Whatever Happened To The Russian On The Sopranos?

Lauded as one of the greatest episodes of television ever made, "Pine Barrens" — the 11th episode of the third season of "The Sopranos" — is brilliant in its uncertainty. Following Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie (Tony Sirico) on a debt collection that turns into a wilderness survival challenge, "Pine Barrens" is significant for many reasons. It's the first of four episodes Steve Buscemi (who also played cousin Tony B. throughout season five) directed for the series. It took 12 days to shoot, an abnormally long shooting period for the show at the time. It also wasn't even filmed in the titular New Jersey woodland where it takes place, a rarity for a show that is regarded for its near-impeccable authenticity (the relocation was to New York's Harriman State Park).

Despite these precarious factors, "Pine Barrens" is a truly exceptional work of serialized storytelling, particularly due to the stones it leaves unturned. The episode does a fantastic job of capturing the eerie, supernatural quality inherent to the area. According to Tim Van Patten, who came up with the concept for the episode:

"My father was a horse player and he used to take me and my brother to Atlantic City. On the way down, he'd always try to make an adventure out of it, so we'd stop off at the Pine Barrens. He'd tell us these crazy stories about the Jersey Devil — half-man and half-beast — living in there. It was a spooky place with a kind of magic in it. So, I was lying in bed and I sort of half-dreamed this idea."

Into the woods

The episode was never actually going to be shot in the titular woodsy expanse, but shooting in New Jersey was made entirely out of the question. As "Pine Barrens" writer Terence Winter revealed in an oral history conducted by The Ringer:

"At the 11th hour, there was a local politician who came out and made a lot of headlines saying he didn't want 'The Sopranos' shooting in Essex County because it gave a bad name to Italian Americans. The funny coda to that story is that that politician, who happened to be Italian American himself, ended up going to jail for corruption. It's like, you can't make this s*** up."

Nonetheless, the episode is equal parts terrifying and hilarious. Let's dig into what makes this episode so great — including the answer to a question fans have obsessed about for decades.

In the episode, Christopher and Paulie are ordered by Tony to stop by Fair Lawn, New Jersey (coincidentally this SlashFilm writer's hometown) to shake down a man they refer to as "the Russian." When the guy doesn't cough up the cash, the gangsters get violent. After a physical altercation results in the Russian bludgeoned with a floor lamp, Christopher and Paulie fear they've accidentally killed him. Both "made men," they take immediate action. They drive down south to the Pine Barrens hoping to bury the body in its vast wilderness.

When they open the trunk, though, they find the Russian is still kicking. They order him to walk into the forest to dig his own grave, but he instead whacks Christopher and Paulie with the shovel they've (stupidly) armed him with. The gangsters shoot a frenzy of bullets as he runs away, but they're not sure if they actually managed to hit him. They can't find his body — only a dotted trail of blood that abruptly stops in the snow — and begin to fear he could be stalking them. After all, the Russian was totally unperturbed by the bitter, frosty cold. Who knows how long he could survive out there?

The beauty of ambiguity

To make things worse, Christopher and Paulie can't seem to retrace their steps to the car. As the sun begins to set, the two hardened criminals begin to whimper and quiver. Are they still being watched, silently stalked by a cash collection gone wrong? They call Tony for advice, but the poor reception leads to a garbled exchange.

"[The Russian] killed 16 Chechen rebels single-handed, he was with the interior ministry," Tony shouts over the phone when Paulie admits their grave mistake.

"He killed 16 Czechoslovakians," Paulie relays to Christopher in a literal game of telephone. "Guy was an interior decorator."

"His house looked like shit," Christopher earnestly scoffs.

As the episode goes on, tensions come to a head. Christopher and Paulie take shelter in an abandoned van, desperately sucking on ketchup packets to satiate their ravenous appetites (sadly, no comped dinner at Vesuvio's). They're scared witless, and plead once more to Tony to come to their rescue. Luckily, Tony and a neon-clad Bobby (Steven R. Schirripa) manage to find them. However, the Russian is never seen again. It's impossible to know if he's dead or alive, and the mystery had fans wondering if he'd return to exact guerilla-style revenge on the duo until the show's eventual finale. But fans never let go of their curiosity, even when "The Sopranos" creator David Chase urged audiences to allow for the beauty of ambiguity to exist without concrete closure. In an interview on SiriusXM's "The Sam Roberts Show," Chase explained:

"I like to watch entertainment like that. I don't like to have every question answered. I like for there to be possibilities. It's not like, some kind of snotty attitude ... that's the kind of movie I like to go to see. I mean, one of my favorite movies is '2001 [: A Space Odyssey]' — I don't know who that baby in the bubble is."

David Chase finally fesses up

Despite the personal belief, David Chase was worn down by years of unyielding questions regarding the fate of the Russian. As such, he finally gave fans a much-awaited answer.

In the same interview on "The Sam Roberts Show," Chase wearily demystified the Russian's storyline. Although this was never actually depicted or alluded to on "The Sopranos," the show's creator insists this is how the character's life happened to pan out post-Pine Barrens:

"He collapsed and he was found by some Boy Scouts ... Somehow he was carrying a piece of ID, which led them back to his boss, Slava, the Russian guy. He was put in a hospital, and he was completely has massive brain trauma. And he was sent back to Russia."

So there you have it. After years of relentless pestering, the public was finally bestowed with a concrete answer. But honestly, was the revelation truly worth it? At times, we are so obsessed with becoming our favorite piece of media's know-it-all ambassador that we forget to enjoy the gaps in narrative where our own opinions, fears, and hopes might just fill in the spaces for us. Although there's no way to categorize these observations as wholly "right" or "wrong," it does bolster our ability to thoughtfully engage with art, drawing our own individual conclusions without the safety net of a "correct" take.

While Chase tries to articulate this exact thought after he finally answers the hotly debated question, the radio show's host doesn't even miss a beat before asking the next stirring question: "Is Tony dead?"

Chase's lips purse, and he simply looks away. While the mind behind one of the greatest TV shows of all time may have revealed one of the series' most nagging questions, there's no way he'll truly reveal the show's biggest mystery, one that was saved for its gripping, bitter end. But isn't that the beauty of art, that's it's forever open to endless interpretation?