A review of the "Sons of Anarchy" season finale coming up just as soon as I empty out this duffel bag full of sex toys...
"You're done telling me anything. Now I am telling you." -Jax
With a long-running, heavily-serialized TV series, there's often the question of whether the journey is more important than the destination, or vice versa. With "Lost," I didn't love the way the show wrapped up a number of major story arcs, but I enjoyed so much of what came before that I was ultimately willing to focus more on that and less on the magical glowing pool.
With "Sons of Anarchy" season 4, I feel like I'm much happier with the destination than the journey. Had you told me before the season began that it would end with Jax reluctantly taking the throne and pushing Clay and Gemma off to the side, and with Friends of Jax like Chibs, Juice and perhaps Opie taking more prominent roles within the club, I'd have said that sounded intriguing(*), and I looked forward to seeing how we got there, and then where the show went from that point.
(*) Well, first I'd have said, "Spoilers, dude!" But after that, I'd have been intrigued.
But so much of what took us to this point has left me underwhelmed, or frustrated, and makes me less interested in seeing what the show does with this new beginning.
If the cartel boys being in league with the CIA - and therefore solving the club's legal problems while forcing Jax to stay in Charming - wasn't exactly "a wizard did it," it was awfully close. In one reveal, which had been barely hinted at in previous episodes(**), the writers got to hit the reset button on nearly every major story arc of the season. Jax wants to leave the club and the town? Not gonna happen! Clay has to die? No he doesn't! Juice has been tricked into betraying the club and will either destroy them all or be found out as a rat? Never mind! Deus ex Romeo, baby!
(**) Really, the only clues that Romeo and Luis and their friends weren't exactly who and what they claimed to be were the glimpse of Tara's kidnappers in the van after Jax rescued her, and then Romeo being so adamant last week that there weren't any cops investigating the club or the cartel. There was also the earlier scene where Romeo and Luis vaguely alluded to their plans for the Sons, but that could have meant virtually anything.
And if Kurt Sutter doesn't want to send his main character away, doesn't want to kill off his chief villain, doesn't want Juice to suffer any real consequences for what he's done(***), then that's fine. His show, his characters, his rules. But if I might make a suggestion: if you don't want any of those things to happen, don't spend an entire season building up to how they have to happen, then back out at the last possible second. Tell different stories - the kind you actually want to follow through with all the way.
(***) I suppose Juice still has to live with the guilt of killing Miles, but the show barely cared about Miles when he was alive, so I'm not sure I'd buy an extended arc of Juice having nightmares about killing good ol' whatsisname. (Given that Kozik was also marked for death, maybe we could have gotten better emotional mileage out of switching their fates so Juice shot Kozik and Miles randomly blew up.)
Again, if I ignore most of what came before - especially in regards to Clay and Juice - the end point of season 4 is really interesting. Jax being forced to lead the club - and lead it deeper and deeper into a relationship with the cartel, rather than the peacenik reforms he might have thought about back in season 1 - is a great place to land the character, and Charlie Hunnam continued to do outstanding work in this episode as Jax came to grips with never getting out. And Clay and Gemma being marginalized but not killed or exiled takes those two out of ruts they'd been falling into.
But the cartel/CIA connection came completely out of left field, and even Jax's rationale for staying didn't sound quite right. If it's clear that he'll be one of the guys doing a long prison stretch if Potter is allowed to move forward with his RICO case, then sure. But that's not how he frames it for Tara. He just tells her he can't stand to let the club die. He doesn't even say that he can't stand to see guys he cares about like Chibs and Bobby spend decades in prison, which would still be him putting other people ahead of his family, but which I would believe (and which Tara would understand, even if she didn't agree with it). But the idea that he's just doing it because he can't allow the end of what he's come to recognize as this cancer that's infested his life and the lives of everyone he cares about? No. That's not what the Jax Teller we've been following for four years would believe, and it sure as hell isn't something Tara would accept and keep herself and her sons in danger for.
