September 7th, 2010
In a post about the third season premiere of Sons of Anarchy, Kurt Sutter wrote the following:
“It would be very easy for me to repeat what worked in season two — create some internal beef that provided intensity and tension within the club, bring in another big nemesis, throw those two conflicts at each other and watch the blood flow. Yes, I’m sure it would be okay and people would like it. But ultimately, I would be cheating my own creative process and your dedication as well. I’ve learned that devoted fans are very sophisticated viewers. They know when they are being fed leftovers. Yeah, they may eat them for awhile, but eventually, they’ll get bored and leave to feed on something more tasty.”
This explains a great deal about “So,” an episode which lulls you into a false sense of security only to up the ante that much more after last season’s dark and twisted finale. Sons of Anarchy became one of television’s top dramas last year because Sutter is fearless, willing to go to particularly dark places and also willing to allow the story to escalate without concern over running out of story ideas in the future. There was actually enough story in the wake of that finale to sustain the season through the first few episodes: it wouldn’t even be leftovers so much as the rest of dinner, magically still warm despite having been sitting on the plate since last December.
What “So” establishes most clearly is that Sons’ action-packed narrative does not indicate a lack of nuance in its storytelling: as crafty as he is outspoken, Sutter creates the illusion of “moving on” while delivering a knockout blow which moves in an entirely different, yet perfectly complimentary, direction.
And, not surprisingly, I feel neither cheated nor bored: instead, I’m downright exhilarated.
It is not a coincidence that it is Deputy Chief David Hale who is run down by the drive-by van: it is not as if Sutter reached into the hat and pulled out “Hale” and then slotted him into the script. At the end of last season, he was finally about to transition into the job he’s been transitioning into for two seasons, and that transition is part of the premiere’s sense of forward progress. It’s what we logically expect to happen, what the end of last season forecast, and yet in a single moment it ends before it truly begins. After two seasons of waiting, and after two seasons of pretty successfully negotiating the difficulties surrounding SAMCRO’s place within Charming, Hale was the victim of the black and white of it all: a liminal figure, Hale was never going to survive in an environment where even a funeral becomes a firing range.
It’s the point that Jax tries to make with Tara: as someone who he still sees as a similarly liminal figure, someone who stayed because she loves him and not because she’s meant to be there, he feels that Tara is in grave danger in an environment as volatile as this one. Jax, however, hasn’t been paying attention: since early last season, Tara has been a part of this world, whether it was assaulting her boss or threatening the porn actress who was flirting with her boyfriend. And yet, the end of last season sort of situates her as an innocent bystander, someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was nearly killed as a result; however, as Tara argues, perhaps she was in the right place at the wrong time, and perhaps this was simply a challenge she needs to face rather than a horror she shouldn’t have to witness. Maggie Siff has always been quite good, but through both highly emotional outbursts and subtle acting beats she was particularly strong in showing Tara’s struggles with losing ownership of her future.
Her reconciliation with Jax is an integral part of the episode’s defining quality, a false sense of security created leading up to Hale’s death and the drive-by shooting which preceded it. There’s a quiet in the early parts of the episode that is decidedly eerie: after that finale, one would have expected that Jax would have been frantically searching for young Abel, but instead he sits silently in Abel’s room paralyzed by the loss. We also likely imagined that Gemma would be driving as fast as a car would take her, perhaps in a sort of buddy comedy with Chief Unser, but instead she’s sitting quietly in a hotel room. Even when the search for Abel ramps up, there’s still the sense that it’s a sort of scavenger hunt rather than a response to a horrific kidnapping: even when drama escalates with the gang who purchased the boat from Cameron, the mere mention of the kidnapped infant is enough to make the firearms scarce. It’s as if everyone is walking on eggshells, as everyone is afraid that any sort of premature move could endanger Abel, or potentially reveal that Abel is already dead (which sound send Jax back into his tailspin).
