TV URBAN LEGEND: “The Sopranos” almost revealed the mysterious final fate of the Russian gangster from the episode “Pine Barrens” in an episode in the final season of the series.
When long-running television series begin to reach the end of their runs, there is often an urge (very often driven by the fans of the show) to try to resolve any unresolved stories left over from past episodes, whether such an impulse really fits into the final plot of the series or not. “How I Met Your Mother”, for instance, tried valiantly to resolve their long-running pineapple mystery in their final episodes (they never found a way to make it work). “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, on the other hand, seems to delight in defying fans’ desire to learn the true name of the Waitress before the series ends. When you take into account the famous final scene of the hit HBO drama “The Sopranos”, the show’s creator, David Chase, seems to pretty clearly lean towards the latter school of thought. The finale famously lacked a clear cut resolution to the life of New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano.
There was another famous unresolved plot line on the Sopranos, though. In the acclaimed season three episode “Pine Barrens” (written by longtime “Sopranos” writer Terence Winter, who later created “Boardwalk Empire” and “Vinyl”, based on an idea by frequent “Sopranos” director, Tim Van Patten, who also worked on “Boardwalk Empire” with Winter), Soprano made men Christopher and Paulie were forced to fill in on a collection duty for another member of the crime family.
They were irritated at having to do collections and when one of the people they were collecting from, a Russian gangster named Valery, gave them attitude, Paulie snapped and killed the man. Or at least he believed he killed him.
When Paulie and Christopher drove to the Pine Barrens (a heavily forested area in New Jersey) to get rid of his body, they were shocked to discover that Valery was still alive. They then gave him a shovel and made him dig his own grave. However, Valery waited until their guard was down and then used the shovel to attack them and escape. Paulie then shot him in the head. Amazingly, Valery got back up and continued to run away. When the two men returned to Christopher’s car, they discover that it was stolen. So now the two men have to worry not just about the missing Russian but about surviving the night. They never found Valery, but they are eventually saved by Tony, who explained to them that if Valery shows up again and it causes any sort of problem with the Russian mob boss, Slava, then Tony would force Paulie to take responsibility for what happened. Valery was never seen or heard of again on “The Sopranos” (Slava was, though, so the presumption was that Valery never made it back to tell Slava about what happened).
Reader Matt G. wrote in to ask about a story he once read about Tony Sirico (who played Paulie) saying that they nearly addressed the Valery situation. Sirico, did, in fact, tell the New York Times soon after “The Sopranos” ended:
We had a scene this season when Chris and I are talking in the bar about whatever happened to that Russian guy. And in the script we were supposed to go outside and there he was standing on the corner. But when we went to shoot it, they took it out. I think David didn’t like it. He wanted the audience just to suffer.
Is that true?
Actors are not always the most reliable sources when it comes to the plans of show’s creators. Michael K. Williams, for instance, perpetuated a false story about his character, Omar on “The Wire”, for years. In this instance, though, it seems like Sirico was mostly on point.
The legacy of Valery has had an interesting progression since “The Sopranos” went off the air in 2007. Initially, both Winter and Chase were insistent that the whole point of Valery never being seen again was to stress the value of ambiguity in fiction. Winter explained things to Brett Martin in Martin’s “Sopranos: The Book”:
That’s the question I get asked more than any other. It drives people crazy: “Where’s the Russian? What happened to the Russian?” We could say, “Well, he got out and there’s a big mob war with the Russians,” or “He crawled off and died.” But we wanted to keep it ambiguous. You know, not everything gets answered in life.
and Chase more emphatically added:
They shot a guy. Who knows where he went? Who cares about some Russian? This is what Hollywood has done to America. Do you have to have closure on every little thing? Isn’t there any mystery in the world? It’s a murky world out there. It’s a murky life these guys lead. And by the way, I do know where the Russian is. But I’ll never say because so many people got so pissy about it.
Over the years, Chase backed off his comments a bit and in a 2012 interview with the Actors Guild, he told his version of what happened to Valery:
OK, this is what happened. Some Boy Scouts found the Russian, who had the telephone number to his boss, Slava, in his pocket. They called Slava, who took him to the hospital where he had brain surgery. Then Slava sent him back to Russia.
However, as it turns out, Chase initially was willing to address the issue, based on Winter wanting to address it. It came up in Alan Sepinwall’s excellent “The Revolution Was Televised”, where it was noted:
“Who gives a s*** about this Russian?” David Chase says. The creator of The Sopranos has never understood his audience’s fascination with Valery, the Russian mobster who disappeared in the legendary “Pine Barrens” episode. It was a one-off story that needed no closure, Chase says now. He recalls thinking, “We did that show! I don’t know where he is! Now we’ve got to go and figure that out?!?!”
Terence Winter, who wrote “Pine Barrens” and many of the series’ other memorable outings, agreed with the fans on this one, much to Chase’s frustration, and kept pushing his boss to add a coda to that story in The Sopranos’ final season. They finally hit on an idea everyone would be happy with: Tony and Christopher pay a visit to the local Russian mob boss, where they find Valery sweeping the floor, not recognizing Christopher thanks to a traumatic brain injury suffered when Chris and Paulie were shooting at him. (It would be explained that a local Boy Scout troop found him with part of his skull missing, and saved his life.) At the last minute, Chase changed his mind, and he recalls a despondent Winter insisting, “God, you’re making a huge mistake leaving that on the table!”
So Sirico was basically correct.
The legend, then, is…
Thanks to Matt G. for the suggestion and thanks to Alan Sepinwall, Brett Martin, David Chase, Tony Sirico, Terence Winter and the New York Times for all the information!
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