October 20th, 2009
When critics have copies of episodes in advance (and, as a result, I don’t have them in advance), it means two things. The first is that they all have reviews ready to post the second the episode ends, meaning that I’m roughly 24 hours behind on posting my thoughts about the episode (considering that I’m not able to watch Sons when it airs). The second, though, is that I kind of already knew what this episode was like: the critics have been talking it up for a few days, and Kurt Sutter even posted last week that the episode was one of the best the show had other done.
As such, this review won’t be particularly long (I lied, it was that good): I, like other critics, really loved this hour of television, and I’ll agree with Sutter that it’s amongst the show’s best. What makes “Gilead” so interesting is that it takes an episode featuring a lengthy homage to HBO’s Oz and a very welcome return of guest star Ally Walker, and yet ultimately delivers an episode that draws out less sensationalist event television and more powerful pre-existing emotional arcs. It manages to both relish in the situation, putting SAMCRO behind bars and playing with prison tropes ranging from the sex trade to the jailyard shivving, and turn that storyline into something meaningful and powerful considered in the long-term.
It’s the kind of short term/long term combination that SAMCRO is painfully unable to accomplish in its current state, and results in a damn fine episode.
The heart of this episode, although there’s plenty going on inside, is on the outside. Opie, who has been a walking wreck of a human being all season, finally gets that moment where he’s the only person left, and where he faces just how alone he really is. Part of this, of course, is by choice: he’s chosen to stay away from his kids, likely because he would be some kind of bad influence on them, and as a result drove his Mother to run off and leave them in his care. However, the tragedy of Opie is that in losing his wife he in many ways lost the club as well: because Clay and Tig were responsible for her death, and because Jax seems distant considering that he knows the truth and doesn’t dare tell him, Opie was alone even before the club went into the big house and before his mother ran off and left the kids in his care. Even when Tara tries to tell him otherwise at episode’s end, he makes the point very clear: he is alone, and there’s no way around that.
Ryan Hurst was on fire the entire episode, whether it was watching his best laid plans fall apart with the Tranny setup or going to Lyla when he felt he had no other choice. The scenes with Lyla are the kind of scenes he hasn’t been able to have with Jax or with Clay, forcing himself to put on a brave face and hide behind his desire for revenge. When he has to deal with Tara and Gemma being judgmental about his decision to allow Lyla to pick up his kids, refusing to see beyond her occupation to her own position as a single mother, Opie’s own self-identity crisis becomes clear. Here he is trying to balance being a father and effectively being an enforcer, in one instance the club’s future resting in his hands while in the other two lives he created and yet who couldn’t be more distant from him at the moment. I remain fascinated that the show ever considered killing him off (the plan had been for Opie to die instead of Donna), because Hurst is delivering some legitimately tragic stuff with this character.
This isn’t to say that the stuff on the inside wasn’t a highlight in the episode, because it was: Juice playing bait for the brown-loving inmate was a fun bit of comedy, and the image of the Sons in orange surrounded by unfriendly faces was really effective at capturing the chaos present in that environment. However, the episode wasn’t interested in spending too much time in jail, rather using it as a transition point for its various characters. What was interesting, of course, is that Bobby is convinced that Jax and Clay need to work out their issues, and that it is Jax who will need to step up to heal the wound in their relationship. However, for Jax this is anything but fair: he wasn’t the one who broke the club’s trust in killing Donna, nor was he the one who made the reckless decision that got them into this mess in the first place. And yet he is the one who is younger, and since time and experience are on Clay’s side he’s the one who needs to “make things right.”
Of course, Bobby is misguided when he lets Jax and Clay fight, as it ultimately accomplishes the exact opposite of what he had hoped. He had no way of knowing that Agent Stahl (the ever fantastic Ally Walker) was back in town, and that in her desire to take out the Irish (who we know have stabbed the Sons in the back) she would reveal to Clay what Hale had told her about Jax and Clay’s strained relationship. While Bobby looked at the fight as an attempt to clear the air from some sort of personal disagreement, Stahl knew better: Stahl watched knowing that the fight was not over a simple petty squabble but rather a struggle which will eventually tear the club apart before Zobell even has a chance to strike the finishing blow. It’s an absolutely fantastic moment for us to watch, because we know that this fight isn’t going to solve anything, and that other than putting a physical cost on the ongoing struggles they’re going to be just as far apart ideologically upon their release.
And, as such, we end the episode with the least triumphant homecoming imaginable. Jax played his role when Stahl questions him alright, refusing to cop to the knowledge of the Irish, and realizing very quickly that Stahl wouldn’t be playing these games if she actually had anything on the Irish beyond their picture with someone who she isn’t able to touch because he’s part of another investigation. But that feels like the last time Jax is going to stick his neck out for the club, and after getting thrown in jail for a raid he resisted he returns and heads down a different path. That scene, with Jax wearing the shirt that says “Son” on it as he walks off in a different direction while everyone else goes into the clubhouse, Gemma and Tara left standing in the middle of the parking lot not sure what exactly just happened, was an ending that wasn’t about jail, or Agent Stahl, but about something that has been bubbling under the surface ever since the death of John Teller, to some degree.
What the show thrives on is secrets and, perhaps more importantly, the moral ambiguity present in this setting. When Jax is sitting there with Agent Stahl, what should we as the audience be rooting for? Do we want him to sell out the Irish, getting the charges dropped and potentially getting Otto back on the path to parole? We know that Jax has intentions (like the adult film business) to make the club more legitimate, so getting into bed temporarily with the ATF wouldn’t be a fundamental problem with that strategy. Jax is given the opportunity to force the club onto his path, the path that his father’s book endorses, so shouldn’t we want him to take the deal being offered? And yet, in the end, we’re smiling ear to ear with Jax when he throws the offer back in her face, as she points out that he really is the smart one, and are likely cheering when he asks whether she’s seen Kohn recently (who, of course, Jax killed in defence of Tara back in Season One). It forces us to decide whether we care more about the entire club or the club’s moral compass, and I don’t think there’s an easy answer, which makes what on another show might be a simply interrogation scene into something enormously compelling (and, with Hunnam and Walker in charge, enormously well-acted).
All in all, it was an episode of television that managed to be situationally unique while fitting in perfectly with ongoing storylines, thus standing as one of the show’s most accomplished.
- It’s interesting to see that Stahl, largely, doesn’t care about the Sons at this stage: as the Irish and the League start to operate above them, trying to starve them out of existence, it’s also turning them into small potatoes for the Feds. It’s an odd circumstance where their marginalization might actually be in their best interest so long as Jax can create some legitimate business ventures, something that might be tough with Clay in charge.
- Stahl may have been largely baiting him, but Clay is getting old and is having trouble on the bike, which is definitely going to come into play at some point. Perlman is an integral part of the show, so I don’t think he’s in danger of being killed or anything, but the show is definitely going to play a forced retirement for him in the future considering the amount of great dramatic material to be found there.
- Sure, it may not have achieved anything, but Jax and Clay’s fight (which was done without stunt people, and in which Hunnam lost a tooth) was damn entertaining, exactly as visceral as it needed to be.
- Liked the subtlety of the stuff with Gemma and the young girl – I would have completely forgotten about the rape connection without the “Previously On” note, and I like that the episode didn’t have Gemma give some sort of speech on the issue. The girl simply saw her sadness, and tried to take care of her as Gemma had cared for her following the incident.