September 9th, 2009
On the surface, there is nothing horribly complex about Sons of Anarchy.
I think that’s its appeal, really – the show is about a group who calls themselves the Sons of Anarchy, and who operate as one would expect a motorcycle club to run. They smuggle guns into the country, they sell them in order to make a living, and they operate a front business in order to stay on the up and up (although, of course, no one is buying it). They face threats from rival gangs and law enforcement simultaneously, making their existence a complicated one, but one that people presume when dealing with a show that deals with a criminal organization.
What works about Sons of Anarchy is that this surface level isn’t thrown out the window in order to introduce dramatic elements, but rather subverted from the inside. The basic premise of the show meant that things started off a bit slow in its first season, playing off of the usual tension of having the audience cheer for the “bad guys” and being a bit too on the nose in terms of humanizing Jax (Charlie Hunnam), our “in” to the club, through his newly born, and ill, son. The components were all there, whether it’s Katey Sagal’s blistering portrayal of Gemma or Ron Pearlman’s wisened characterization of Clay, but the story felt too simple.
But then, the machine started to kick into full gear. Law Enforcement evolved from a witless sheriff in the club’s pocket to a psychotic stalker/FBI Agent (played to perfection by Jay Karnes) out to get Jax for stealing away Tara (Maggie Siff) and a manipulative and dangerous ATF presence in the form of Ally Walker. Simultaneously, we started to realize that for all the “anarchy” the Sons claim to perpetrate, what they’ve created instead is an enormously elaborate power structure which begets betrayal and paranoia, a structure that Jax spent much of the first season doubting and that Opie learned has dire consequences as the season progressed. We left the first season with no question that the status quo was not going to keep working, and that something would have to give.
And what I love about “Albification” is that we return to that exact same moment, and the show continues to play subtlely with the show’s premise rather than undermining it entirely. The introduction of a new threat is done with a smooth sense of purpose by Kurt Sutter, demonstrating that the momentum gained at the end of the second season isn’t going to be lost. Instead, the show feels like it has found an entirely new rhythm, one which is still willing to be funny, still able to make you love and hate characters at the same time, and most importantly still capable of shocking the viewer with its brutality.
In short, it’s a damn fine season premiere for a show I’m very much looking forward to spending time with this fall.
The episode is obviously dominated by its final image, Gemma tied up in a warehouse being raped by a group of white supremacists looking to push SAMCRO out of Charming. It’s a very sudden escalation, one which could be called borderline sensationalist: these are already effectively neo-Nazis, and I was expecting the confrontation with Clay to remain their one major moment of conflict in the episode. But then, as soon as Gemma pulled up to that stop sign, it was clear that they weren’t quite done yet, and they had another message to send.
It’s really a terrible way to send a message, at least from my perspective. Yes, there’s no question that attacking Gemma is a way to get SAMCRO’s attention, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the smartest way to do it. What we know of Clay, and the entire organization, is that they don’t respond well to personal attacks – the rest of the episode, after all, was about Opie’s search for vengeance for Donna’s murder, one which the Sons did good by even when they all know that it was actually one of their own who pulled the trigger. I can understand the desire to get SAMCRO out of Charming (as the early meeting suggested, they’ve effectively kept “legitimate” business from taking over its small town atmosphere), but it seems to be that there are more subtle ways to go about one’s business.
Dramatically speaking, though, it works wonders. The first is that it gives Katey Sagal yet another great showcase, as the final shot zooms in on her makeup running down her face as she faintly struggles against A.J. (or, at least based on the voice, I think it was the new character played by Henry Rollins). The second is that it tells you that these guys aren’t messing around: A.J.’s discussion with Darby (Mitch Pileggi) is similarly telling. A.J. gives him cash in order to be able to hire only white employees and to start dealing crank and hookers in Charming, and when Darby brings up Samcro we learn that the Aryan army is essentially a phone call away. The threat is no different really than it was before: somebody else wants to be in control of illegal activities in Charming, and they have a different agenda than SAMCRO. However, this group is wielding a lot of power, and with SAMCRO struggling to get out from under the thumb of the ATF they’re not really in a position to challenge them.
