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.
September 21st, 2010
The Sons of Anarchy have positioned themselves as a morally complex guardian angel for the people of Charming, but that image can only last for so long – in the wake of an event like a shootout where an innocent child and an authority figure are gunned down outside a church, two questions emerge. First, how could SAMCRO let this happen; and, second, was this SAMCRO’s fault?
These are questions that, in the past, remained largely within the club: the series was, after all, about the internal conflict between Jax and Clay, specifically the former’s struggle to reconcile the current club with his father’s vision, so the external side of things wasn’t particularly important. However, with political forces swirling and legal troubles surfacing and resurfacing, SAMCRO is facing an uncertain future for reasons that go beyond their internal volatility.
“Caregiver” is another strong entry for the show’s third season, and one which nicely captures the difficult position of taking care of someone who runs off without notice, or turns coat with little to no notice.
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.
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.
November 10th, 2009
I don’t need to tell you that “Balm” was an exceptional hour plus of television: for about two weeks, critics have been waxing poetic about how this could be the show’s defining moment, and how this is the episode that raises Sons of Anarchy from the upper echelon of television drama to the upper upper echelon of television drama. The result is that Sepinwall, Fienberg, Ryan, Poniewozik and every other critic under the sun have already made their position extremely clear, to the point where I don’t really have much to add in terms of singing its praises.
However, that’s never particularly stopped me before, so I still want to talk about how great this episode is, or, more accurately, why this episode manages to be great despite some significant challenges. This is an episode which builds its tension around an action that before last week was almost entirely foreign to its audience (at least those with no deeper knowledge of MCs than what the show offers) and that creates an emotional climax you can see coming by the time the episode gets going, and yet manages to pull it off so brilliantly that it’s as if we as viewers have always known what “going Nomad” refers to and that we could never have expected the kind of emotion the episode’s final moments bring.
It’s an episode that turns the viewer into an active participant in the lives of each and every single character, to the point where we are sitting at the dinner table with the characters in that final scene and responding as they are to the news being delivered.
And that’s some damn fine television.
November 3rd, 2009
When I wrote about Mad Men’s big JFK episode yesterday, I noted that one of the problems with playing with history is that it is already determined, and as such the show is left only with seeing how individual characters react to it. It introduces an element of certainty that is potentially damaging to the show’s dramatic tension, and while the characters are well-drawn enough to handle it there’s something about it that just feels off.
What’s interesting about the second season of Sons of Anarchy is that there is a similarly predetermined element to its central storyline, and for the most part it doesn’t particularly matter. One of my concerns this season has been the omniscient nature of Zobell and the League of American Nationalist, always a good two or three steps ahead of the Sons and always happening to plan (or stumble into) the ideal counterattack to further raise tensions within the club. It’s created a scenario where the Sons of Anarchy are at the whim of the League, their every move either a trap designed by the League or else a dangerous scenario only necessary because of actions the League has undertaken. If the show is about a crumbling organization trying to keep it together while dealing with the impact of unpredictable outside forces, which this season has definitely been, then it may be problematic that for us Zobell is wholly predictable: wherever SAMCRO is, he’s going to be there before they are.
However, as “Fa Guan” demonstrates, this hasn’t damaged the series so much as it has simplified the “plot” and allowed the intricacies of the various interpersonal relationships to rise to the surface. The show might be more realistic if the League weren’t quite so “on point” with their various attacks, but it would also be a lot less entertaining, and considering the show is currently one of the most entertaining shows on the air I think that this predetermination is worth an occasional raised eyebrow.
October 20th, 2009
When critics have copies of episodes in advance (and, as a result, I don’t have them in advance), it means two things. The first is that they all have reviews ready to post the second the episode ends, meaning that I’m roughly 24 hours behind on posting my thoughts about the episode (considering that I’m not able to watch Sons when it airs). The second, though, is that I kind of already knew what this episode was like: the critics have been talking it up for a few days, and Kurt Sutter even posted last week that the episode was one of the best the show had other done.
