A review of tonight's extra-long "Sons of Anarchy" - as well as a sort of state of the season address - coming up just as soon as I give you a small business loan...

"Questions will be answered soon enough." -Maureen

In many ways, "Lochan Mor" was a relief from the frustration I've had for most of the last month or so of "Sons" episodes. SAMCRO finally arrives in Belfast, Jax gets relatively concrete info on where Abel is and what he needs to do to get him back, and the 90-minute running time meant more time could be spent on supporting characters like Tig, Bobby and even Lyla and Darby and Shepard the (ex) prospect. The episode was packed with great music (see the first bullet point for a complete list), and great colorful moments like Gemma and the Irish Sons rescuing SAMCRO from the crooked cops, or Jax having a bareknuckle boxing match with Liam O'Neill.

It was, on most levels, the strongest episode of what's been an interesting but uneven third season.

But then came the very end, and I had to wince again.

Kurt Sutter has been active on Twitter of late trying to draw divisions between those who "get it" (mostly women, according to him) and those who don't understand what it is he's trying to do with this season. He's suggested the conflict is between linear and non-linear thinkers, between those who just want the show to repeat itself over and over and those who are excited to see it trying something new.

With all due respect to Kurt, I think the issue is more complicated than that.

My problem with the season isn't that I want a rehash of season two, that I want more ass-kicking or triumphant moments for Jax and Clay and the rest, that Jax slept with Ima, or any of the other complaints I've seen floated either by Sutter or other fans of the season. (And I'm glad for those of you who've been totally happy with season three; anytime people get the most enjoyment out of their TV shows, it pleases me, even if I don't feel the same about the same shows.)

My problem is that the Sons have become pawns in their own story, being manipulated both within (by Jimmy and Father Ashby) and without (by Sutter and his writers).

I wrote earlier in the season that it felt like Sutter had decided that he didn't want the Sons to reach Belfast before a certain point in the season, and that he then worked backwards to come up with obstacles to keep them from getting there sooner. I'm not saying that's how the actual writing process went - I wasn't there and don't know - but rather how it's come across. Obviously every plot development and conflict on a scripted TV show comes from the writers, but there are ones that feel natural and ones that feel like they're there to accomplish some other goal. (That can be as varied as wanting to draw out a climax until late in a season, having to satisfy a network note or an actor suddenly becoming a problem who needs to be written out.) Had the various bits of business in Charming been more compelling, I might not have objected so much to the delay, but a lot of it just seemed like foot-dragging.

And the effect of that kind of writing is that the characters seem less vital. They're not real people, but we pretend that they are as we watch, and when we can see the strings being pulled, the illusion is harder to maintain. And when you place on top of that a plot where the main characters are being manipulated by ancillary characters - becoming chess pieces in a game being played on foreign soil, between one character we barely know and one we'd never met before, it becomes even harder to invest in them and their stories, because you know the rug can be pulled out from under them at any moment by the writers and/or their proxies in the IRA(*).

(*) Yes, the Sons were also being manipulated by Zobelle last season, but that manipulation led to various stories that were about internal conflicts among our regulars: Gemma's grief, the Jax/Clay feud, Tig's guilt, etc. The Sons still felt like the stars of the show, regardless of how badly they were being beaten up.

So when Jax had his long talk with Father Ashby about why he wanted SAMCRO to come to Ireland, and why Jimmy might want them gone, I was pleased. Now we were getting somewhere. We had cut through all the bull, and while Jax still had a problem in front of him - How can he satisfy both Ashby (who wants Jimmy dead) and Agent Stahl (who wants Jimmy in bracelets)? - it was one where he knew the rules and stakes and would have a chance at finding a solution that would send him home with his son, his club and his soon-to-be-freed mother.

And then we cut to the orphanage, where it sure as hell looked like some happy couple was about to take Abel away from all of this.


Now, it's possible that this is a mistake somewhere along the line - that Ashby doesn't know that this is happening and will be righteously angry when it's revealed. Or it could be that it's just the latest in a series of moves that make every action Jax and company take feel completely pointless. It doesn't matter what they do, because Jimmy and Ashby will do what they do, because Salazar is implausibly running free and causing trouble, etc.

Maybe Sutter is going to outsmart me by having Jax turn out to be two steps ahead, but I'm concerned about how the rest of this year is going to play out - and that has nothing to do with my gender.

Some other thoughts:

• Between the 90-minute length and the obvious excitement about moving the story to Ireland, the soundtrack was more packed than usual, almost entirely with Irish bands or Irish-influenced bands, plaus a Celtic spin on the familiar "Sons of Anarchy" theme. Among the songs used: "Big Fellah" by Black 47, "Greed & Power" by Attika, "The Long Road," "Shiny Eyes," "Jungle of the Midwest Sea" and "Son of Shame" by Flatfoot 56, "Victory Square" by The Dreadnoughts, "Ciara," "Balld of the Thoughtful Rover" and "Faraway" by The Tossers, "Flying Up a Mountain" by Sweet Apple, "Caroline" and "(I Don't Think I'll) Love You Anymore" by The Young Dubliners and "Another Bag of Bricks" by Flogging Molly.

• The cast never actually went to Belfast (even as FX's biggest hit, the budget's not that big), but director Billy Gierhart was able to spend two weeks with a small crew filming second-unit footage. Those shots, coupled with some good use of filters and lighting, did a very good job of creating the illusion that SAMCRO had actually gone across the great pond of the episode's title.

• The strongest little story, for me, actually came back in Charming, as Darby realized, with some help from Lumpy, that maybe he's getting too old to be so filled with hate and spending so much time on hurting other people. Nice work from Mitch Pileggi there.

• The Lumpy storyline also showed us that not everyone is cut out for the violent life that SAMCRO leads, as Shepard cowers in a corner as Salazar shoots up the gym and beats up Lumpy, then turns in his gun and his cut and rides off into the night. A good character beat (and a bit reminiscent of Cpl. Upham in "Saving Private Ryan"), and my only disappointment is that Leo Fitzpatrick was the only one of the three prospects I recognized.

• How long will Gemma and/or Maureen allow Jax and Trinity to keep flirting with each other before one of them spills the beans. And what, exactly, is the John Teller secret in Belfast that Gemma hoped to keep Jax from learning, if she didn't know about Trinity before a few days ago?

• Tig having his drivers license suspended could be a big plot point for season four, or there could be a long gap in story time between seasons to allow for whatever prison sentence the Sons have to serve for the gun charge (and to allow the show to compensate for what a condensed period each season has covered). In the meantime, we finally know something of what caused the feud with Kozik: a woman. Of course.

• I'm not clear on how much of the Belfast charter is in Jimmy O's pocket. Is it just McGee and O'Neill, or is it everyone? And if it's everyone, why bother with all this subterfuge and helping out SAMCRO?

• Odds that Tara actually goes through with the abortion? Or will this be one of those TV situations where she changes her mind, only for outside forces (most likely Salazar, as part of his plan to get revenge against the Sons and the Mayans by pitting them against each other) to cost her the baby, anyway? And will she be able to come up with a more ironic pseudonym for her appointment than Lyla's choice of "Sarah Palin"?

• Good to see Chibs enjoy a rare happy moment with his wife and daughter.

What did everybody else think?

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