While wise men will tell you that it is the journey, not the destination that matters, the ending of a story casts an outsized shadow over the whole. A strong one can redeem a lot of rough spots on the way there, while a weak one pretty much kills the potential for it to be better than “pretty good”. The idea is that I’ll do a look back at a season of a show I’ve been following but we haven’t been covering week-to-week the week before the finale. I’ll give a brief(ish) take on how it’s been so far, and then engage in some speculation on what the finale will do or what it needs to do to salvage the season. Then I’ll check in the following week with a look at how the finale met, exceeded or subverted my expectations. Next up: FX’s gonzo biker soap Sons Of Anarchy, closing its fifth season this Tuesday.
Sons of Anarchy is in a lot of ways the perfect show for this feature. In its brilliant second season, it briefly seemed like it might become a worthy heir to The Shield, before settling back into “pulpy soap opera” (creator Kurt Sutter’s phrase) mode with a couple seasons whose overall impact was hugely affected by the quality of the finales. Season 3 was a muddled mess throughout its primary Belfast storyline. But a very satisfying finale, giving us a double shot of the most likable Sons exacting vengeance on their most hissable nemeses, made that meandering a lot easier to overlook in hindsight.
By contrast, season 4 felt like a return to form for the bulk of the year, marked by very strong storylines whose overall impact was neutered by the finale. An awful deus ex machina pulled multiple characters out of the corners they had spent the previous twelve episodes painting themselves into, but there was an upside. The deus ex upended the board that the season had laid out so particularly, but the pieces fell into an intriguing place, with Jax taking the gavel and installing trusted confidantes at his left and right hands, but unable to remove the man he ousted from the position entirely in the face of the biggest threats to the club yet. How he got there was bullshit, but the destination at least was interesting.
Was it worth the bullshit? Well, not really, because it’s not as if there weren’t other ways to get there, but in general they’ve done a good job redeeming the double-balk of not killing Clay or Juice. Nothing can undo how unconvincing those resolutions were for the story as it stood, but they’ve spun some good material for Perlman out of it, and seem to have accepted that Juice’s issues had progressed past the point of forgetting and/or forgiving. Or so it seemed around mid-season, when his poorly-covered secrets started to come to light. In the last few episodes it seems like Jax and the show have just forgotten about the giant sword they placed over Juice’s head. We haven’t heard a peep from or about him since he failed to secure Clay’s house as instructed. He seems most likely to jump ship to Belfast to join Clay’s charter-in-exile next week, but we’ll get to that in the prediction section. Let’s go around the rest of the table and check in on the rest of the Men of Mayhem, shall we?
Opie’s death felt like a bit of a cheap shot, and bizarrely placed so early in the season. I initially suspected that the abrupt exit had to be the result of the actor asking to leave, but it seems from subsequent interviews that Hurst was pretty broken up about getting written out. Which makes it hard not to view it as a tantrum on the part of the notoriously thin-skinned Sutter, after every critic and commenter (including this one) raked him over the coals for not having the cojones to kill any of his primary characters. Still, it was sad and brutal and succeeded in grabbing my attention back for an episode or two. I just can’t help but think that given all the contortions the show went through to keep Opie in the club’s orbit despite it being responsible for the murders of his wife and father, they could’ve done more with him than this. A battle for the soul of the club between him and Jax had the potential to be way more compelling than one between Jax and the black-hatted villain Clay has become.
This was a great season for Chibs, who IS the club at this point. Relatively on the ball and not especially bloodthirsty by nature (unlike Tig or Happy), but also unflinching in dealing out violence when called upon and willing to follow the president’s lead rather than trying to steer it a particular way (unlike Bobby or Opie). And he’s no dummy; the first and only one to speak up and say that Clay’s shame-faced confession is a crock that does nothing to erase his betrayal. With Opie gone, Chibs is Jax’s closest companion and easily the most likable of the group. He’s the drunken, unintelligible, inexplicably-foreign uncle we all should have had.
Tig was weirdly absent from much of the season, despite being responsible for the primary threat to the club and his fate being key to the Jax/Pope dynamic. But the upside of having Kim Coates in the role is that he can shoulder as much dramatic weight as you need him to, or hang back and just steal scenes here and there with his comedic chops while remaining credibly menacing.
I find it amusing that Bobby has become to SAMCRO what Toby is to Dunder-Mifflin. The first thing anyone does when being put in charge is start hating the guy for being such a buzzkill. He didn’t have a super extensive plotline this year, but Mark Boone Junior has been great in his heart-to-hearts with Jax.
I hope they kill off Phil the fat guy. There was potential in adding a new recruit who was more soft-hearted after Half-Sack got offed, but they have steadfastly refused to do the slightest thing with him and frankly the actor is shit. But given that Clay is likely to peel off a couple members next week, they’ll need to keep a few familiar if not beloved faces around Jax’s table.
Happy is…Happy. He’ll stay exactly the same until he gets blown up or brutally dismembered in season seven.
Clay’s plot to home-invade his way back into the hearts and minds of the club was not the most brilliant move, even by his standards. But Perlman has been doing typically great work with the downtrodden, sincerely repentant version of the character. The reasons for not killing him remained as tenuous as last year, but the damage on that front is done, so I don’t think it would make things any better if they just took him out back and shot him in episode 2, or even in the finale. Let him go off with his own crew and cause some big time trouble, and build him up to a properly grand send off down the line. At this point, the show is too far along to build up another antagonist as imposing and personally connected to Jax (particularly with Opie gone) to anchor the tail end of the series.
