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Best Sopranos Tangent Episode Ever

December 22, 2006

1) The Russian (Season 3)

After a nearly eight-month interruption, I am finally finishing off my list of the best Sopranos tangent episodes ever (I was waiting for the second half of Season 3 to appear on On Demand).

Before I begin, here’s a refresher on the rest of the top five:
2) The trip to Colby(Season 1)
3) Tony, Paulie and Christopher Go to Italy (Season 2)
4) Tony meets his father’s gooma, Tim Daly gets into gambling (Season 5)
5) The FBI wiretapping episode (Season 3)

In this episode, a routine collection turns into a disaster when Christopher and Paulie are sent to get $5,000 from an alcoholic Russian giant. They get the money but antagonize him and end up killing him–or so they think. Since the Russian is “like brother” to Slava, Tony’s Russian money launderer, Tony orders Paulie to make the Russian disappear. They take him down to south Jersey, to the Pine Barrens, during the dead of winter. When they open the trunk, the Russian is still alive, and he’s pissed. They walk him out to the woods so he can dig his own grave, but he escapes. They shoot him but are unable to find his body, and end up lost in the Pine Barrens. They spend the night in the woods, sleeping in an abandoned van and eating frozen ketchup and relish packs for sustenance.

The irony of calling this episode a tangent is that at the time, we all thought this was vital to the plot of Season 3. When Christopher and Paulie are finally saved by Tony and Bobby–and they find that Paulie’s car is gone–we all assumed that meant the Russian was out there and would have his revenge. Visions of interethnic mob warfare danced in our heads, alongside the notion that perhaps Paulie had made an unforgivable mistake. But three and a half seasons and six years later, there have been no repercussions.

But that doesn’t subtract from the brilliance of this episode, which has some of the funniest scenes in Sopranos’ history. There’s an early scene where Jackie Jr. is playing Scrabble with Meadow; as she lays words like O-B-L-I-Q-U-E over triple word scores, he comes up with P-O-O and A-S-S.

Just about everything in the woods is simultaneously scary and hilarious: as Christopher and Paulie walk the Russian to his execution, he swears at them in his native language, telling them, “I will kill you both!” and “I wash my balls in ice water.” Then there’s the garbled cellphone call where Tony tells Paulie that the Russian killed 12 Chechnyans single-handed and is like a Russian green beret; when Paulie passes the message to Christopher, he tells him that he killed 12 Czechoslovakians single-handed and is an interior decorator.

Later, when Paulie wants to leave the van to find help, Christopher tells him it’s a stupid idea. “What’s your solution, then?” Paulie yells. “Stay here and eat ketchup packs?”

Taking the characters out of their natural element also demonstrates the limitations of their survival skills. Neither of them has a clue about how to survive in the wilderness and Paulie nearly cries when he loses his shoe. Put them in any club in New Jersey with a gun handy, and they’re tough guys; put them in the woods without cellphone contact and they’re helpless children.

Their interaction in the woods also demonstrates the ridiculousness of their self-imposed heirarchy. When Christopher goes to take a leak outside Paulie’s side of the van, Paulie demands that he piss on the other side of the van. “Don’t make me pull rank,” Paulie says. “I’m a captain.” “Fuck you, Paulie,” Christopher replies. “Out here we’re just two assholes freezing to death.”

While few dispute this ep’s greatness, this is also one of the great polarizing episodes in Sopranos history. I have one friend who has refused to watch the Sopranos since 2001 because the writers never did anything with the Russian’s disappearance. While there are a handful of episodes from Seasons 1, 2 and 6 that possess more self-contained brilliance, the episode about the Russian is more emblematic of what The Sopranos has become: a wildly entertaining, brutal series with more loose ends than a tattered blanket.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. bro permalink
    December 29, 2006 4:29 pm

    unresolved plotlines and character arcs are a sopranos specialty, but this is one i dont mind. the russian could have easily bled to death somewhere in the woods, which makes sense logically but doesnt make for a very satisfying event dramatically. Let’s face it, if the Russian came back now and started wreaking havoc, would your friend start watching? I doubt it.
    By the way, it should be pointed out that Steve Buscemi directed this episode, which both represented his first involvement with the sopranos, and the episode itself represents a mix of Fargo (snow, inept criminals) and Millers Crossing (mob, killings in the woods)- two Coen brothers films that Buscemi appeared in.

  2. December 3, 2010 11:39 am

    i can play scrabble all day long cause i love to play with words and rearrange them for higher points *~;

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