December 1st, 2009
In the world of motorcycle clubs, elegance is a luxury. In the complexity of running guns and internal politics, there’s no way for one to easily chart their way through life as if it was all planned out ahead of time: situations change, and people are forced to make tough decisions and follow a path that could be inherently dangerous. The same club that offers some semblance of stability is the same club that may eventually lead to your death, a cruel irony that is at the heart of Sons of Anarchy’s mythology in the form of John Teller, a man who hated what the club had become and yet was too dependent on the club to abandon it entirely. The men and women who are part of the Sons of Anarchy are trapped in a world that can turn at any moment, and where the unpredictability is a constant threat against their livelihood.
The central conflict of this second season was the fact that, for the League of American Nationalists, everything is sheer elegance in its simplicity. Ethan Zobelle is a character who challenged the sons with elegance, as everything seemed to go completely according to plan. The show set him up as a master of manipulation, and he lived up to this reputation by crafting elaborate schemes that feasted on the unorganized and divided Sons at every turn. There were times in the season where the show went too far, painting Zobelle as a mastermind more than a character, but the purpose was clear: the elegance of Zobelle was the stimulus necessary to focus on how the Sons were ill-equipped to handle a threat in their current state, and his continued action inspired the Sons to band together in order to look past their differences and see the common enemy.
The problem with “Na Triobloidi” is that it feels entirely inelegant, to the point where the escalation present in the episode feels completely out of control. The driving forces behind the action in the episode range from spiritual belief to intense grief, from bitter revenge to self-preservation, and yet none of it feels as satisfying as it should, or more problematically as satisfying as earlier episodes in the season.
I’m not suggesting that the chaos which dominates this finale isn’t exciting, nor am I suggesting that it is in any way a blight on the season. However, it’s a finale that takes one too many leaps of logic in favour of escalating tension as opposed to demonstrating character, crafting situations which will likely become compelling in the long run but here feel manufactured in a way which goes against those elements which elevated the season to new heights.
Part of the problem with the finale is that for all of the chaos which dominates the Sons, for the most part the show itself has been extremely smart with how it told its stories and the pace at which things were revealed. This may have initially felt like a show that was born to raise chaos and create conflict, but it showed this season that quiet moments of contemplation and striking scenes of targeted and isolated violence are its strong suit. The show is less entertaining when it becomes a train running off the rails not so much because Kurt Sutter and his cast/crew can’t pull it off but rather because the show’s strongest moments this season were emotional more than they were violent.
And I was missing that emotion this week, perhaps lost in the midst of the bloodshed or perhaps diluted by a sense of either predictability or contrivance. In the case of Half-Sack’s tragic death, which I called after last week’s heartwarming scene discussing whether or not he would be patching in, it’s marred by both of these elements. Not only did I predict it during last week’s episode, but it was trapped in the midst of Cameron’s grief-riddled insanity as he decides to trade a son for a son following Edmond’s death. And the problem with this story is that it felt like a circumstance that required about five leaps in logic and a domino effect that was itself highly suspect. If you go back through the story, it requires Stahl to be silly enough to stay with Edmond alone, for her to kill Edmond, for Polly to bring Edmond flowers, for Gemma to have found God, for Stahl to openly announce Gemma’s involvement matter of factly over the radio, and then for Cameron to wholeheartedly believe her and follow Half-Sack accordingly.
And the problem with all of this is that I’m not sure I buy any of it outside of Stahl, who backed into a corner sees Gemma as a way out of her own predicament and who (if we read her as truly evil) announces it over the radio to punish the Sons for having challenged her in the past by announcing Gemma’s act where Edmond could hear it. But do we really know enough about Cameron to understand his grief outside of a generic sense of parenthood taking control? And was there any logical reason why Polly would risk her life for Edmond that we were ever provided, justifying her presence beyond contriving a reason for Gemma to be in attendance? Those characters coming together at that location required spiritual enlightenment, general incompetence (allowing Stahl in there alone, blanks or no blanks and balls or no balls) and logical leaps that felt like an anti-climax; while we obviously loathed Polly for taking part in Gemma’s rape, I never felt like closure was so necessary that it required the show to go out of its way to push Gemma into a vengeful state.
