'Sons of Anarchy' Season 3 Finale Recap
by Maureen Ryan, posted Nov 30th 2010 11:30PM
The current season of 'Sons of Anarchy' has gotten me thinking about secrets and lies.
When are secrets the characters are carrying effective tension-builders? When is it good for the audience to know something that the characters don't and vice versa? The show's extra-long season finale caused me to ponder these topics once again.
Overall, there was a propulsive sense of forward movement in the episode, and some excellent character moments as well. However there was a twist at the end of the episode, one that both worked and didn't work.
Was the twist entertaining on one level? Sure. But it was also indicative of some of the problems of this uneven season.
On one level, it was pleasing (and a relief) to see Jax pull out a win. Anticipating that Agent Stahl would betray him in any number of ways, Jax wriggled out of the ATF agent's trap and got exactly what he wanted. Gemma is clear of all serious charges, the club will do short time for the church raid and he managed to both deliver Jimmy O'Phelan to the ATF and kill the Irish gun-runner as well. That was one hell of a to-do list, but the Sons checked off every item on it, with ingenuity and a well-coordinated team effort.
The club's future is solidified, or so it would seem. Once the members of SAMCRO are out of jail, they can resume business with the Irish council and expand the reach of the club. New charters are on the horizon and now that Jax has apparently accepted his role as the club's president-in-training, the future for the Sons looks, well, not bright (it can't be when there's danger around every bend in the road), but the Sons post-jail life looks prosperous, at the very least.
So the well-paced finale wrapped up a bunch of stories and gave Season 4 something of a clean slate, and it also gave the show some potentially intriguing story lines for the future.
Yet the finale left me with a very big question, and it's like an itch in a hard-to-reach spot. It's driving me a little crazy, and it meant that I couldn't fully enjoy the outcome of Jax's slick moves. And though I'll be the first to say I love a good twist, this one deprived us of something the season as a whole has been missing.
My question is this: When did Jax come clean to Clay and the club about his deal with Stahl? Early in the season, somewhere in the middle, or on the day of the big Jimmy O'Phelan operation? If you've got a clue, by all means, share with the class.
That he told the club the day of the Jimmy O operation seems like the most logical assumption, yet that sequence of events raises new questions.
If Jax told the club about his deal with Stahl that day (or some time after their return to Charming), I can't imagine his fellow Sons would be pleased. In fact, I think they would most likely respond with the kind of murderous rage they were apparently faking in front of Stahl. To have cut a deal with Stahl and not have told Clay and the rest of the club for days or weeks would have been perceived as a huge betrayal by Jax, and it would have been a complication that would have taken a great deal of time to deal with and smooth over.
Also, if Jax told the guys recently, when did he do it? The day depicted in 'NS' was a busy one, to say the least. Are we just supposed to assume Jax found the time to tell Clay and the club what was up with Stahl, plan this elaborate operation, get Unser and Tara on board and give everyone their directions and take part in everything else that transpired? I'm just trying to figure out where he would have found the time to do all that. Since the club's return to Charming, there hasn't been much time for serious conversation.
So maybe he told the club about the deal a while back, perhaps when he first delivered up Luke, Jimmy O's henchman. But if that's the case, then 'Sons of Anarchy' has essentially pulled a long con on us for more than half the season. If the club members knew about Jax's deal as soon as that deal was struck, then he was never in danger from that quarter and we didn't know that.
My gut instinct guesses that Jax told the guys the day of the Jimmy O raid, and that they got on board because they realized he had made that deal with Stahl in order to preserve the club, not destroy it. Still, if that's the answer, it bothers me, not just because there didn't seem to be enough time in that day to have that conversation. Even if there was time for that, I thought that making deals with the authorities was simply off limits to club members, no exceptions. It changes my view of the characters and the world they live in if that's not the case.
Look, as a TV viewer, I understand that it would have ruined the sting that Jax pulled on Stahl to reveal what the club knew before that moment of laughter in the ATF truck. But why not have Jax say something about the timing in the letter to Gemma? All Jax says in the letter is that he would never turn on his club. So that means he told Clay and the others a while ago? Or not? Argh!
Perhaps all this doesn't matter to you all, or it didn't bug you, and that's totally cool. I get it. (My husband is in that camp. Not knowing about the timing didn't bother him at all). But it bothers me for a couple of reasons. First, occasionally the show rushes through key plot points that aren't fully explained, and though I can see the reasons for it in this case, it feels like that's sort of what happened here.
