November 3rd, 2009
When I wrote about Mad Men’s big JFK episode yesterday, I noted that one of the problems with playing with history is that it is already determined, and as such the show is left only with seeing how individual characters react to it. It introduces an element of certainty that is potentially damaging to the show’s dramatic tension, and while the characters are well-drawn enough to handle it there’s something about it that just feels off.
What’s interesting about the second season of Sons of Anarchy is that there is a similarly predetermined element to its central storyline, and for the most part it doesn’t particularly matter. One of my concerns this season has been the omniscient nature of Zobell and the League of American Nationalist, always a good two or three steps ahead of the Sons and always happening to plan (or stumble into) the ideal counterattack to further raise tensions within the club. It’s created a scenario where the Sons of Anarchy are at the whim of the League, their every move either a trap designed by the League or else a dangerous scenario only necessary because of actions the League has undertaken. If the show is about a crumbling organization trying to keep it together while dealing with the impact of unpredictable outside forces, which this season has definitely been, then it may be problematic that for us Zobell is wholly predictable: wherever SAMCRO is, he’s going to be there before they are.
However, as “Fa Guan” demonstrates, this hasn’t damaged the series so much as it has simplified the “plot” and allowed the intricacies of the various interpersonal relationships to rise to the surface. The show might be more realistic if the League weren’t quite so “on point” with their various attacks, but it would also be a lot less entertaining, and considering the show is currently one of the most entertaining shows on the air I think that this predetermination is worth an occasional raised eyebrow.
That final scene, of course, is the definitive example of the relationship between Jax and Clay being superimposed onto issues that have nothing to do with them. The porn studio, we know, was burned down because of (this might be confusing) Zobell’s decision to test Hale’s trustworthiness by giving him another tip regarding Darby’s operations, Hale’s decision to give that information to Clay, Clay’s decision to follow through on that information, Darby’s decision to confront rather than run from Zobell, and Zobell’s decision to teach SAMCRO a lesson for daring to challenge one of his plans. And yet, for Jax, it’s simply Clay going after the porn business that he started in an effort to push him out of the club and regain his sense of authority. There’s a lot of silly decisions in there, whether its’s Hale not realizing that sending the Sons in to be “heroes” could create some sort of blowback or Darby being ignorant enough to think he was ever really a part of Zobell’s plan after the objections to his use of non-white employees, but Jax’s belief that Clay was at fault was the first time he’s really been part of the same sort of blind rage/anger/frustration cycle.
Charlie Hunnam had a number of great scenes in this one, especially his emotional scene informing Otto of LuAnn’s death, but perhaps what he nailed best was making Jax into pretty much an idiot in the final scene. In the beginning, he is taking the blame for LuAnn himself, which we know is somewhat unfair considering that Georgie never appeared to be big-time enough to kill someone. In fact, Georgie is sort of an example of the show maybe taking its sense of chaos too far, as if we’ve never seen a Sons member killed by an actual gang (Donna’s a special case, of course) it seems strange to have someone like LuAnn killed by a porn producer. However, Jax’s blame is not only for what happened to LuAnn but also him trying to do what Clay and Tig never did, in his eyes. It’s about taking responsibility for one’s actions as Tig should have for Donna’s death, and that Clay should have to in order to keep running the club.
When he finds the porn studio burned down, Jax’s claim that Clay was responsible is the ultimate piece of projection. After spending most of the episode feeling responsible for what happened to LuAnn even when he knew in his heart he couldn’t have done anything about it, he isn’t going to search in that final moment for some way that he was responsible. No, he’s going to place the blame on the person who never seems to get any of it, and who had (to be fair) attempted to ignore club policy in an effort to quash the project. It’s way too convenient that Zobell happened to burn down the porn studio right as this whole situation was brewing, to the point where I wonder if there’s a mole within SAMCRO (I’m so used to 24’s constant talk of moles that not having any here makes me discount the theory), but the timing has finally taken Jax away from his careful consideration of events in favour of taking some form of action, just in time for next week’s 90-minute episode.
There was a similar experience for Ryan Hurst’s Opie, as the scene with the judge (which is “Fa Guan” in Chinese, to explain the episode’s title) managed to be the show’s deepest psychological investigation yet of Donna’s death and Opie’s feelings about his family. The entire sequence was kind of stunning considering how much acting had to be done largely with only their voices (their faces covered by masks, and the direction as such that only their heads were really involved), but Hurst’s power (or, arguably, powerlessness) in the scenario was the kind of compelling work he’s been doing all season. While Jax freed himself from considering things too carefully in favour of (mostly) blind rage, Opie seemed to get past his concerns regarding his relationship with Lyla and traumatized his children by making out with her at breakfast. It’s an important step for Opie, because it is now possible that he could actually learn the truth about Donna’s death without immediately killing people: while he and Jax remain on different sides of the fence, although closer than they were before their porch conversation during the Judge incident, there’s now a chance that Opie would be able to see the trees for the forest.
Elsewhere, we got some hints about the next few episodes (which critics have seen, and which critics have loved): Jimmy O (Titus Welliver) is stateside to see whether or not Cheebs has failed his Irish brethren, Gemma is going to church with Unser in an effort to find some way to lay her burdens down, and Tara continues to be a bit overwhelmed with everything going on around her. This is setup, in a lot of ways, but it was so darn entertaining setup that word of the next few episodes being even better just plain has me excited.
So, I’ll wait to comment on everything else until we see how Zobelle manages to throw them for a loop all over again.
- Bobby inviting Jax along on the trip to the Judge’s house was an instinctual thing, realizing that Jax has a better sense of where Opie’s mind is than Clay’s attempts to “bring him closer” by effectively throwing him to the wolves of deep emotional trauma. But it’s also interesting in that Jax, who we know would like the club to move away from guns, forced to help facilitate yet another action that puts them closer to getting back in the gun business.
- I don’t think it was entirely coincidental that the plan to use the son as emotional leverage was combined with Clay’s complete and utter lack of emotional connection with his “son” (of the step variety) – when the kid turned out to be a junkie who returns home to do laundry and hear how disappointed his father is in him, the parallel was drawn, and Bobby found the evidence to switch them over to another parallel (this time his shrine for his wife, much like Opie’s internal shrine [and external death-defying actions] for Donna).
- For further thoughts on the episode, check out Alan Sepinwall and Noel Murray.