“We’re not a gang, we’re a motorcycle club.”
Like many of you, I come into this season of Sons of Anarchy with complicated feelings. As I’ve discussed a few times, I found the third season to be pretty tepid, but I don’t think I was as disappointed as most – if only because I didn’t love the series to begin with.* I liked the first two seasons just fine – especially the second, duh – yet there are probably 15 or 20 series on the air right now that I’d mention as my “favorite” before it came to Sons. I understand why the series has such a rabid, devoted fanbase, I simply don’t quite consider myself one of those people.
*I talked about some of the issues yesterday, in case you missed it.
Nevertheless, “Out” is a fine, enjoyable return to Sons’ comfortable rhythms of seasons one and two. It does indeed feel like Kurt Sutter heard the complaints from critics and fans about season three’s pacing, structure and lack of character energy and decided to bring back a version of the series that most people will be happy with. He spit a lot of fire last fall and maybe he loves season three, but no matter the reasoning, “Out” certainly feels like Sons of Anarchy and a pretty darn good version of it to boot. However, there are a few issues that I want to address momentarily.
First, the good stuff. One of the biggest problems with the audience’s relationship to the series is that the timeline was so compressed for the characters and much wider for the audience. What we experienced over three years the characters took on in an extremely short period of time. This isn’t an uncommon approach these days, especially on cable drams, and it worked quite fine in the first two seasons. But once the primary story was about rescuing an infant from murderous Irish assholes and the SAMCRO family took more than a half-dozen weeks of our time to really do much about it, the timeline grew to be a problem. Even if all of season three’s episodes took place across a day each, the narrative still lacked urgency even though the main characters had an obvious motivation. There were other issues with season three’s pacing, but the schism between the experiences of the timeline for the characters and us at home certainly didn’t help matters.
“Out” is therefore a welcome breath of fresh air, a clean slate, whatever you want to call it. More than a year has passed while the Sons served their time in prison and even though we didn’t get to see much of that time, it feels great to be separated from the IRA, Stahl and all the drama of the first three seasons. This clean slate feeling allowed for a number of simple, but effective scenes with the characters just hanging out and reminding us why we liked them so much to begin with. For a moment at least, there is time to crack jokes and hug. In some ways, this premiere is like a second pilot that refreshes the world with new characters and a new equilibrium while putting the lead characters in altered circumstances.
Additionally, this passage of time has allowed for the characters and their motivations to reset. The good news is that the reset means the possibility of a renewed focus on internal politics and movements instead of lesser-developed outside problems. Clearly, the club is still going to face off with law enforcement, various other groups and local politicians, but at least in “Out,” there is hope that the members of SAMCRO will be in control of those interactions instead of being relegated to pawns in a larger, much murkier game.
And most importantly, there are major hints that without those poorly-conceived outside threats, the ideological tensions between Jax and Clay are going to bubble to the surface. Jax is no longer hung up on finding his baby or trying to decide if he wants to keep Tara around, he’s ready to get them out of the life for good. Meanwhile, Clay seems overly-eager to reassert his club’s control over the town and his personal control over the club. The dueling bedroom scenes with Jax/Tara and Clay/Gemma were so well done and explicitly showed us how the passage of time impacted these four individuals. Two of them are ready to move on and embrace the future while the other two are so worried about said future that they discuss how to reestablish their control, power and monetary stream.
I don’t know about you folks, but the power struggle between Jax and Clay (and Gemma) is the reason I liked this series to begin with. I understand most of the storytelling decisions Kurt Sutter and company have made to avoid the full-out war or throwdown between the two, but in season four, with no kidnapped babies or IRA mythology, I think it is damn time Sons of Anarchy gets around to really telling that story. I said last night that I don’t really trust Jax when he says he wants to get out or take on Clay, but that’s really only because I don’t trust the writers to let him get there. The reasons are there and even more of them are hiding in those letters Tara has in her possession. At this point, the writers can’t keep suggesting things are about to explode unless they’re really going to pull the pin/light the match/whatever other lame analogy you want to use. It’s time. And at least for now, it looks like we are finally headed there.
The quote I used above comes in a scene reflecting the series’ new world, wherein Clay and the boys face off with Rockmond Dunbar’s Sheriff Eli Roosevelt. In the first three seasons, SAMCRO basically did what they want, when they wanted and as the protagonists, were positioned in celebratory ways (for the most part). Of course they’re a gang, but they and we choose to see them as a club because hey man, gangs are bad. But things are different now. Sheriff Roosevelt isn’t in the club’s pocket, Mayor Hale has his housing development up and running and the District Attorney is secretly planning to nail the Sons with RICO. Prison was one thing, but it appears that forces want the MC to really pay for the last three season’s worth of events now that they’re out.
Of course, Clay isn’t going to stand for that and that’s where we return to the ideological differences between him and Jax. Clay can tell Roosevelt that the MC is not a gang all he wants, but he sure wants them to act like one. He hides behind this façade of keeping Charming in-tact and saving it from outside forces, but that’s really all just about his desire to keep SAMCRO in power. For Clay, what’s good for Charming is conflated with what’s good for the MC and vice versa. If Clay believes what he’s telling Roosevelt, he’s just delusional.
On the other hand, Jax really wishes the Sons of Anarchy were about family and relationships and yet is smart enough to recognize that it isn’t true anymore. He’s not hiding behind the distinction between a gang and a club, he knows the truth. Unfortunately, by the end of the episode, he’s stabbing the Russian boss in the gut with no remorse in his eyes. It looks like the season is going to be defined by the question of who’s more dangerous and powerful, the person who knows he’s in a gang or the one who incorrectly claims he’s part of something less overtly nasty? Let’s hope Sutter and company actually tries to answer this question and keep the focus on Jax and Clay. If they do, season four has the potential to be very, very good.