As such, this review won’t be particularly long (I lied, it was that good): I, like other critics, really loved this hour of television, and I’ll agree with Sutter that it’s amongst the show’s best. What makes “Gilead” so interesting is that it takes an episode featuring a lengthy homage to HBO’s Oz and a very welcome return of guest star Ally Walker, and yet ultimately delivers an episode that draws out less sensationalist event television and more powerful pre-existing emotional arcs. It manages to both relish in the situation, putting SAMCRO behind bars and playing with prison tropes ranging from the sex trade to the jailyard shivving, and turn that storyline into something meaningful and powerful considered in the long-term.
It’s the kind of short term/long term combination that SAMCRO is painfully unable to accomplish in its current state, and results in a damn fine episode.
October 13th, 2009
When I fall behind on a particular show, chances are that it’s not intentional. I don’t “decide” to not get around to watching the most recent episodes of Dexter before the DVR goes kaput, it just sort of happens in the midst of catching up with everything else I didn’t get to post-vacation. With Sons of Anarchy, this is equally true: after simply not getting around to the season’s fourth episode, the fifth was a casualty of the vacation and it was only last night that I caught up with the adventures of SAMCRO.
And they have been adventures this season, one that has been the very definition of rollicking. It’s the season where storylines never sleep: while it and Mad Men are at the top of the serialized drama food chain right now, their approaches this season could not be further apart. While Mad Men likes to isolate its stories on a particular set of characters, the very point of Sons of Anarchy’s second season is that you can’t escape the coming storm, and that no one (not Tara, not Gemma, not Hale) is capable of standing on the sidelines and avoiding the fray. Rather than trying to depict a slow and tragic fall, the season has never shied from the fact that Zobell is not kidding around, and that the Sons are in some serious trouble.
Some general thoughts on the last few episodes and more detailed thoughts on “Falx Celebri” after the jump.
September 22nd, 2009
In the world of Sons of Anarchy, everyone’s got a problem they’re trying to fix; heck, in every single show on television, people are looking for solutions to problems. Early on in its second season, it’s clear that the real conflict on this show is not within any single problem but rather the inability for various characters to see (either due to ignorance or due to being too traumatized by their situation) that there are two levels of problems. One is the growing threat of the League of American Nationalists against the Sons of Anarchy or, if you’re on the other side of the coin, the ongoing blight of SAMCRO on the town of Charming. However, there is also the internal struggle between Clay and Jax, not to mention Gemma’s own personal tragedy as well as personal struggles for Opie (Donna’s tragic death), Tig (who murdered Donna) and it seems like just about everyone else.
“Fix” represents the episode where three weeks of letting these secrets and struggles linger is catching up with just about everyone, and everyone wants a solution that will make everything better but has no idea how to really find it. The show continues to embrace an almost satirical sense of the genres it plays with, never quite delving wholly into melodrama, and the result is that the show remains a pleasure to watch even as it deals with serious subjects in an emotional fashion.
September 15, 2009
“Another magical day to be alive”
I, like I presume many others, presumed that this week’s episode title was about tiny drops of water falling from one’s eyes, alluding somewhat ironically to Gemma’s enormously emotional moment at the end of the season premiere. But in defying expectations, at least my own, the episode reveals that the real irony is not in falsely downplaying the emotional impact of the event, but rather the dichotomy between physical and emotional repercussions.
It is, in fact, a magical day to be alive, for everyone except for our heroine, Gemma. If there was ever any question about whether we are rooting for Gemma, “Small Tears” put it to rest: the entire fate of SAMCRO and the weight of this moment is placed on her shoulders, an unfair burden for anyone (even our less than ethical matriarch) to bear. We pity Gemma in some respects, and in others we respect her for refusing to allow pity to turn into anger at the Aryans, and more importantly to turn into revenge. It is no coincidence that the fallout from Gemma’s ordeal comes complete with a storyline about the danger of revenge killings, and the bloody mess that comes with it.
And if there’s anything that Sons of Anarchy wants to remind us of as the second season opens, it’s that nothing in the world of SAMCRO heals on its own.