It’s not an uncommon trope: a new threat to an existing authority comes just as they’re falling apart on their own accord. However, the situation within the Sons remains as compelling as it was before. Pretty much everyone but Opie knows that it was Clay who ordered him to be killed and who got Donna killed instead: Jax, Opie’s father, and perhaps most interestingly the soon-to-be Sheriff. David is proving to be open to negotiating with Jax on the issue of revealing his suspicions (which, like Jax’s, can’t be proven by evidence) when there’s no good that can come out of it, and he’s also resistant to his older brother’s attempts to go into business with the League of American Nationalists. He and Jax are sort of kindred spirits, each trapped within a bureaucracy which doesn’t allow them to tell the truth and which associates them with people or ideas which they might not personally subscribe to. Where the show gets its drama is in seeing how far the supposed anarchy of SAMCRO is capable of withstanding the power of John Teller’s manuscript, amongst other things.
And Jax’s personal life remains a point of interest, but one that feels more intricately connected to his position within the organization: Tara is still with him, but she’s at that point where she’s testing the waters of whether she can become like Gemma (um, don’t let her watch this episode before making that decision, Jax). While the club itself is at a point of disrepair, threatening to implode around the Opie question, there’s a sense that the cycle will just continue. We know that Clay had something to do with Teller’s death, and yet the club survived through subterfuge and coverups much as it is now. And while Jax is biding his time waiting for a chance to implement change, how high will that be on his radar with this new threat not on the horizon but on his doorstep raping his mother? There’s every chance that he follows in his father’s footsteps, someone who tries to bring forward change from the inside only to die without being able to bring it to life, left either in his mind or on typewritten pages.
The final position of everyone is really indicative of where the season appears to be heading. The Sons are celebrating Bobby’s return from prison, complete with hookers and alcohol and everything else. Meanwhile, Gemma is being violently raped in a warehouse somewhere, and Jax is at home in Tara’s arms struggling to come to terms with a murder that he could prevent if he could only tell Opie the truth and take over SAMCRO once and for all. As SAMCRO parties on as if nothing is the matter, still running guns in at a minimized capacity and with one of their own back in the fold, you realize that some are powerless to stop what is happening, and that this does not bode well for the challenge ahead of them.
But it does bode well for a fantastic second season.
- FX has to be happy with their decision to renew the show, which wasn’t exactly a ratings superstar last season – the show went up a rather astounding 93% from its first season premiere, which is unheard of. It’s a great boost for the show’s fortunes, and a sign that at least a few people heard how much the show improved last season and decided to give it a shot.
- I find Halfsack entertaining, but I do think that the show needs to be careful with keeping him solely in a comic role: yes, getting shot at picking up targets and walking in on Clay and Gemma were both funny moments, but there was something about his slightly more emotional side that really fleshed out the character late last season.
- Nice to see Ally Walker get one final appearance, at least for a while – the ATF really has no more direct role in terms of SAMCRO, but the potential for them to place a trace on any one of them nonetheless has them on their toes.
- I’m intrigued to see what they do with Sheriff Unser – by all accounts he isn’t well, visiting the Hospital chapel and generally speaking not acting quite sane. The Sheriff’s incompetence was always a help to SAMCRO before, but Jax should see the logic in having someone capable of functioning in the office considering their current threat.
- I’ve always felt that the real anarchy in the show is the acceptance of criminal activity: it’s not that there’s no structure, but that everyone can agree on the need for gun-running, drug-running and the like. Adam Arkin and Henry Rollins want to do the same things as the Sons, but without their reliance on Mayans and 1-Niners for business. And Jax, even in his different view of the club, still believes in people dying for what they’ve done, and would still search for vengeance had he personally been wronged. Even with different methodologies, everyone ends up back in the same place, and Charming is unlikely to be free of that sense of “anarchy” any time soon.
- Also: what does Albification mean? Well, it’s the process of making something white…fitting, no?