I don’t think there’s a single television show I find as eminently devourable as FX’s Sons of Anarchy. It’s not that it’s the best show I’ve ever seen or even the best show on TV right now, it just happens to be a show that feels made for consumption several episodes at a time. I went through the first two seasons disc by disc on Netflix, finishing one a night and immediately sending it back, and marathoned the third over the Labor Day weekend. It’s a show that activates a lot of pleasure centers for me – immensely charismatic leads, fantastic song choices, and a chaotic neutral pace of storytelling that gradually pulls its characters to the edge of the knife with conflicts it adds to over time.
So I’m approaching the fourth season of the show with something of a different perspective: for the first time, I’m following the action on a week-to-week basis, getting time in between to think about what happens without immediately diving back in. And it’s especially interesting considering it follows a season that many critics considered the show’s weakest, chiefly because it didn’t seem to have the coherent structure that kept the episodes going. I don’t share as many of those gripes, but I do agree with the perception that by the end of it you were suffering from crisis fatigue, dealing with too many plot points without a strong story to connect all thirteen episodes.
But if we’re approaching the show in this way, we’re off to a good start, as the fourth season premiere “Out” gave us both a solid episode of Sons of Anarchy and also set a lot of things in motion for the fourth season. After all the complaints issued at the divergent stories in season 3 – stories which I forgot about once they were finished for the most part – the action appears to be more firmly focused in SAMCRO’s California home and on just what its leaders Clay and Jax want for the future. It doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything spectacularly new, but the formula for Sons of Anarchy has always been reliable on its own, and I don’t see anything wrong in not messing with success.
Part of that comes in that the show has a relatively clean slate going in. Unlike previous seasons, where we had the fallout of finales (Donna’s murder and Abel’s kidnapping) popping up almost immediately, things are relatively settled with SAMCRO. The club settled its business with Jimmy O and Agent Stahl thanks to a risky double-cross, and half its members are now getting out of prison after fourteen months in prison on weapons charges. The club’s gun business is more profitable than ever, there’s peace with the various other Northern California gangs, and Opie is headed for the altar with his new bride Lila.
Of course, not everything’s coming up roses, as the club is coming home to a very different Charming from the one they left. Jacob Hale’s campaign for mayor was a rousing success, and he’s begun to expand the town’s commercial interests with suburban development (at the expense of the timber land of SAMCRO ally Elliot Oswald, his one-time competitor). The Charming police department has been absorbed by the county sheriffs’ department, complete with a new chief who’s not shy about flexing authority over the club. And an assistant U.S. attorney has been eying the weapons trade that flows through Northern California, and planning to pull the RICO statutes in on the Sons and their very successful gun trade.
As season conflicts go, these are all good starts in my book. The show proved last season that while it could still be entertaining television, it got in trouble when it was too far off the reservation. It wasn’t that it was specifically bad, but it had no real connection to the club afterwards – as Myles McNutt put in our conversation. it felt like it “had too little story and too many plots.” I forgot about Hal Holbrook as Gemma’s father after two episodes, and I forgot about Belfast immediately afterwards. The club is, as a whole, territorial, and in fighting for their territory the action feels more centric. All of season one’s stand-alone episodes felt like keeping things safe was the main objective, and season two’s arc was based heavily in kicking Zobelle and the white supremacists out of Charming.
And despite spending time in prison, Clay clearly views this as a threat to his domain and is prepared to take an active stand in it. He knows when to play the sheriffs to lose the ever-present tail – and the sheriff is smart enough to see exactly why they chose such an antagonistic course of action, even so soon after release. He’s able to go to the former police chief Unser* and draw him back into the fold, inviting him to the wedding and also getting one of his trucks for a gun run. And the sight of a suburban development so infuriates him that he’s prepared to dump Russian corpses on the lot a day after he gets out of prison – ignoring the fact that the sheriff saw those Russians at their party and he’ll be suspect number one.
*Dayton Callie’s always brought a quiet dignity to Unser, so it’s quite moving to see him brought so low in retirement: living in a trailer, off his meds, essentially marking time until death. It’ll be interesting to see what role Clay and Gemma can find for him in the club, given he was essentially the club’s security guard in all but name.
And the new blood the show’s brought in to serve as antagonists proves that showrunner Kurt Sutter certainly knows how to pick tactors who’ll keep these external threats compelling. Rockmond Dunbar as the new sheriff Eli Roosevelt carries himself very well – we all saw on Terriers* he can play a no-bullshit cop without any problems, and his strict code of honor hardened by years against inner-city gangs that should give the gang a concrete adversary. And on the other side of things, Ray McKinnon’s attorney Lincoln Potter seems a contradictory figure – absent-minded and paranoid, yet still driving around Charming on a bike of his own. The twitchiness of his character, reminiscent of his Deadwood role as Reverend Smith, seems like it’ll lend the investigation a chaotic bent, that might clash with Roosevelt as much as SAMCRO.
*That said, as a fan of his performance on that lamented show the absence of the beard is very jarring. And I still can’t shake the fact that every time he speaks I wonder where his cigarette holder is.
But of course, as Sutter has said multiple times, the biggest threat to SAMCRO has always been SAMCRO’s members, and the best moments of all three seasons have been when they were at each other’s throats. Here, it’s still too early to see what those conflicts will be – Juice’s investment in a weed/colonic clinic appears to be the most new development we’ve gotten out of them – but these guys have been in prison for a while and certainly have some readjusting to do. As an obvious candidate for trouble, Chibs, Kozik, Piney and Opie ran things for quite a while, and it’s no assurance they’ll just hand Clay back the reins to an operation they spent a year laying the groundwork for.
