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October 13, 2015

Review: Back in Charming, 'Sons of Anarchy' Rolls Into Dark Territory (VIDEO)

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 6th 2011 10:30AM
It wouldn't be going too far to say that the season 4 premiere of 'Sons of Anarchy' (10PM ET Tuesday, FX) is like taking a bath in everything the show tends to do well.

If you prefer a food-based analogy, it's a buffet of things likely to please the show's longtime fans. The focus is firmly on the club's internal dynamics, there are interesting new characters on the scene in the club's home town of Charming, and there's even a gathering of bikers that ends up being both salty and sentimental.

The good news is, after the motorcycle club's trip to Belfast last season -- a diversion that, for many fans, didn't quite have the payoff they'd hoped for -- the show has returned to familiar stomping grounds and the kind of complicated relationship dynamics that had turned many viewers into die-hard fans in earlier seasons.

But not everything is smooth sailing. The broad strokes of the show's mythology and the club's new antagonists are bristling with potential, but some of the weekly adventures seem unnecessarily convoluted and/or convenient.

The 90-minute season opener introduces two worthy antagonists for biker-club heir apparent Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), club leader Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) and the rest of the Sons of Anarchy. The new sheriff, Eli Roosevelt, is played with cool command by Rockmond Dunbar, and Roosevelt is about as far from Wayne Unser, the accommodating former sheriff, as a lawman could be.

Even more compelling is Lincoln Potter, who's played with off-kilter charisma by the wonderful Ray McKinnon. Potter isn't your typical, swaggering prosecuting-attorney type, yet his relentlessness is only highlighted by Potter's quiet precision. This is a man who feels no need to trumpet his desire to lock up career lawbreakers like the Sons; that goal is so deeply ingrained in him that his formidable brain clearly contain thoughts of little else.

That's all to the good, as are the ways in which internal loyalties are twisted this way and that in the first three episodes of the season. 'Sons of Anarchy' is a show about men who aren't afraid of violence, but their first principal is unshakable loyalty. At least that's what the club co-founded by Jax's late father, John, used to be about. These days, various club members play lip service to the idea of brotherhood, but over the course of these opening episodes, dangerous alliances arise and painful ruptures begin to emerge.

For all its action, gunplay and criminal activity, 'SOA' is at its most compelling when it delves into the emotional bonds between these men and their women, and there's a rich dramatic potential in the double-dealing that begins in these first hours.

Having said all that, the episodic plots (as opposing to the overarching mythology) in the second and third episodes didn't feel especially satisfying. In the third episode, I got the impression that much of the hour was about getting a certain character to a certain place, but in doing so, the show sacrificed what I'd assumed about his intelligence. The plot of the second hour merely reinforced information and dynamics that already felt relatively clear, and I never quite believed the characters who appeared to be in jeopardy were truly in danger.

As for club matriarch Gemma (Katey Sagal), she's still obsessed with what Tara (Maggie Siff) does or doesn't know about the death of John Teller (as fans will see in the opening minutes of season 4, Tara has been reading the old letters that John's Irish girlfriend, Maureen, intended to give Jax before he went to prison). I do hope the fourth season doesn't drag that storyline out; the "How did John Teller die" thread is starting to feel like the identity of the mother on 'How I Met Your Mother.' I certainly can't speak for the fans of either show, but I just want both things resolved and put to one side so that the shows can focus on what they do well.

Still, I respect the fact that 'SOA' continues to move forward into risky territory. These episodes remind us more than once that the Sons are not very nice people who can be extremely ruthless with outsiders who threaten them and their way of life. Jax has emerged as one of the most ruthless men of all, yet Hunnam's performance somehow keeps me in the biker's corner. Jax has certainly come along way since the first season. He's still on a quest to define himself outside the club, to some degree, but when he emerges from prison at the start of the season premiere, all that really matters to him is the safety of his family.

Will the show be able to do that with the club as a whole -- keep us rooting for men who don't just turn on their enemies, but, eventually, turn on themselves? It'll be interesting to see the show delve more fully into 'Breaking Bad' territory. That AMC drama does a terrific job of gluing viewers to the screen, no matter how awful or self-serving Walter White becomes. But 'Breaking Bad' is setting the bar very high when it comes to anti-hero drama these days, and every single development on that show feels meticulously earned. 'SOA' has set itself an intimidating challenge.

But Jax and Clay aren't quite as far gone as Walter White. Are they? "You love the right things," veteran biker Piney once told Jax.

But what if, in the process of defending those things, you destroy your soul? Jax and the others may find that love is cold comfort then.

Check back here later tonight for my post-episode thoughts on the 'SOA' season premiere.

'SOA' fans may be interested in this Talking TV podcast, in which Ryan McGee and I talk about the new season of the FX show. The first four minutes of the season are below, and you can find more 'SOA' videos here.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Who is this reviewer? Comparing SOA to Breaking Bad... Not even close. Although I sometimes enjoy watching Breaking Bad, SOA is infinitely better - at everything! Please don't ever compare the two shows again.

September 06 2011 at 7:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nikki Clarke

I personally thought the Belfast element worked well as a way to really let Charlie Hunnam shine as Jax. I think the powerful emotions shown by Jax throughout the search for Abel in Belfast and the way he was torn between taking him back or leaving him with his new adoptive parents was some of the finest acting I've seen yet. It almost rivals the way the show dealt with Gemma's rape. Katey Sagal and Charlie Hunnam deserve all the praise they get over that, 2 of the best actors on TV. And the way Opie struggled after Donna's brutal death at the hands of Tig was also brilliantly acted. I think Kurt Sutter has assembled the best cast of any TV show currently airing and he knows it. If he carries on in this fashion he will have won a fan for life here.

September 06 2011 at 5:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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