November 10th, 2009
I don’t need to tell you that “Balm” was an exceptional hour plus of television: for about two weeks, critics have been waxing poetic about how this could be the show’s defining moment, and how this is the episode that raises Sons of Anarchy from the upper echelon of television drama to the upper upper echelon of television drama. The result is that Sepinwall, Fienberg, Ryan, Poniewozik and every other critic under the sun have already made their position extremely clear, to the point where I don’t really have much to add in terms of singing its praises.
However, that’s never particularly stopped me before, so I still want to talk about how great this episode is, or, more accurately, why this episode manages to be great despite some significant challenges. This is an episode which builds its tension around an action that before last week was almost entirely foreign to its audience (at least those with no deeper knowledge of MCs than what the show offers) and that creates an emotional climax you can see coming by the time the episode gets going, and yet manages to pull it off so brilliantly that it’s as if we as viewers have always known what “going Nomad” refers to and that we could never have expected the kind of emotion the episode’s final moments bring.
It’s an episode that turns the viewer into an active participant in the lives of each and every single character, to the point where we are sitting at the dinner table with the characters in that final scene and responding as they are to the news being delivered.
And that’s some damn fine television.
The strategy of this episode is as elegant as the rest of the episode, really. After last week’s ending, the show has is forced to problematize “going Nomad” to the point where the eventual decision to allow Jax to leave the charter becomes painful for us to watch. We already know that Jax has good reason to hate Clay, and that while Jax is wrong to presume Clay was behind the warehouse attack his logic of leaving the club in order to avoid the larger blowup between the two men is not without merit. What the episode needs to establish, then, is why going Nomad is something that could tear this club apart, and more importantly something that will eventually drive Gemma to speak the truth regarding her horrific experience at the hands of the League of American Nationalists.
The episode achieves this through a calculated strategy of reintroducing characters that we haven’t seen active for a while to remind us what a charter truly means, and what Jax is giving up (or giving up on) to become a Nomad. We get his conversation with Piney, who feels as if Jax’s decision to leave the club puts any and all efforts to gain revenge on Clay and Tig for killing Donna on ice, which is followed by having to break the news to Chibbs who sees the Sons as his only family (albeit I’ll get to his story in a moment) and can’t imagine leaving it. While telling someone like Tara the news gets only confusion and uncertainty, and eventually trust in his judgment, when he tells Juice he gets an emotional plea. The Juice sequence was perhaps my favourite of these visits because of how earnest he was: he was once a prospect, and he repeats to Jax the words that he told him when he recruited him (or something of the sorts) in order to indicate that the club is what holds you together. Heck, even the dead rise to warn Jax about the consequences of going Nomad, as John Teller’s book features a passage that cites going Nomad as too uncertain for even his restless soul.
It all results in the scene where, as everyone votes around the table, it’s not entirely clear what we’re supposed to want here. What was so interesting about the sequence is that it’s preceded by Jax going to Clay and basically offering him an out: he knows that Clay didn’t burn down the warehouse, so he’s willing to stick around so long as Clay is willing to have him. However, Clay tells Jax straight to his face that he wants him gone, a decision he makes because Jax is a constant challenge to his authority and, more importantly, knows too much that could hurt him. The season has not made it a secret that Clay’s hands will at some point soon keep him off of his bike, and that the power would got to Jax who has made it his mission to get in Clay’s way isn’t something that makes the President very comfortable. Scenes like this one, and the vote which takes place afterwards, take the idea of going Nomad and turn it into a both a referendum on the club’s direction (testing whether anyone is willing to defy Jax’s wish in an effort to keep him around and truly try to fix things) and an interpersonal struggle for Jax.
However, the one person who we are to believe is most able to make a judgment on Jax’s decision is the one person who isn’t sitting in that room voting on it, but instead holds a meeting of her own. Gemma is in a unique position in this way, mother to one and wife to another, and more importantly she is someone who has read John Teller’s book and who understands its message perhaps better than even Jax does. The scene where Gemma tells Jax what she believes John Teller learned in his life is mighty complicated, including an insinuation that John took his own life (which perhaps goes against previous assumptions that Clay might have had some part in his death as well), and is as expected a great piece of acting from Katey Sagal. The message is that Jax is very much like his father, and that his death and his words should serve as a warning to Jax as much as they could serve as a manifesto. The book is of two minds, that’s always been clear, and as Jax tells Piney it’s not exactly what one would call a clear guide to success. However, Gemma points Jax to the passage about going Nomad because it indicates that John, in all of his complications, needed that sense of identity to keep himself sane, just as Jax might well need it to keep himself safe. The reason the book is so disjointed is that for all of his issues with the club, it was something he couldn’t live without, which Gemma believes ultimately tore him apart.