[UPDATE at 7:30AM CT: I didn't mean to give the impression that I was only bothered by the timing of Jax telling the club. I was, to a degree, bothered by the fact that the audience, along with Stahl, had the wool pulled over our eyes. I actually am of two opinions on this, and those opinions have to do with the means and the ends. As for the end result, am I happy the club pulled a fast one on Stahl? Sure. But am I pleased that, all season long, we were encouraged to have sympathy and even pity for Jax because he allegedly went it alone and followed a dangerous solo path (when that wasn't actually the case)? Not really. I can't lie, that doesn't completely sit right with me. Apparently I'm in the minority on this, and that's fine. But we were fooled into thinking we should have sympathy for Jax's plight re the club when he really never needed it (and the consensus seems to be that the club knew about the deal from Day 1). I just wanted to clarify that.]
[UPDATE at 11AM CT: This sequence of tweets between me and 'SOA' blogger Kayteadee sums up my reaction to this particular aspect of the story: Tweet 1, Tweet 2, Tweet 3.]
The bigger reason for my concern is this: Part of the reason I watch 'Sons of Anarchy' is because of the complicated relationships among the characters. And here's a big moment between Jax and Clay -- one that would presumably affect their relationship for some time to come -- and it happened entirely offscreen.
Here's the thing: That'd be OK if this season had been chock full of rich relationship complications and emotionally complex scenes between the core characters. But season 3 was notably light on those things, thanks to the introduction of many new stories and characters, the presence of which pushed much of the core cast off to the sidelines for big stretches of Season 3.
Your mileage may vary: You may come to the show for the great acting, the kinetic action, the glimpse at a ruthless yet loyal subculture. All those things are major draws, no doubt. But the relationships among the characters and the complications between the people in this tight-knit community are what fully engaged me in Season 2. Season 3 was a different ride. When I think back on it, I'll recall individual moments that worked (especially Jax's face as he followed Abel and his adoptive parents). But overall, this year's story didn't nearly have the cumulative impact that Season 2 did. If it set the stage for great season 4 stories, then so be it.
OK, I have more to say about the season as a whole, but if, at this point, you want to skip the next part in order to get to my list of 'NS' highlights and notes, feel free. Honestly, I wouldn't blame you if you did. Yes, I recognize that this review is way too long. In any event....
To return to the questions at the begin of this review, I think the key to a secret or revelation that works dramatically has to do with how engaged we are with the characters who are keeping the secrets and how compelled we are by the plights of the people who learn shocking information. When a secret puts relationships we care about at risk, it's easy to get invested. When the secret is "Watch Jax try to find the bouncing baby boy" -- a boy we in the audience knew the location of -- not so much.
Here are just a couple of examples of the kind of thing I'm talking about: In Season 2, Gemma's plight was heartbreaking -- she was keeping her rape a secret in order to keep the club from going to war. The pain of that secret came from an altruistic place, thus I was fully invested in her situation and her increasingly difficult attempts to keep her men safe. Hiding that secret was killing her, and her eventual truth-telling scene was 'SOA's' finest moment to date.
In Season 2, there was a different kind of heartbreak between Jax and Opie, best friends who were separated by secrets that tore up Jax and devastated Opie when he learned them. All in all, these were secrets that were woven organically into the characters' lives, and thus the payoffs that resulted from them were deeply rewarding and emotionally compelling.
Sure, this season Jax was altruistic in trying to save the club via his deal with Stahl, but now we find that... he wasn't actually keeping the deal a secret. He wasn't going it alone -- he had the support of the club after all. While I appreciated Jax's ingenuity, it felt deflating to learn that the secret wasn't a secret and Jax wasn't in danger of being killed by the club (at least once he told them).
Of course, there is a new secret that we will likely see play out in Season 4 -- when will Jax find out that John suspected that Clay and Gemma would engineer his death? How will that knowledge affect those relationships?
If it's handled right, Jax's doubts about his father's death -- just as he settles in as a take-charge SAMCRO leader -- could lead to a new and interesting path for the character. At the end of 'NS,' Jax was clearly relishing what he'd accomplished, and the arc of the season has certainly led him to have a renewed, clear-eyed commitment to the club and its business. Reintroducing his Hamlet doubts -- or turning him into Macbeth, if you will -- could be a fruitful path for the show.
