Sons of Anarchy – “Culling”

“Culling”

November 24th, 2009

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve checked in on Sons of Anarchy, primarily because I’ve run out of superlative things to say about the show. Right now, the show is riding a wave of momentum that feels almost Wire-esque, relying less on twists or turns (which would perhaps illicit more of an immediate desire to write about it) and more on a clear depiction of SAMCRO accomplishing what they want to accomplish in the form of some really compelling asskickery.

“Culling” is the first time in a few episodes where things, you could argue, go wrong, but what’s most intriguing is how uniquely situated the audience is within this story from a traditional law and order perspective. Because our point of view lies with the Sons, who are in this for vengeance over justice, we root against the ATF and become legitimately concerned when the Charming P.D. enter into the equation. The show has us cheering things that television doesn’t necessarily always condition us to cheer, and it makes for an episode that builds tension not by having things go terribly wrong but rather having the definition of justice become a debatable topic on which different characters have very different perspectives.

It’s the complicated web the show has been spinning with shocking clarity all season, and it’s making for an enormously entertaining march to the finale.

Considering that Alan Sepinwall and Zack Handlen have both covered the entire episode in detail long before I could, I won’t go into every little thing, but I want to focus on a couple of central ideas in the episode.

The first is the idea that we’re in some way upset that A.J. Weston and Ethan Zobell have been arrested and placed into custody. While The Wire was a show that played with questions of justice, it was doing so within the justice system itself: their concern was whether the target was going to go to prison for all of their crimes as opposed to just some simple drug charge, so the purpose of the Major Crimes Unit was to investigate further to be able to follow the money and build a more substantial case. However, on Sons of Anarchy, those types of cops are effectively the enemy, with Agent Stahl proving to be the personification of the opportunistic, spiteful law enforcement that the Sons have to contend with. Obviously, the ATF is the enemy of a motorcycle club who runs guns, so it’s not as if they’re going to be some sort of heroes in these scenarios, but the characterization of Stahl has taken away any sense that the organization is capable of dishing out justice. There were bad cops on The Wire, but there were also good cops, and they were our ostensible heroes.

One of the things that makes an episode like this work, though, is that Deputy Hale has not been painted with the same brush. In the first season, he was there as the Charming P.D. equivalent of Stahl, someone who wasn’t as enlightened as Unser about the Sons’ role in the community and who in his lack of understanding of the club fought against them tooth and nail. Of course, in the first season, some viewers might have related to Hale, as this isn’t exactly the easiest world to jump into and immediately empathize with the hardcore bikers running guns and obstructing justice. But by the time of the second season, we identify with the Sons (Jax especially) to the point where Hale remaining a pain in their side would turn him into another Stahl, and I’m impressed with how Sutter has given the character a real sense of purpose. Working with Jax to try to bring down Clay over what happened to Donna shows that he hasn’t entirely written off the club, and in this episode his actions are not an attack on the club so much as they are an attempt to keep the club from following through with their planned vengeance.

Hale is not out to destroy the club so much as he is out there to keep them honest. The problem with the Sons is that they both need the traditional legal system, like when they send our two-fingered friend to the station to give evidence about the Karakara fire so that they can collect the insurance money, but yet they don’t want it to follow through. Hale has no choice but to arrest Weston based on the information provided, but that isn’t what the Sons consider justice. If they had wanted justice, Gemma would have had a rape kit done and they could have arrested Weston then and there. For everything that Zobelle and Weston have done, the Sons want them dead, and yet Hale’s job is to enforce the law and send them to jail for the crimes he knows they’ve committed within Charming’s borders. When Jax claims that the brawl is none of his business, Hale is right: they’re in charming, who else’s business is it? And yet, because he works against their idea of vengeance, and because we know that long term Zobell and Weston represent too much of a threat to be warded off with some arson/drug charges, he’s standing in the way of our idea of justice. However, rather than hating him for it (which felt more natural in the first season), I find myself identifying with Hale, and feeling bad for being stuck in this position unsure of how to handle Unser’s involvement and the sheer chaos of it all.

Of course, we know how Tara handles it. Those discussions with Gemma, first about how Tara was entitled to a certain amount of worship from the croweaters because of her association with Jax and then about how God has a purpose for everyone that no one can keep them from achieving, woke up the inner Gemma inside Tara. As she takes a simple choke and turns it into a bloody attack and a threat on her hospital administrator’s life, you see the most stirring example yet of how far she’s gone. Back a while ago, when she was reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and pondering whether she could truly see into this life, we had seen her sex up Jax in a Karakara bathroom and be capable of showing a more purposeful side to herself. However, that was always about Tara asserting herself within SAMCRO, whereas this is Tara asserting herself in a SAMCRO-fashion within her everyday life. The scene was visceral and powerful, as Maggie Siff sold the hell out of the attack (and, to give her full credit, the administrator did a good job of selling her shock and making me glad to see her take one to the chin). And it confirms that, whether we would think the same in real life, the show has crafted a scenario where we want to see Tara take back her job with force and fear, and where that feels just (even if it goes against every sense of ethics we can imagine).

Heading into next week’s finale, we find the Sons at an impasse: they’ve played the League into a corner, and managed to foil the ATF’s plan to take out the Irish, but their overall goal of vengeance has been foiled by law enforcement (which was partially their own mistake, really). The result is that the two people they wanted to drag outside of Charming and kill aren’t going anywhere, at least for now – and while their wits got them out of a few scrapes as of late, I’m legitimately not sure how they’re going to deal with this one, and I greatly look forward to what Sutter and Co. have to offer.

Cultural Observations

  • So, did SAMCRO expect Hale to follow them out to the brawl? The presence of the Chinese and the Niners would seem to indicate not, as Jax wanted to finish off Weston once and for all, and yet the “Unser moves on the cigar shop” side of things requires Hale to be away from the station (although he somehow got back in time to find them just walking in), so I’m not entirely sure what the timing was there.
  • Loved the small little beat of Bobby and Clay discussing Half-sack and him losing his Prospect status in just a month. If this is leading to a ore substantial role in Season Three, wondrous. If it leads to him being killed before getting patched in, I will loudly curse out Sutter on Twitter for the world to see.
  • Really enjoyed the opening sequence as we see the Sons putting everything together and getting their ducks in a row (and out of the rain) ahead of their plan coming into play.
  • I’m a little disappointed that Chibbs didn’t get to take out Jimmy O while he had a chance, but the idea of Titus Welliver recurring is worth the delay of justice being served.
  • I really intended this to be short, honest.
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