In just the past few weeks, I went from prospect to full club member by catching up with Sons of Anarchy from the very beginning — just in time for the season four premiere last night. I have some thoughts on the series so far and, more specifically, on “Out” after the jump.
Going into SoA, I had high expectations. Based on what I had read online, the consensus seemed to be that, while it started off intriguing but not quite all there, the series quickly pulled it together, delivering a solid second half to its first season, followed by a near-universally-acclaimed sophomore season. And though the critical praise seemed to drop off during the third, with viewers and critics voicing their dissatisfaction with a meandering and prolonged path to Belfast and the attention being pulled away from SAMCRO’s internal struggles in favor of an external conflict with figures who were barely more than types, there were still signs of bright spots within the season and the idea that season four would be a return to form for the series about the outlaw motorcycle club.
My viewing experience was a bit out of the ordinary, since I watched all three seasons on DVD over the past three weeks. Pacing becomes less of a problem when you can just start the next episode immediately after one where seemingly little happens, and major arcs tend to blend together, with specific beats sometimes getting lost in the bigger picture. That said, I have enjoyed SoA immensely thus far. The club culture — a quite foreign concept to a 20-something from suburban Vermont — captured me from the get-go, but what kept me hooked were the deep characters and strong family drama interwoven with the gun running and shootouts.
Jax (Charlie Hunnam) is a terrific protagonist, and his ongoing internal conflict over his role in the club has been the driving force of the show. Part of what makes Sons so compelling is the fact that we as an audience are being asked to sympathize with and root for SAMCRO, despite their illegal activities and ever-growing body count. Jax embodies this tension, clearly aware that this is not a healthy lifestyle (especially for two young boys), yet, as he tells Tara in “Out,” it’s the only life he knows.
Jax’s inner struggle, and the point where it turned into an external struggle with current club president and surrogate father Clay (Ron Perlman) in season two, made that stretch of episodes the strongest yet. Jax was perhaps not ready to fully embrace his father’s philosophy, but he was certainly in disagreement with Clay’s, and the way that tension played out between the two men, and the way it affected the rest of the MC, was gripping to watch. The head-butting was understandably moved to the back burner when Gemma (Katey Sagal) finally told her husband and her son about her rape to unite them against a common enemy, but there it came near the end of the season, just before things completely boiled over, and just in time to take care of Weston and Zobelle before they ruined Charming.
Season three continued to keep the Jax/Clay tension in the background due to the singular focus on retrieving Abel from Belfast. I didn’t find Kurt Sutter’s decision to turn that journey into a season-long arc as infuriating as many fans seemed to, but, again, that may have been due to my watching that whole season over a few days. It did seem strange that it took over half the season for SAMCRO to meet up with SAMBEL, but I was never shaking my fists wishing they would just get there already. I understand those complaints, as well as those that lament the fact that the Sons essentially turned into pawns in a larger scheme between their previously unknown (or little-known) Irish brothers and the IRA, but when the entire 13 episodes went by in such a short timespan, it was hard to personally have those criticisms.
If anything, my problem with season three was not the trip to Ireland, but the storylines that continued in Charming while the majority of the club was overseas. Jacob Hale continuing to lay the groundwork for his quiet takeover of the town was necessary, especially to set the stage for season four, but everything with Tara in particular reeked of writerly machination for the sake of drama and simply giving Maggie Siff something to do. Now, Siff was terrific throughout, but the moment she began offering to help Salazar save his girlfriend had me yelling at the television, “Tara, stop being so stupid!” (And this after she was already knocked out earlier in the season trying to be nice to Nate’s caretaker whom Gemma had tied up in the basement.) The hostage situation functioned to help bring an end to the Stahl problem once Jax and the rest of the club returned, but it all just felt forced, like Sutter had to hit certain marks so he could get everyone from A to B.
But season three is over, and season four has now just begun, so let me focus my attention there. “Out” begins as the bulk of the MC is getting out of prison on parole after a 14-month stint for the federal gun charges leftover from season two. Things have changed: Hale has been elected mayor, Charming is now under the jurisdiction of the San Joaquin Sheriff’s Department (meaning SAMCRO has lost an ally in Unser, who has retired to a trailer in the woods), Abel has grown and now has a baby brother, Clay’s arthritis has gotten worse, Jax cut off his trademark long blond hair…
But some things remain the same. SAMCRO is still in bed with the Russians, and still in the sights of both federal and local law enforcement, even if the players themselves are different. Now we have Assistant US Attorney Lincoln Potter (Deadwood‘s Ray McKinnon) putting together a RICO case where Stahl presumably left off (or maybe, considering her track record, he’s starting from scratch), and Sheriff Eli Roosevelt (Rockmond Dunbar — I keep imagining him with a cigarette tip in his mouth, a la Terriers), who seems much smarter, more dedicated, and more experienced than anyone in the Charming PD ever was.
The premiere did a good job of establishing the new threats and reestablishing where the MC stands now that they’re out of prison. But in its longer runtime, it also had the chance to just let the characters interact, which is when the ensemble does some of its finest work. There were the obvious longer scenes, like Wayne’s conversations with both Gemma and Clay (perfectly played by Dayton Callie and Sagal/Perlman), and Opie and Lyla’s wedding (yet more strong stuff from Ryan Hurst). But then there were the little moments, like Tig and Kozik appearing to bury the hatchet, Piney walking Lyla down the aisle, etc.
And perhaps most importantly, “Out” reestablished Jax’s desire to be done with SAMCRO through a very well-done scene between Hunnam and Siff. Jax obviously did a lot of thinking in prison, and it’s nice to see that he ended up somewhere between the opposing camps of John Teller and Clay Morrow. He isn’t committed to the direction Clay has taken the MC, and he knows he doesn’t want his two sons to grow up with the outlaw life as the only one they know. But he also knows he won’t just take the easy way out and leave like his father did. While this may be the show trying to have its cake and eat it, too — returning to the central conflict between our main protagonist and the rest of his club, while acknowledging it’s not going to be resolved any time soon — at least it is back on the table. And as long as it stays there, and the new outside forces don’t become more completely sociopathic villains, SAMCRO should have plenty to deal with in the coming months.
Bits & Pieces
- SoA sure loves its long musical montages, huh? I guess there’s a reason, though, since they’re generally quite well-done. (This episode especially, since it had Paris Barclay, now an exec producer on the show, behind the camera.)
- Kurt Sutter appears on screen yet again as Big Otto. He sure has taken a beating in prison, this time slitting his own wrists (non-fatally, of course) to get a chance to kill the person who stabbed Jax.
- The Sons’ Native American connection continues to come in handy, as last season they were able to borrow the school bus to carry out the hit on Stahl, and now they hold the wedding/Russian take-out on the reservation, as to avoid interference from the cops.
I’m hoping to be recapping SoA weekly if I can, but, for now, what did others think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!