On 10th January 1999, James Gandolfini made his debut as depressed gangster Tony Soprano, a character considered one of the greatest TV roles of all time. Gandolfini was backed up by an indelible cast of supporting actors, including Edie Falco, who played Tony’s wife Carmela, and Tony Sirico, whose Paulie Walnuts became a fan favourite across the show’s six seasons.
The late Sirico’s Paulie found himself at the centre of many of the show’s funniest moments, with his finest hour arriving on 6 May 2001 when the series broadcast the 11th episode of its second season.
That episode was titled “Pine Barrens”, which was the first of four episodes Steve Buscemi would direct.
“Pine Barrens” swiftly became a viewer favourite and, to this day, stands out as the show’s highest-rated episode with an IMDb score of 9.7 – that’s even higher than the dramatic season four finale, “Whitecaps”, the gruelling fifth season episode “Long Term Parking” and the divisive series finale “Made In America”.
The episode starts out just like any other, but slowly turns into a two-hander involving Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie Gualtieri (Tony Sirico) after a job gone wrong involving a Russian man named Valery (Vitali Baganov).
They become stranded in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, an expansive rural woodland stretching across more than seven counties, after Valery escapes their clutches.
Despite spending the remainder of the episode looking for him, the pair never find him. The mystery surrounding Valery’s whereabouts has led to numerous theories from fans over the past two decades.
It’s the focus of so much debate that writer Terence Winter once said the question he “gets asked more than any other” is: “Where’s the Russian?”
However, there was actually going to be a scene in the show that cleared this up. It would have featured in season six as the show neared its conclusion.
Sirico revealed to The New York Times in 2007 that the sequence would have seen Christopher and Paulie happen upon Valery outside a bar, and proceed to shoot him to death. Creator David Chase removed the scene.
“I think David didn’t like it,” Sirico said, adding: “He wanted the audience just to suffer.”
Speaking about Valery in a 2008 interview, Chase said: “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.”
In 2021, Falco revealed that she once reprised her role of Carmela Soprano alongside James Gandolfini, who played Tony, for a short film set after the conclusion of the show that would have cleared up what happened in the divisive final scene.