Salon's Heather Havrilesky writes a detailed analysis of the latest Sporanos episode in her column, I Like To Watch (it goes without saying that if you haven't seen this episode don't read on):
The paranoia and dread that start to unnerve Tony would be enough, but the beauty of David Chase's writing is that he builds layers of meaning around the first, most obvious one, and toys with our sense of Tony and Paulie as blood relatives. As Tony and Paulie spend a night out with Beansie and some very young hookers, Paulie prattles on endlessly about old memories they've shared, including loose talk about a "mysterious" death (wink, wink), until Tony gets a sick look on his face. His discomfort is so obvious that Beansie asks him if he's feeling OK. Tony says yeah, but Paulie presses him. "You sure, T? Because you're being kinda quiet."
"That's because 'Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation," Tony responds, and gets up from the table. But is Tony only worried that Paulie can't keep quiet and that will eventually get them in trouble? Or is he experiencing the claustrophobic angst of someone who realizes that he's tied to someone he finds deeply irritating, for better or worse, for the rest of his life? There's something sad about the fact that, to Paulie, those old memories are something to be treasured and replayed over and over again, while to Tony, they're just a nuisance, a reminder of how old he is and how few decisions in his life were actually his own. Tony has always felt that he was cornered into this fate, that he's never actively chosen this existence, even if he hasn't actively resisted it either.
Ending the episode with Tony and Paulie renting a boat to go deep-sea fishing was a particularly torturous maneuver. Haunted by the memories of how Big Pussy met his end on a similar boat, Paulie becomes fearful and stiff -- and so do we. Tony glances at an ax mounted to the side of the boat as Paulie fidgets. Later, Tony gazes at a knife for cleaning the fish. Is he really going to murder Paulie, a man who's been like an uncle to him (albeit a pesky one) for most of his life?
Even with all of the other times Tony has been forced to murder someone close to him because it was best for the business or best for his own family, even compared to cousin Tony Blundetto and Big Pussy, this situation seems different than the others. Tony B. was a total wreck, Ralphie and Richie (whom Tony only considered murdering -- Janice took care of that one for him) were downright awful human beings, and Big Pussy was an informant. If Tony chose to murder Paulie (or Sil or Christopher, for that matter) out of the blue, it would trump all of his other brutal maneuvers to date. We recognize this in Tony's eyes when he looks at Paulie. Although Beansie reassures Tony that Paulie is loyal and doesn't have his own family to fill out his life, we know from experience that Paulie can be as disloyal as the next guy.
Paulie may just be another self-centered schmuck and it may make the most sense to get rid of him, but that doesn't mean Tony is capable of doing it. And even if Tony does do it eventually, it won't just haunt him -- it could undo him completely.