November 30th, 2010
Look, let’s get it out of the way: Sons of Anarchy was very far from the best show on television this fall. It was a season with a story to tell which seemed completely unwilling to tell that story, and when it finally got down to business it seemed as if everything was expedited and choppy. For a series that once delivered what I would describe as sick, twisted poetry, the third season lacked both rhyme and reason. While I perhaps understood what Kurt Sutter was going for by the time we reached the season’s penultimate episode, nothing about “June Wedding” made those previous episodes any more satisfying. In fact, the show sort of felt like it was following Stahl’s example: when you think a situation is going south, or you’re tired of playing a certain angle, you just shoot someone and call it a day.
I have some fundamental issues with the idea that Stahl could even come close to getting away with what she did in “June Wedding,” and the degree to which Stahl’s sociopathic behavior is being used to fuel the march towards the season’s conclusion, to the point where I’ve officially written off this season of television. Last week’s episode indicated to me that whatever Sutter was selling this year, it simply was not the show I want Sons of Anarchy to be, or the show that it had the potential to be coming out of its incredibly strong (and cohesive) second season.
In advance of watching “NS,” I had heard the buzz: this was a “return to form.” However, as Cory Barker wrote about earlier, the degree to which a solid finale (which “NS” arguably is) can overwrite previous struggles is fairly limited. And yet, I had no expectations that a legitimately enjoyable 90 minutes of television would actually make the season’s problems more apparent. “NS” is a smart episode of television which only confirms that the show’s third season was a wild miscalculation, an absolute failure of “Serial Narrative 101” that traveled halfway around the world and only got a lousy t-shirt with a bundle of letters hidden in it which only confirmed presumed details from the distant past.
I’m a bit busy now, though, to delve into all of the reasons why the season fell apart. I plan to come back to it at a later date, perhaps early next week, but for now I want to take “NS” as what it truly is: a launching pad to the future, and an opportunity for the series to move on with something resembling momentum.
Because on that level, “NS” is more or less a success.
“NS” opens with a montage. The montage is all about love: Jax reunited with Tara, Gemma reunited with Clay, and Jax reunited with his son. It’s about a joyous clubhouse celebration, of Opie’s upcoming marriage and the potential for the future. Amidst it all, a shot of Agent Stahl quietly yearning for the woman she loved who she shot in cold blood a week earlier.
The montage has two problems. The first is that Stahl has become a complete sociopath this season, to the point where the character can no longer honestly connect with emotions or, frankly, characterization. The second is that the notion of Abel’s rescue in any way returns the club back to a happy status quo is complete bullshit considering where last season ended. Abel’s kidnapping glossed over the growing divisions within the club, and for his rescue to create this shining beacon of hope and light seems incredibly false.
Ultimately, “NS” reveals that it agrees with me on the latter point, and begins to chip away at this supposed hope through the reemergence of John Teller’s ghost (via Maureen Ashby’s letters). As Gemma frets over Jax’s deal with Stahl, and as Clay and the others prepare to go after Jimmy, the skeletons in their closet do complicate the situation in ways that suggest the idyllic morning montage was meant to be somewhat misleading. Mind you, the episode also does actually seem to suggest that Stahl is an actual character and not a contrived plot device whose humanity has been stripped away, but after that moment in the montage the characters settles into her usual pattern without any attempts to create further empathy.
And I liked the sort of misplaced romanticism as it lingered into the episode. Even without knowing precisely where the episode was headed, that moment with Clay and Gemma discussing the future or Opie announcing his engagement play nicely into the roles they play later in the episode. I like that the brutality we eventually witness ends up being positioned as poetic rather than vicious: Chibbs avenges his old injury before murdering Jimmy, while Opie gets to experience some sick yet beautiful justice in murdering Stahl in the same way that Tig murdered Donna (as if that in some way releases him from that relationship). There’s also that great moment where Clay and Unser share what looks like it could be a pleasant goodbye between old friends, when it was actually Clay thanking him for putting his career on the line in a huge way and risking everything to play a part in the charade.
Parts of the episode felt extremely contrived: the discovery of the counterfeit money was particularly forced in this regard, a sort of necessary step towards creating the showdown the show desired to create. However, the episode did a good job of creating the various layers to the con, allowing Gemma’s ignorance to the plan to fuel the believability factor. Sure, it did seem like the whole “rat” situation was a touch too melodramatic, but I liked the way it unraveled, and setting it all to a cover of Neil Young’s “My My Hey Hey” added a nice stylistic elements that we haven’t seen very often this season.
To be honest, I sort of wish that Jax had actually ratted them out – I think the tension between Jax and Clay has been something the show abandoned this season, so to see the potential for it to return and then see Jax so easily laugh off the situation was disheartening. Yes, Tara now has the letters in her possession and has read what we’ve known since season one (that Gemma and Clay killed John in order to take over the club in earnest), but whether Jax is willing to listen to her is a different story (and whether she’s willing to say anything is yet another). As I write that out it all sounds very interesting, and might eventually get back to Jax and Clay at one another’s throats, but hearing Jax so directly dismiss his father and to hear John’s words lingering with his own and feeling awfully portentous did make me wish that we could have seen a bit more of this complex relationship between past and present in the current season.
But, like I said, I’m going to resist that argument for now. “NS” works because it provides resolution to Jimmy’s involvement with the Sons, features a well-done set of action sequences, and grounds it all in character relationships that have a considerable sense of history. Taken on those grounds, independent of the season, I think it provided an entertaining episode set within this world and relating to those characters. And I am excited to see where it goes from here, in the sense that I think there is some considerable dramatic tension which will result from these events that could create some great television.
I will just say this, though: there is absolutely no reason why this finale could not have taken place twelve episodes sooner. As I noted on Twitter, you could take the premiere, summarize the next eleven episodes into a “Previously On” montage, and then show the finale, and I’m pretty sure that it would work (and, frankly, seem like a pretty great season). I’ll theorize more on why this happened in the future, but for now let us simply focus on the fact that “NS” is like the conclusion of The Simpsons’ “Trash of the Titans.” The town, or in this case the show, lives to drive another day, but looking in the rear view mirror tells a different story.
- I like how Opie’s formal attire involves a hair straightener and taking off his toque.
- I love Ally Walker to death, and she continues to play “scared shitless” Stahl like nobody’s business, but I am so glad that she can move on already.
- With the boys in jail, and with her increased role here, any chance for more Robin Weigert in the future? She seems so wasted here, and the idea of a legal component for the show excites me a hell of a lot more than the political elements weaved into this season.
- I’m really torn on Tara’s baby. On the one hand, if it’s a boy, there’s the chance of another child being corrupted by the system. However, on the other hand, raising a girl in that environment seems even more dangerous. Either way, that’s not going to be a healthy childhood at this rate.
- Sad to see Titus Welliver go in some ways, but I hope wherever he goes next has a better green screen budget for car rides. Just saying.