What Gemma ends up doing is heart-wrenching, even if it was easily choreographed from the moment that Gemma started gazing into the distance and talking to Unser about protecting her boys. The predictability should have limited its emotional impact, but Sagal was having none of that, and everything just tore down my defences. There’s a nice irony in the fact that what was supposed to tear the Sons apart has now been deployed at the very time it will bring them back together, but there’s also a tragedy in Gemma having to speak those words and seeing how hard it hits someone like Clay. Gemma realized very quickly that Jax and Clay were missing the big picture, that their squabblings within the club were keeping them from seeing how they could best protect against external threats. The same thing that killed John Teller, she believes, is the same thing that was about to kill Jax and Clay if not for something to bring them together, and as such she sacrifices and tells the tale she, to this point, has told to no one in full. Sagal was amazing in this episode, as she has been all season, but that last season was as much about Hunnam and (especially) Pearlman’s reactions, and they both nailed it.
What’s interesting is that you could argue much of the above wasn’t actually “plot,” per se, which says a lot about the confidence Kurt Sutter and Co. have in the show to be able to do an episode like this late in the season. It was possible not just because of the execution but because we got some forward momentum in Chibbs’ return into the middle of the ATF/IRA battle brewing. Titus Welliver was great as always as the newly arrived IRA bigwig Jimmy O’Flannery, but this was really more about Chibbs than it was about him. Chibbs, we learn, has reason to hold a grudge: Jimmy got him kicked out of the IRA, stole his wife, and raised his daughter as his own. The episode places a lot of discussion on the value of the charter as family, which is especially true for Chibbs since his situation meant that his actual family and his gang family were both taken away from him. However, what we see in “Balm” is Chibbs sensing that his real family has been victimized long enough (especially when Jimmy threatens to take Chibbs and Fiona’s daughter as his new sex toy once Fiona’s looks fully fade away) and turning into a rat in the process. Having Ally Walker back is always welcome, and a circumstance where Chibbs assists the ATF on busting the Irish and Zobell happening just as news of Gemma’s rape breaks is the kind of chaos that the show thrives on.
“Balm” wasn’t some sort of unexpected greatness from this show, as we critics have been praising it since the end of last season, and especially so during the past few months. However, it’s the kind of episode that has never felt quite so integral to the show: in the midst of chaos the episode switched gears to a series of conversations and confrontations that were not so much dramatic as they were emotional, leading to a conclusion that makes us teary-eyed even when we know all of the facts being stated. It’s an episode that takes us so far into this world that we imagine we’re sitting listening to Gemma speak, or sitting at a diner table as Jimmy threatens Chibbs’ daughter, and where we wanted to cast a vote in that meeting as much as some of them didn’t want to cast a vote at all. Just a really fine episode of television, and one which promises greatness yet to come.
- I loved the final montage as we panned down from each person as Gemma continued talking. It was a scene that mixed the comic (Prospect helping heal his swollen prosthetic testicle in the mud) with the dramatic (Tig breaking down under the influence of the mushrooms, signalling his inner turmoil over Donna’s death), and was just really evocative and effective. I do have to wonder, though: was the show insinuating that Piney killed himself? It was such a small moment, and without any indication as to its conclusion, that it’s left a dangling thread which could be either followed through on or ignored.
- Tara sure seems kind of uninterested in whether she keeps her job or not, although I don’t blame her for not liking that administrator.
- Speaking of that administrator, she’s effectively playing the same character as Anna Deavere Smith on Nurse Jackie but without the prop comedy.
- And since I wasn’t able to include it within the logic of my opening since he didn’t get the episode early, do check out Zack Handlen’s great review of the episode over at The A.V. Club. It’s down as I post this, but it should be fixed eventually.