It’s been several years since I first saw “Pine Barrens”—season three, episode 11 of The Sopranos—but I still find myself wondering about Valery, the Russian mob associate who disappeared in the woods after a botched money pickup and attempted hit by Paulie and Christopher. Whether or not he survives is never clear, and David Chase, who created the show, has been asked countless times about Valery’s fate. I’d guess the only thing he gets asked about more is whether Tony lives or dies after the well-known cut to black in the series finale, another ambiguous scene I find myself returning to.
I recently went to a screening of “Pine Barrens” at the IFC Center in New York City as part of its Split Screens television festival—followed by a discussion with Chase, Steve Buscemi (who directed the episode and later appeared in The Sopranos), writer Terence Winter and television critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who moderated the talk. At the screening, they discussed a scrapped plotline that saw Christopher running into Valery only to find that the Russian unable to speak or write, the result of a gunshot wound suffered in the episode.
For the most part, they’ve remained ambiguous. “You know, not everything gets answered in life,” Winter once said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. In the same article, Chase added, “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 I think that’s exactly what I’ve taken from these episodes and similar scenes from other shows. I saw “Pine Barrens” for the first time four years ago. But I still go back to Valery, not because I need to know what happened. Actually, it’s the opposite—I like that his fate is never revealed. I was even tempted to plug my ears when the panel at the screening threw around ideas they had when the episode was written. I like that there’s room for viewers to make their own conclusions. I like television that doesn’t coddle me.
I’ve found that my attention span has shrunk as technology becomes more advanced. I used to start and finish a new book every few weeks. Now, it’s closer to one every few months. I can get in bed and watch 30 Rock for the fifth time through while I fart around on my phone and ignore reality instead? Great. And I’m not alone—a lot of people I know, and certainly not just millennials, have followed a similar path.
I also tend to be pretty impatient. I love a detailed itinerary, even for day trips, and I often map out locations beforehand down to where the bathrooms are. I get to the movies no later than 30 minutes before start time, and I am a serial “Just in case”-er.
I lose all of that when I’m watching a great TV show, though, like Twin Peaks: The Return. It’s been, so far, 10 weeks of episodes that feel too short, sometimes answering questions we’ve had since the beginning of the series, and often bringing up new ones. There are a lot of things in the series that might stress me out in real life—a five-minute broom-sweeping sequence, 15 minutes of nuclear bomb footage, watching a character whose 25 years in an evil extradimensional place left him nearly mute and unable to remember anything about himself fumble around a new life he was warped into. There is a lot that isn’t explicitly told to the audience. But every second of it has been enjoyable.
Shows with ambiguous endings, long arcs, uncertain plot points and the like kind of turn off my brain while forcing me to use it, in a way. It’s a different kind of distraction. Sometimes these shows force me to consider big-picture issues, like the idea that malevolence might lurk inside all of us (Twin Peaks), what my purpose is (Lost), the nature of selfishness (Breaking Bad).
I don’t know why television—rather than a movie, video game or book—makes me feel this way. Maybe theorizing about what will happen week to week and thinking about the show in between episodes does it for me. The weeklong wait, I think, forces me to be patient, and it gives me a lot of room to speculate about how a show might relate to real life. It’s the perfect incubation period. While watching The Sopranos, I actually limited myself to a few episodes a week just to let everything sink in.
Real-life me could learn a lot from TV-watching me. It’s OK to not arrive somewhere 30 minutes before everyone else! Not everything has to have a specific end time! I will find a bathroom, eventually! Every question I have doesn’t need to be answered immediately. And I shouldn’t let myself get so tied up in little details that I miss the bigger picture.
Tony Soprano doesn’t have to worry about any of that, though.
He totally died at the end.