So once again, the show’s going back to basics, this time focusing on the key differences between Clay and Jax in terms of management. The two appear to be on solid terms after shared confinement, and are also similarly eying the cash cow of the expanded gunrunning. Clay – echoing the late Keith McGee of SAMBEL – can see the end coming to his outlaw days, and needs to get a retirement fund together even more than he needs Charming to stay the way it is. Clay’s always enforced the darker side of the club heavily, and it’s no long shot to predict that the peace between clubs will last only as long as Clay decides he’s making enough money.
And Jax also wants an end to his outlaw life as well, determined that his sons won’t have to grow up worrying if their father’s going to come home, and seeing the gun money as a short-term investment to flee once Clay’s time is up.* This is probably one of my bigger concerns about the show, given that Jax’s feelings about the club tend to shift back and forth as the plot demands it, and we’ll have to see how certain he is about this. However, I’ve always given this a pass, partially because of how good Charlie Hunnam is at each side of Jax’s character, and because I’ve always been convinced Jax doesn’t really know what he wants. Given that he offers Tara a ring and promises he’s done with the club – right before stabbing the Russian boss to death – it’ll be interesting to see what course he tries to commit to the most.
*An interesting parallel here is that both Clay and Jax seem to have a way out of this – Gemma suggests surgery for Clay’s hands, Tara argues she could provide for the family – but neither man’s willing to take that chance. Pride has always ruled the men of SAMCRO, and that’s no different here.
Clay and Jax are certain to come to blows over the business of the club as per usual, and the show’s longest-running ghost has surfaced again with the letters Maureen Ashby sent home with Jax and that Tara’s been pouring over for a year. Gemma now knows she’s seen them, and while she clearly loves Tara like a daughter now, whatever truth is in those letters isn’t something she wants to see out there. And it remains to be seen what that truth could mean – Jax dismisses his father as weak and a coward to Tara, but how does that perception stack up against the potential truth that his father was murdered by his mother? (His mother, by the way, whom he’s obviously making an idiot move by dismissing as an “old lady” if she tries to stop him from leaving.)
So it looks like there’ll be a lot of meat to chew on in future episodes, but while watching that thought was second in my mind to the joy of simply seeing these characters again. Yes, I did only recently finish the third season, but “Out” was filled with enough reunion moments and positive energy that it felt very new, as if the show wanted to leave its messier elements aside and reintroduce the action. The joy on every member’s face as they slid back into their cuts and on their bikes, Jax embracing his sons free of a prison guard’s eye, the quiet moments between Jax/Tara and Clay/Gemma, the handing out of cash around the table and of course the wedding on the Indian reservation (another nice callback, reminding us of yet another gunrunning connection).
And for all its joys, there was still that one thing that Sons of Anarchy always consistently does well: waiting for the other shoe to drop. I spent virtually every minute of Opie’s wedding holding my breath, waiting for a repeat of Half-Sack’s wake, and yet it never did. Certainly there’s a lot of violence off-screen – an entire Russian gang eradicated, Jax’s vengeance for a prison knifing, bodies dumped on a suburban development – but for the most part the wedding exists as a truce between several gangs and individuals that have all wanted each other dead at various points.
Let’s not get too comfortable, because three seasons have taught us there are no fresh starts in Charming, and we know what these joyful moments really are: the calm before the storm. And as always with Sons of Anarchy, it’s the calm that makes the storm even more potent.
- No real schedule for when I’ll be recapping this show – I’m trying to move away from my articles that cover multiple episodes, but with my new proposed features and the fall premieres rolling around there’s a lot of areas of interest to write about. We’ll see how it goes.
- Also speaking to the good feelings going forward, the addition of Paris Barclay as the show’s executive producer. Barclay directed “Balm” in season two – the apex of that season and possibly the series – and visually the show’s off to a very strong start.
- My favorite recurring character Chucky’s still around, and has now got a new pair of disturbing prosthetic hands courtesy of Gemma. (“Holy shit! Chucky, you got digits!”)
- I always love Jax and Opie’s friendship, from the bear hug outside of jail to the smirk the former gives when he pretends to forget the rings. Also good to see Jax had the decency not to announce his engagement and take the spotlight away from the wedding.
- Opie spoke to Lila about adding to their family, so it seems she might be pregnant – and from the nervous look in her eyes it’s clear she never told him about her abortion from last season. Add that to the simmering conflict pile. That said, the happiness on Opie’s face (and embarrassment at the SAMCRO vows) was easily the most feel-good moment of the episode.
- Did anyone else expect Tara to say something about those shiv scars on Jax’s chest before they got into their, ahem “proper homecoming?” Either she knew about it beforehand or she’s become truly desensitized to the outlaw life.
- Looks like Tig got his driver’s license back in fourteen months inside following the S3 suspension. Or that’s just something Roosevelt’s keeping in his back pocket for an opportune time, or just a dick move.
- Jax is certainly honest about his life options outside of SAMCRO: “I’m a half-decent mechanic with a GED.”
- Loved the banter between Clay and Gemma after their own homecoming. “You’re used to speed-banging Juice in dark hallways.” “Don’t turn what Juice and I had into something cheap and tawdry!” “I’m sure it was sweet Puerto Rican magic.”