taking longer than average to complete, due to location shooting. Finally, the emotional crux of the episode, even in the plotlines that don't take place in one location, is centered on the relationships between two characters and how they function when operating in isolation from real world concerns. There are three pairs of characters who form the plotlines that are the focus of this episode, and by episode's end, each has been permanently altered, two by being forced to deal with the rest of the world, and one by being forced, bottle episode style, to deal with one another.

Let's first discuss the two plotlines that don't resemble a bottle episode whatsoever and discuss how their character pairings resemble interactions we're used to in bottle episodes even while breaking all of the other rules associated with such. The first subplot, and the least effective plotline in the episode by my measure, deals with the relationship between Meadow (Jamie Lynn Sigler) and Jackie Aprile (Jason Cerbone). This subplot never did much for me throughout the show's third season, and its demise doesn't do a whole lot for me either, so let's dispense with it quickly. The relationship disintegrates primarily because of Jackie's infidelity (though cracks are shown through a far too obvious scene in which the two play Scrabble and Jackie plays "poo" "ass" and "the" against Meadow's "oblique"), and when Meadow is discussing it with her friends, who reasonably think Jackie is pretty boring, she whines that they just don't understand because they didn't see how Jackie was when the two were alone together. While we did get to see the two alone together, and it was a less than rosy picture, the point is that as far as Meadow is concerned, the relationship worked as long as they were alone. It was the infidelity (which, obviously, occurred while they were separated) that drove the two apart.

Next, let's look at the relationship between Tony (James Gandolfini) and his mistress of the moment Gloria (Anabella Sciorra). The two met during therapy (which is generally a bad sign) and all of their interactions in this episode, which according to Tony's reasoning would be going fine otherwise, are turned sour due to the interference of outside influences. At the beginning of the episode Gloria leaves Tony's boat after he gets a call from an ex-girlfriend. Later, she is angered when he has to take a work call during their lunchtime tryst at a hotel (the call is crucial to the final pairing, who we'll discuss in a moment). Finally, in one of the more explosive scenes in a fairly explosive episode, Gloria freaks out and actually throws a roast at Tony's head when he arrives late for a dinner she prepared and is forced to leave early, again due to the situation faced by the third pairing. The relationship between Tony and Gloria says many other things about both of their mental states (perhaps the most important of which, that Tony is dating Gloria because of how closely she resembles his mother), but I think it is very important that, in this of all episodes, all of the problems between the two of them stem from outside interference.

The most important pairing in "Pine Barrens" is also the one that often gets this episode tagged as a bottle episode: the relationship between Paulie and Christopher. The tension between Paulie and Christopher is built up throughout the third season of the show (and arguably, throughout the entire series). Paulie resents Christopher's nepotistic ascension and Christopher doesn't take too kindly to Paulie's cantankerous ways. So when the two are assigned to pick up some money a Russian man owes Silvio (Steven Van Zandt), things are bound to get interesting. The angry Paulie provokes the man into a fight which results in the two believing they have killed the man. Tony dispatches them to get rid of the body, and the two travel to rural New Jersey to bury him in the woods.

Of course things aren't that easy. The Russian isn't dead, and manages to escape into the forest, forcing Paulie and Christopher to pursue him, lest he escape and inform Tony's Russian business partner about the needless attack, endangering their boss and their livelihood. While the plotline set in Pine Barrens takes place mostly outside (excepting the time the two spend huddled inside an abandoned truck for warmth and shelter), it is in all other ways a bottle episode. Paulie and Christopher have issues to deal with, and the episode throws them together in isolation to deal with those issues, while the stakes continuously escalate. At first, the two are angry because neither feels they should be there. Paulie is upset because Silvio should have handled the pickup, and Christopher is angry because had Paulie not attacked the man, they wouldn't be in the woods. Soon after that, they are upset because Christopher sustained a head injury during the man's escape and Paulie has lost his shoe while attempting to pursue the man. Eventually they are upset because they believe they are starving and likely to die in the wilderness. And finally they get to the root of their problems, when each becomes upset at the idea that the other will betray him.

It's a marvel how quickly the two turn on each other. They are only lost in the woods for about twelve hours, yet things fall apart almost immediately. By the end of the episode they are limping out of the forest draped in carpet they have torn out of the van they take shelter in, half starved (though they have only gone without food for a little over a day and in fact ate several packages of ketchup and relish while in the van) and nearly completely insane. Removing these two from their element pushes them right to the edge, and both have made intimations that they might abandon or even murder the other by the end of the episode, just to survive for a bit longer.

Every character in "Pine Barrens" is metaphorically lost in the woods, but Paulie and Christopher's actual crisis is arguably one of the finest plotlines the series ever produced. By turns hilarious, suspenseful, and tragic, their journey into Pine Barrens is actually a journey into their own relationship with each other, and more importantly, a look deep into themselves. When these two believe the shit has really hit the fan (though, empirically, they are never in that much danger, as they are in cell phone contact with Tony the whole time and can't possibly be that far from a road), they almost immediately turn on each other. While their relationship is ostensibly healed by the end of the episode, as Christopher vouches for Paulie's blatant lie about why they had to attack the Russian in the first place, what we've learned about them (even if they failed to realize this about themselves) is much more lasting than their personal problems. When a crisis arises, these characters cannot rely on each other. They will result to any means necessary to get out of a bind, even if that means turning on a person they have been friends and associates with for years.

"Pine Barrens" may not actually be a bottle episode, but when we look at the way it examines relationships between characters and the isolation it puts Paulie and Christopher through, it's hard not to see the influence of previous bottle episodes weighing down on it. Trapping two characters together is a tried and true method for revealing deep truths about them, even if, as is so often the case on The Sopranos, we don't like the truths that isolation reveals.

Read more Bottle Up and Explode here

Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:

1/1: "Three Men and Adena," Homicide: Life on the Streets

1/15: "The Dinner Party," Frasier

1/29: "The Apartment," Californication

2/12: "The Conversation," Mad About You
Tags: The Sopranos
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