Jax himself has seen some major changes since taking the gavel. Possibly the most successful part of the season has been how convincingly he’s been turned into an asshole. And not just any asshole, but one bearing a more than passing resemblance to his asshole stepfather. For God’s sake, he’s been president for maybe a couple months and he’s made plans to murder a full third of his charter behind the clubs’ back. Clay needed to go for sure, but even by SAMCRO standards this doesn’t seem to qualify as change we can believe in.
Now a few general points about the show before I do a drive-by on the non-club folks in the prediction section.
The storylines this year are much more diffuse than they have been previously. It seemed clear from last year’s finale that Pope would be the Big Bad of the season, but after burning Tig’s daughter and orchestrating Opie’s death in episode 3, he has done more to help the club than hurt it. Sons usually thrives by placing the club under multiple ticking clocks and having them scramble to meet them, but this year the show learned to sustain momentum and tension without contriving hard deadlines every week. There are threats hanging around out there, from Pope, from Clay, from the cartel, from Eli, from the nomads, from Otto. But rather than a countdown, we spend the season watching various fuses burning down, knowing there are bombs out there they are inching towards, but not knowing exactly how close they are to going off. It’s been effective and hopefully will make it harder for one bullshit move in the finale to wreck too much of the season.
There’s been a lot of 90 minute episodes this year, but as has often been the case, they seem placed rather arbitrarily. You expect them to be there for premieres and finales, but with Sons they just pop up wherever, and don’t always have the super-eventful content to justify them. I’m not really complaining though, as I generally enjoy the show and never have a problem spending a little extra time with the boys.
Finally, I want to mention something the show does really well. As frequently as it lets the soap opera plotting get away from itself and force inorganic developments on its characters, it does have a great handle on it’s extremely large core cast. For a show that so frequently indulges in hollow action for action’s sake, it’s most riveting scenes come when eight hard men (and one doughy body pillow in a vest) sit around a table and vote on how to handle their problems. They can milk these scenes, spending a minutes on end just circling around while each man struggle with whether to say “yay” or “nay”. And we know all of them well enough that we see each one struggle with his own individual pros and cons, or in the case of last week, their personal relationships with both Clay and Jax. The relationship between all of these various men somehow remain varied and believable and perversely touching. Except Phil. No one gives a shit about Phil.
Clay will take off to Belfast, with Juice, and Tig, once he escapes the handoff to Pope. Gemma too, most likely. Anything to get her back in a position where she has some sort of power and can do something besides fuck up, up, up, up, up, up, and up.
Jax will finally admit to himself and Tara that there is no exit strategy. He’s never leaving SAMCRO, and doesn’t even really want to despite everything it’s put them through.
I love Unser. He serves no purpose whatsoever anymore, but I hope the man lives forever. But…his death could be the thing that, along with being shut out of her family, might lead Gemma to think there’s nothing left for her in Charming and drive her to the boat.
Donal Logue will launch an attack, intending to kill Tara, but will hit one of the boys instead. I’d prefer to see her make a plea deal and go off to do a year or so in prison to match Jax’s between seasons 3-4, but there doesn’t seem to be time to plausibly arrange that. But those guns had to be for something, right? But then, he told Otto in his introduction that he would be making his life miserable for another year, which will be difficult if his big plan is some sort of kamikaze assault. I hope his plot isn’t something so simple.
Either way, Tara will take another leap down the road the crazytown before next year. Her stomping the play piano to wake up her baby was a very unsettling glimpse at how unraveled she’s becoming, all the more effective because it wasn’t dwelt upon. I think her going totally nutballs is the one part of the original “Hamlet on Harleys” premise that the show will actually make good on.
Nero’s pushback will put the Sons back at odds with the Mayans. Smits has been very good this year, ably acquitting himself next to characters who have been established for 5 years longer than him. I hope he comes back next year, but how many guest stars on the crime side of things have lasted for multiple seasons?
Jax uses Eli (another of those characters that dropped off the face of the earth after having an urgent storyline set up mid-season) as his proxy for revenge against Clay, maybe just by getting him arrested for the invasions but probably pushing the sheriff who knows too much to take his satisfaction more viscerally. That can’t end well for Eli, of course, whose is unfortunate enough to be billed about 14 places below Ron Perlman in the credits.
Jax will also make some sort of play against Pope involving turning his “advisor” against him. There may be some need to stretch for the 90 minute timeslot, but devoting half a minute of airtime to Jax idly chatting him up on the way to meeting the Big Man. He’s a-cookin’ up a-somethin’ there, most likely by way of setting up the advisor to take the fall as the corpse of the guy who “really” killed Pope. You don’t set up a $5 million insurance/bounty policy in the first act unless someone’s going to collect it in the end. That’s the exact title of chapter 4 of Robert McKee’s last book, if I’m remembering correctly.
Next year the Redwood charter will have about 4 new recruits/nomads added to the table. 3 will be dead by episode 6.
Just a hunch: Ethan Zoebelle makes a surprise appearance in the last three minutes.
So in summary -
Still at the table with Jax: Chibs, Happy, Phil, Bobby, the one vaguely Asian looking guy who pops up every now and then
In Exile with Clay: Juice, Tig, Gemma
Dead: Roosevelt, Pope, Unser
In jail: Tara, Otto, Wendy?
Still around even though I wish they would just go away: The cartel/CIA guys, Phil
Come back next week to see how wrong I am about all of this!