"Sons of Anarchy" is back for its fourth season. I offered up a general review of the first few episodes yesterday, and I have specific thoughts on the season premiere coming up just as soon as I buy you fingers...
"I'm done with SAMCRO." -Jax
Whatever reservations I expressed about season four in yesterday's review were more of a cumulative thing than anything specific to "Out."
Well, no. The one part of the episode that first started my concern about the show retreating back to formula was the montage at the end. This is a show that loves its montages - and began the season with a very strong one, showing what the Sons and various hangers-on were up to at the end of this year-plus gap - and this is far from the only series to enjoy the old "Godfather" gimmick of contrasting the settling of all family business with a more optimistic scene or song. But "What a Wonderful World" (even a modern cover of it) is way too perfect the ironic contrast to the Sons' killing spree at and around Opie's wedding, you know?
Beyond that, though, "Out" did a fine job setting up the new status quo, and the big conflicts of the season. Jax has cut his hair and plans to cut ties with the club as soon as he can afford to(*). Clay is worried that he needs to make money fast before his hands force him out as head of SAMCRO. There's a new sheriff in town in Rockmond Dunbar's Eli Roosevelt, and he's teaming up with Ray McKinnon's federal prosecutor Lincoln Potter(**) to find a more effective way to take down the club than anything Stahl tried in the first three seasons. Jacob Hale has consolidated power while Clay and the others were in prison, and is on the verge of gentrifying Charming and rendering the club's quaint, isolated outlaw lifestyle much more difficult to maintain. Tara's still holding John Teller's letters as a secret, but Gemma gets a big clue to their existence, and in between there's a lot of conflict between the club and the cops, and between the club and the Russians.
(*) And it's here that the show may be asking us to take a leap of faith. As Tara says here, she can easily provide for Jax and the kids, so the issue is simply one of Jax's macho pride. And while I understand that he grew up in this culture, I also think a man who claims to so desperately want to get his lady and his children away from that culture would be willing to sacrificie his pride and accept that they should just hit the road and let Tara shoulder the financial load for a while. Your mileage may vary, but Jax's "I'm not gonna live off my wife" declaration is one that kept occurring to me as he made various decisions in this and later episodes. (Though my issue may be less with Jax's attitude than with Tara's acceptance of it. Her comfort level with the dumber and/or more violent parts of the club seems to wax and wane based on the needs of the plot, rather than a consistent vision of who she is and how she feels about this stuff.)
(**) So the club's big nemeses for this season are both named after presidents. Coincidence?
That's a lot of promising territory to cover, and I'm glad that the main conflicts seem to be more internal than external. As I've said before, that's when "Sons" is at its best, and while the white supremacists of season 2 made great villains, that season's strongest moments tended to involve tension between Jax and Clay, Opie and Tig, etc.
If this is the show retreating back to a comfortable place, well... there's a reason we found it so comfortable to begin with. And we'll worry about the rest later.
Some other thoughts:
• Boy, it's good to have Paris Barclay back behind the camera, isn't it? There's such a confidence to his episodes.
• Back to Dunbar and McKinnon, they both make very strong first impressions, playing two very different characters with the same objective. Roosevelt is very upright and confident and tough, where Potter is twitchy and nervous and clever. (Though the twitchiness is something that may just be a part of McKinnon's screen presence; see also his work on "Deadwood.") I especially like the look of Potter, who with his beard and leather coat seems like he could have stepped out of "Serpico."
• Also, note that one of the members of Potter's task force is Agent Grad, played by David Rees Snell, aka Ronnie from "The Shield." (The character is named after FX executive Nick Grad.) And in our glimpse of Potter's elaborate collage of SAMCRO and its known associates, you can see a picture of Abel's junkie mother Wendy on the wall next to Unser's.
• Speaking of Unser, Gemma's visit to his sad little trailer may have been my favorite scene of the episode. Dayton Callie is so damn good, isn't he?
• At the end of last season, it was implied that Kozik had to be voted into the Charming charter before all the guys went away to prison, but apparently that wasn't the case, as he (and former prospect Miles, whom you'll note gets to sit at the redwood table) were voted in during the hiatus, without Tig around to blackball him. On the other hand, Kenny Johnson is still credited as a special guest star (as are Rockmond Dunbar and Ray McKinnon), and he's now going to be a regular on NBC's "Prime Suspect" remake, so I wouldn't be too confident about the guy's long-term future in SAMCRO.
• Chucky gets artificial fingers, with some help from Gemma. I wonder if those things are nimble enough to easily unzip his fly - and, if so, whether those particular proclivities will return.
• Kurt Sutter has never made his "Deadwood" love a secret, and in addition to bringing in McKinnon this season, he also has Clay jokingly refer to Roosevelt as "Wild Black Hickok" in front of Unser - who, in a former life, was Wild Bill's best friend Charlie Utter.
• Sutter has also never hidden his love of "Oz," and as Big Otto he gets to carve out a small corner of the show to be "Oz." Otto's caused a lot of mayhem in that prison on behalf of SAMCRO, but he still manages to find ways to do Clay's wetwork, here getting revenge on the guy who stabbed Jax.
• I know it's Sutter coming up with a loophole to a situation he created, but would Roosevelt really accept the paroled Sons simply putting hoodies on over their cuts? Is it like the unwritten brown paper bag rule for open container?
• Another notable guest star: the man conducting Opie and Lyla's wedding was played by Randolph Mantooth, who was a TV star in the '70s as one of the paramedic heroes on "Emergency!"
• I'm hope Juice and his partners have a really good business plan for their colonic and weed shop, because that doesn't sound like two great tastes that necessarily taste great together.
What did everybody else think?