Their response, instead, is to band together: after two seasons where conflict within the club has been one of the central narrative drives behind the series, “So” makes the argument that now is a time to band together. I don’t know that it effectively makes the argument, nor do I think it’s supposed to: we’re supposed to be conflicted about whether or not Tara should actually stay considering the situation at hand, just as we’re supposed to wonder whether Clay is right to suggest that Jax would be wise to avoid his father’s mistakes. It seemed strange, at first, for John Teller to be such a presence in this episode, but Jax is reaching the point where his father chose to step away from the club, afraid of what it had become. However, while Jax was sympathetic to this in the past, and has even worked at points to try to bring his father’s dreams into reality, now he sees the logic in Clay’s arguments: it’s hard to disagree with that argument when you’re standing over the casket of an innocent prospect who died as a result of a corrupt ATF agent’s ill-timed lie. It becomes a sort of chicken/egg situation: do the Sons need to exist in this form in order to respond to crises of this nature, or do crises of this nature exist because the Sons exist in this form? Regardless of what the answer is, the reality requires a response, and that response requires solidarity which glosses over the ethical and moral quandaries of the previous two seasons.
In a situation like this, the ideal goes out the window: it isn’t about what’s smart, it’s about what feels “complete,” and when you’re searching for a sense of security SAMCRO isn’t your worst bet. And yet, as Gemma’s experience in Oregon indicates, you can be secure without being complete: it’s why she tries so desperately to escape, and it’s why it is particularly tragic that she is completely unaware that her “security” is coupled with the decision to withhold news of Abel’s kidnapping. After an entire season where Gemma held onto the secret of her rape to maintain the stability of the club, she now finds herself on the other end of a similar gambit; it’s a neat bit of poetry from Sutter, and it’s no surprise that Sagal plays the anxiety of waiting while knowing that chaos is unfolding around her family quite well.
However, this is where the episode makes its singular misstep: while Sutter’s general misdirection, creating a sense of quiet before eventually destroying it, is highly effective, the sense of misdirection surrounding Gemma is without any sort of uncertainty. The show wants us to believe that she sees news of Abel’s kidnapping in the paper, or at least encourages us to do so, and I just never bought it: I don’t think Sutter goes so far as to violate his above comments regarding the audience’s intelligence, but I do think that the vagueness of her efforts is played out just a bit too far for me to feel entirely comfortable with the way the story plays out. Of course, once she arrives on her father’s doorsteps and we find a dementia-riddled man (played by Hal Holbrook) who still believes his wife is alive and who is elated to see his daughter, the storyline gets into far more interesting territory: it’s a softer side to Gemma, raising questions of what created this distance from her parents. She goes there because she’s afraid that her father has read about her in the paper, but when she arrives she realizes that her father is so disconnected from reality that she needn’t worry about that, but must worry about his general condition instead.
It’s a scene where Gemma discovers that what seems like peace is in fact chaos: her father may not be affected by her run-in with the law, but it’s only because he’s so damaged by the effects of time. And it’s a sense which pervades those final sequences, as everyone stands around after the funeral: it’s supposed to be a time of mourning, and we’re told that it’s a sign of the community’s support for a serviceman and a Son. And yet, it all feels too public: the camera seems to linger on the crowd, and the town of Charming feels oddly unsettling (after all, how rarely do we see Charming at night – most scenes taking place in the dark are off in some shadowy corner of the county). And so when the van drives by, and innocent children are caught in the crossfire, and Hale is run over, it just confirms what we should have known all along: while the cliffhanger’s immediate energy is dispersed by the focus of “So,” the chaos it created is going to be around for quite a long time, and this premiere is a fine example of how Sutter’s unwillingness to fall into old patterns while continuing to follow the path of most resistance for his characters is paying off more and more with each passing episode.
- We don’t actually see what happened to Cameron and the baby until the very end, so I’ll refrain on commenting on the Ireland scenes beyond “Huzzah, Paula Malcolmson!” That said, this was another area where there was very little tension: Sutter might be willing to have a baby get kidnapped, but the idea that he’d kill Abel was a bluff, pure and simple (now watch and Sutter’ll kill Abel just to mess with my brain).
- Okay, nitpick: wouldn’t a parent, even an estranged one with dementia, be one of the first places that the authorities would look for someone running from the law?
- Not much for the supporting characters here, but we did get a meaningful little moment as Tig tries to restrain Gemma and she recoils – it’s not only a result of her rape, but also their sexually charged moments last season, which is another example of how last season’s events continue to resonate.
- I am going to presume that this is not the last we’ll see of Ally Walker: as much as I love her character, I’ll love it even more when she dies on screen.
- In another instance of casting turning into a spoiler, Hale’s death was in some ways obvious when Dayton Callie was bumped to series regular (complete with his very own spot in the newly updated credits) despite his character’s pending retirement.