And Clay's stay of execution felt doubly contrived, not just with the CIA thing, but with Galen - a character we met about five seconds ago, with very minimal characterization to date other than a certain high-handedness - repeating his demand that Clay is the only Son he'll deal with. So Clay gets to stay in the club, if not in the seat of power, and you just know that both he and Gemma - whether separately or in concert - will be playing every dirty trick in the book to reclaim their respective thrones, especially since Jax is forbidden from telling anyone about their new reality. (I put the over/under on Gemma destroying the magical letters - which Jax was dumb enough to hide at Teller-Morrow, and in full view of his ruthless, scheming mother - at the sixth episode of next season.)
For this season to take Clay as far as it did, and make it clear how many times over he deserved to die by so many different hands, and then to spare him twice (first when Opie missed any vital organs, then courtesy of Romeo) is a massive cheat, and a way for the show to have its cake (Clay does lots of despicable things that ups the level of tension in each episode) and eat it, too (the show doesn't have to get rid of one of its main characters and move away from the whole "Hamlet" structure).
Ditto Juice's get out of jail free card, courtesy of Potter's sudden benevolence. We know Roosevelt has been having qualms about what they did to Juice, so I believe his willingness to cut the kid a break and get back to a clear good guys/bad guys delineation. For that matter, Potter has been such a mystery man (Roosevelt calls him out as weird, and Potter explains his affectations as a conscious, misanthropic choice) that it's not outside the realm of possibility that he would let the little fish go once all the big fish swam away. (Stahl, on the other hand, would have framed Juice for six murders just to vent her aggression over getting screwed like this.) But as with the branch breaking, and Clay surviving several times over, it's ultimately about the show not having the courage to stay on an inexorable path of doom. For the story the show told about Juice this year to matter, there had to be consequences for him, be it death by his own hand, a long prison stretch where he's branded as a rat, or something similarly severe. And there weren't. I'm glad Theo Rossi finally got a chance to show what he could do, but ultimately it was pointless.
Overall, I would call season 4 of "Sons of Anarchy" quite a bit stronger than season 3, but it may also be the season that made me recalibrate my expectations for the series. Season 1 was a show finding itself, but one that ended strongly. Season 2 was brilliant (though it stumbled a bit at the very end). Season 3 was a mess with a great finish, and at that point it wasn't clear whether season 3 was the anomaly, or season 2 was. Season 4 fell somewhere in between the two preceding it, and also fell victim to many of the problems that were so widespread in season 3, which was also a year where the Sons were making decisions based largely on contrived and/or outside forces. (Where this year gave us the magical letters, last year we had that stretch where Maureen couldn't get Gemma on the phone, for instance.)
It is a show with a lot of great performances. It is a show capable of great moments. But is it a great show, period? I thought that for sure a couple of years ago. Now, I'm doubtful. And if I go into the rest of the run not expecting greatness and accept the three-card monte of it all, maybe I'll enjoy it more.
At the moment, though, I'm having a very different reaction to the one I had a year ago at this time. The season 3 finale erased a whole lot of sins that came before it, whereas "To Be, Act 2" mainly reinforced my reservations from throughout the year, and made it hard to remember the parts I really liked.
Some other thoughts:
* That cover of "House of the Rising Sun" that played over the closing section was recorded by some familiar names from the show's soundtrack: White Buffalo & The Forest Rangers.
* I did get the appropriate level of amusement from Potter ruining the big vote for "Mayor Quimby" with a display of sex toys. Ray McKinnon was a lot of fun to watch this season, even if his story ultimately got cut short.
* So Jax's rings sat untouched on top of the headstone for around two years? That cemetery has either a very lazy or extremely honest caretaker.
* Will the club ever find out that Piney's dead? And, if so, how will Jax (and Opie, if he returns) explain it without getting everyone to immediately turn on Clay? For that matter, why doesn't Jax just tell everyone that Clay killed Piney (and JT, if need be) but that they need him to keep the deal going? That would neutralize Clay enormously, and I imagine there are ways to do it without giving up who Romeo really is.
* Who wants to start throwing out names of actors who could play Damon Pope, the Oakland crimelord - and father of the woman Tig killed - who's being set up as next season's big bad? Rockmond Dunbar is obviously unavailable for the role.
* Nice nod to Sutter's roots with Juice watching a scene from "The Shield" in lock-up. Anyone a hardcore enough "Shield" fan to be able to identify what episode that was from?
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org