Review: Sons of Anarchy Season Four
September 6th, 2011
I sat down to watch the first three episodes of the fourth season of Sons of Anarchy a few weeks ago, just a few days after Kurt Sutter’s decision to leave Twitter and his decision to, well, repost an entire article I had written on the subject on his personal blog.
It is not exactly a secret that I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with Sutter regarding the role of the critic, as Dave Chen’s documentation of our most notable squabble would indicate. It’s also not exactly a secret that I didn’t see eye-to-eye with Sutter on the quality of the third season, which I found quite unsatisfying. Given these two points, I think it’s fair to say that there’s a bit of baggage going into the fourth season of Sons of Anarchy, baggage that could easily overwhelm a half-hearted return to Charming.
To be honest, though, I didn’t think much of the baggage when watching the first three episodes (which includes a 90-minute premiere tonight at 10/9c on FX). The show sidesteps many of the events from the third season, picking out the important pieces of information and building them out into more substantial storylines, and a return to a focus on the interrelation of the Sons as opposed to their external battles has reinvigorated the narrative to the point where “Kurt Sutter” didn’t feel like a character within the drama despite the off-season “war” we waged (and the effective resolution we reached in recent weeks) and despite the fact that Sutter actually plays a character on the show. It was just me and a compelling drama series, a series which is returning on a stronger footing after a season filled with missteps and an off-season filled with controversy.
While the main problem that many cite with the third season is the time spent in Ireland, that’s never been my largest concern. Yes, I do wonder whether the Ireland storyline necessitated the amount of time we spent there (or the amount of time they spent trying to get there), but in truth the problem was that the show didn’t have a counterpoint. When everything was happening in Ireland, what was happening in Charming lacked a clear connection, with Sutter never quite bridging the gap between Hale’s move in City Council and the events transpiring overseas. The show introduced loose cannons that could force narrative development in Charming, eventually facilitating Tara’s kidnapping, but the season ended up so focused on Abel’s kidnapping that everything not designed around it just never caught on: there were plenty of plots, but there was no story to hold them together. And so when Abel’s kidnapping ended up feeling more ponderous than compelling for some viewers, myself included, there wasn’t another piece of the puzzle for the show to fall back on, and it killed the season’s momentum dead until a finale that scraped together something of a resolution and built an intriguing foundation for a fourth season.
By comparison, the fourth season starts out with a complex and rewarding narrative structure that introduces new points of view and expands our understanding of the Sons as an organization. Hale’s political maneuvering becomes a reality that needs to be taken care of, while the law enforcement play against the Sons becomes a fully realized storyline for which the viewer is given a front row seat. All of this is happening in Charming, and there’s no need for anyone to travel to Point A or Point B: the storylines that the season lays out will play out within the day-to-day activity of the club, allowing the show to fall into familiar rhythms without abandoning the long-term storytelling that will give the season its shape.
In truth, the third episode provided to critics is a problematic one, falling a bit too comfortably into those rhythms with an episodic storyline that borders on ridiculous. However, there’s a sort of light-hearted feel to that storyline that the third season couldn’t comfortably tap into, a moment of levity that Abel’s kidnapping never offered. While the show can build a portion of a season around a single event that will shake the foundation of the club (like, for example, Donna’s death), building an entire season around it throws the entire tone of the show into disarray. As good as Charlie Hunnam might be at playing Jax in distress, there needs to be moments he’s allowed to show another side of the character, and the fourth season has been good at creating those opportunities for nearly every character. The “graveness” of it all has become a subtext, a problem bubbling under the surface waiting for the least opportune moment to explode.
The pacing of the season is also much improved, lacking the manic drive to find Abel which rushed the third season in the beginning but then got delayed because they didn’t have enough story to fill out the entire thirteen episodes. Here, the barriers erected to keep story events from happening are natural delays found within bureaucracy, setbacks that rely on consequence rather than coincidence. It’s a fine line, but the early episodes capture it quite nicely, and the “stakes” (as it were) gradually build throughout these episodes. Some of those stakes are new, including two new pillars of law enforcement played by Ray McKinnon and Rockmund Dunbar, but the majority are stakes that the show had earlier established within the club itself through earlier storylines.
It gives the season a real focus on past, present and future, something that oddly enough didn’t come through that effectively in the season set in Ireland due to how much time the show spent having to establish the who/what/where of the new characters. In the early going within the fourth season, the show relies on what it has already established, building out the character of John Teller and specifically questioning the future of the club given the ongoing tension between its members. While the premiere spends some time cleaning up the storylines left over from the end of the third season finale as they were carted off to jail, as well as introducing new storylines that will thread their way through the season, it also gives us a spotlight on Jax and Clay’s relationships with the club, with their “old ladies,” and with each other. It’s the foundational relationship of the show, but it was more or less put on hold last season, and its return is invigorating for the show’s narrative.
The things that remained true even during the third season remain true here: the performances remain strong, the direction is uniformly solid (especially now with Paris Barclay joining the show full time), and the show’s willingness to go to some dark places remains effective (and, most of the time, artful). In truth, none of these qualities are particularly notable this time around, with nothing on the level of Katey Sagal during the second season rape storyline to set one performer apart from any others. McKinnon makes the biggest impact on a performance level, perhaps, but even then it’s more subtle than explosive.
Instead of coming out of the gates with something absolutely spectacular, the fourth season of Sons of Anarchy comes out with something very, very solid. Characters have arcs, plots have twists, and the balance between action and drama is at a nice point for the early part of a season. Core themes from previous seasons return to the forefront, recurring character elements are inched towards their logical conclusion, and what is officially the “midpoint” of the larger seven-season arc that Sutter has planned for the show feels like a strong extension of what has taken place to this point and an important bridge into the next act.
You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned Sutter to this point, in part because the fourth season doesn’t feel writerly. While the move to Ireland always had Sutter’s fingerprints on it, checking off a box that was labeled as important to the show’s mythology of sorts, what we’ve seen to this point feels situational: character actions and narrative developments are built around pieces of information from the gap between seasons that are quite subtly revealed throughout the premiere, and as the season goes on it doesn’t feel like each move has been choreographed to within an inch of its life. The third episode is a bit forced, perhaps, but by that point the rhythms of the season have been established, and the show can self-sustain storylines without feeling as though each one must be crafted with a specific aim or purpose: a foundation has been built, and the rest of the season can flow naturally from there.
Sons of Anarchy’s fourth season doesn’t feel like an apology: although Sutter doesn’t often drudge up details from the third season beyond a few key artifacts, he doesn’t elide it entirely in the premiere, and events from that season (albeit isolated events) are important to ongoing narrative concerns. However, I do think that there’s a very different narrative approach here compared with what we saw last season, a return to a narrative approach that worked well in the second season and which was largely abandoned in the third. Instead of positioning the third season as a mistake, which I wouldn’t expect or even necessarily want Sutter to do, the fourth season positions it as an experiment: you take what worked, you move past what didn’t, and you go on making the show you want to make.
While not reaching the peaks of earlier seasons at this stage, the fourth season is more soundly structured than the season that came before, and has spent the time and energy to build a foundation on which a very strong season could be constructed in the weeks ahead.
It is, if nothing else, a fine start; we’ll see about the finish.
[While time commitments mean that I won’t be covering Sons of Anarchy on a weekly basis this season, I’ll be watching and will share thoughts on Twitter before returning to reflect back on the season as a whole.]