The parts of the episode that worked were those which felt like the end of a long journey, like the chilling scene as A.J. Weston sends his child out to wait by himself while he accepts execution at the hands of the Sons. It’s a chilling sequence because Jax killing in cold blood is still somewhat disarming, and because that is the revenge for Gemma’s rape that we feel was earned. We knew Weston enough to know that he fully believed in what he was doing, and that while Zobelle is a monster for having unleashed him on Charming he is nonetheless worthy of this fate. While we never knew Polly beyond her role as her father’s pet of sorts, Weston is legitimately a monster, so his death felt meaningful.
But while that scene (and much of the season) was meaningful for reasons that were given time to develop and unfold (like Donna’s death, or Gemma’s rape), the finale felt like it was starting from scratch in a way that hampered its sense of character. While I understand that every finale is effectively serving two purposes, both closing off one season and starting the next, this one felt like it was telling the story of the former while only really doing the latter. And it seemed as if there was so much going on that Sutter and company wanted to set in motion (Gemma on the lam with Unser after a double-homicide, the Abel kidnapping) that the two purposes never really met in a logical fashion. You can technically chart your way back from the final montage set to “Gimme Shelter” to the start of the season, but there’s enough asterisks and questionable character actions in there to sink a ship.
And yet, if we accept this finale as a launching pad for a third season, I think it’s got plenty of potential. Gemma on the run with Unser continues a dynamic that saw a lot of great play this season, and Abel’s kidnapping is far enough outside the show’s normal jurisdiction that I’m intrigued to see how they’re able to handle it (especially since the Irish, after all, have a thing for stealing the children of the Sons and raising them on their own). This has done nothing to convince me that Kurt Sutter is any less capable of delivering a great season of television, as there is nothing that can erase the greatness of an episode like “Balm.” However, there’s also nothing that can erase those expectations, expectations based on episodes which managed complex ethical dilemmas and emotional responses and delivered a stunning piece of dramatic television.
For the most part, ethical dilemmas were inherently absent here, contemplation replaced with a devil may care approach to life in the realm of SAMCRO. The moments that worked in the episode were those that used the madness of it all to create small moments like Clay without hesitation abandoning Zobelle at the Deli Mart in order to save his grandson or Hale comforting Tara as they await news of Abel’s fate. But, in the end, those moments came only towards the end of the episode, and the rest of the episode felt like a far less emotional sort of chaos. And while it’s perhaps my residual anger over the death of Half-Sack (which, despite having seen coming, saddened me), I felt as if this sort of attitude is one that is never going to be the show’s strongsuit. This is perhaps a show which performs better in the wake of chaos as opposed to in its midst, and perhaps then this is a necessary step: it’s not pretty, and it’s certainly not elegant, but it creates the situations that will eventually result in the show’s strongest work.
I wish I had more comprehensive thoughts to add to the finale, but to be honest with you I don’t think I really have much else to say: there were no other characters who felt like they got a substantial amount of development here, and everything else should be covered by the bullet points below. The fact of the matter is that this isn’t a Wire finale, which operated as a denouement for the season, or a Mad Men finale which feels like a conclusion and an introduction at the same time. Rather, this was like a strategic avalanche: while the mountain has avalanches on its own accord that result in chaos and complication, here the charges were set by the people in charge in order to push things in a particular direction. The visual sight is the same, and the same chaos is apparent, but there’s still that sense that this was something which didn’t come naturally.
And while I look forward to seeing what the mountain looks like in its wake, watching it go down the hill was ultimately a slight disappointment.
- I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Zobelle’s escape. On the one hand, it clears the way for him to return, and created a strong consequence to Clay abandoning him in order to save his grandson. However, on the other hand, I felt like Zobelle slipping away contributes to this sense that he’s some sort of omniscient supervillain, and while Polly’s death helped ground him somewhat I felt as if he’ll slink back as if that never happened should be return to the show. Adam Arkin did some intriguing work with the role, but I never quite bought the character independent of his unique influence on SAMCRO.
- I was also not entirely clear about what happened with Otto in prison: did he use the information about Zobelle being a rat to convince the White Power folks to hand over the guy who killed him? Not seeing that scene makes sense, as Otto’s revenge was simply an “eye for an eye” scenario that provided both retribution and a thematic foreshadowing to Cameron’s later kidnapping, but the dynamics there weren’t entirely clear.
- I’m now headed off to read Sepinwall’s interview with Sutter where he discusses the finale, but also stay tuned to Sutter’s twitter account: he was responding to some reviews earlier, and I’d be really curious to see if he responds to more as the day goes on.