Yet the reveal that Gemma and Clay may have had something to do with John Teller's death doesn't feel like much of a revelation. It's something fans have been speculating about for some time, and thus, for me, it didn't pack much of a punch. Given that there have been a number of mechanical contrivances this season, there's reason to be a little nervous about where this might go. We'll just have to see how the JT information plays out next year. Let's hope the show avoids making it fodder for an 'As the Clubhouse Turns'-style story line, but given that 'SOA' is committed to making Jax's journey grounded and emotionally compelling (that element of the show was the best aspect of Season 3), I'm not overly worried about that at this stage.
In any event, I'm actually glad that Stahl and Jimmy O are out of the picture; the show can now go forward with a clean slate for Season 4. And given that I've aired my issues with Season 3 in the preceding two thousand words, I must note that there were some excellent moments as 'NS' wrapped up the club's pre-prison business. Here are a few of the moments I enjoyed most:
* The opening montage of the characters reconnecting and sharing quiet moments, then coming together for brunch at the clubhouse, was excellent. 'SOA' has always been good at montage scenes, especially those set to music. (Kudos to the music supervisor for another season of outstanding tunes). That sequence was a great reminder that this is a show about a community of people who, at the most basic level, really like hanging out with each other.
* Unser's final moments in his office were beautifully played by Dayton Callie. Do the events of 'NS' mean he's gone from the show? It'd make logical sense for Unser to leave town or fade from the scene, but I enjoy Callie's performance so much that I don't want to see him leave the Sons' orbit. Surely he can act as driver/bodyguard for Gemma and they can spend Season 4 driving around Charming shooting the breeze and smoking weed?
* I liked the scenes between both Gemma and Stahl and Gemma and Clay. But it's interesting to note that Gemma castigated Stahl for her naivety, yet later, Clay was talking about enjoying one last blaze of glory with the Sons -- he envisioned a series of big paydays before he rides off in to the sunset. When does that sort of thing ever go well? As Gemma said to Stahl, "I promise you -- it'll end badly."
* Chibs' execution of Jimmy O was a great moment for that character. Tommy Flanagan played the hell out of that moment.
* Yet for my money, Ryan Hurst owned the finale -- he was incredible in that final scene in Stahl's car. He gave us a masterful picture of the emotions washing over Opie's face -- relief at getting vengeance for Donna, sadness, anger, even pity. An outstanding scene.
A few final notes:
* If you're looking to buy some of the songs from the third season, check out this new 'SOA' EP. 'Hey Hey, My My' by Battleme has been in constant rotation here since I heard it on 'NS.'
* Somebody finally listened to Chucky. Finally! And he helped save the day. Nice.
* So Otto, the character played by 'Sons' creator Sutter, is headed to death row. I hope Otto's appeals hold up that process -- surely Sutter has more grim adventures in mind for the nearly blind, hard-luck lifer. What would a season be without Otto being maimed in some sort of gut-wrenching way?
* Thoughts on Sonny Barger as Sons co-founder Lenny the Pimp? I thought the scene worked fine.
* The montage that started the episode was, as I said, mostly strong, but the Stahl moment struck a false note with me. She touched the spot her lover had occupied and smiled? Really? She grinned at memories of the woman she murdered? There were a few moments in the finale in which Jax and Gemma put seeds of doubt into Stahl's head, and watching Stahl waver in those scenes made the character seem almost human, but that grin put her in cartoon-villain territory.
* The season premiere and the season finale were both named after two rings on Jax's fingers: 'SO' and 'NS.' I believe Jax put the SO ring on John Teller's grave in the first episode of the season -- or am I wrong about that? If he did put it on the grave then, I'm wondering why it hasn't been stolen by this point.
* Finally, I have to give a big shoutout to the regulars in the comment areas of these 'Sons of Anarchy' reviews. I love reading everyone's thoughts each week, and I love that you're all uncompromising when it comes to what you do and don't love about the show. 'SOA' fans are a ferocious breed, and I am honored that you've come back week after week to read my take and agree or disagree with what I've written. You rock. (Just as an aside, I'll be recapping 'Spartacus: Gods of the Arena' and 'Game of Thrones' and possibly some other shows in the new year. Come on back and chat about those shows then, if you watch them!)
* Ride safe and have a great holiday season, my fellow 'Sons' fans.
Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.