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Rockin’ mics and Bridgin’ GAPS

Sons of Anarchy, The Final Ride

SOA california

SPOILER WARNING!!

This article talks about the current season of the show Sons of Anarchy and as such may contain “spoilers”.  I’ve tried to limit the amount of detail from last night’s (awesome) episode and marked crucial points with [SPOILER] tags.  If you are a viewer of the show and are not currently up-to-date I would advise returning to read this once you’ve caught up.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Ok good, now we may continue.

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This season marks the final ride for America’s favorite television biker gang, the Sons of Anarchy. Only four episodes remain in this its seventh season and both its popularity and its depth of story have only grown during its run. As with any hugely popular television series though, the potential pitfalls of its conclusion are hard to avoid. I was an ardent fan of both Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, the first of which concluded with perfect style and grace while the second stumbled its way to an unfulfilling ending, and not just with its (in)famous final episode. Lost is another series of which I am a huge fan but in its last season seemed to be looking for a final explanation way beyond necessary reason. Each show’s creator(s) faced the task of taking deep, morally flexible, ethically complicated characters and writing an ending to their stories, an ending grounded in the traits of those characters and the choices they would make. jump-the-sharkThere is a temptation to add a big final (unnecessary) twist (Lost), to add irrelevant and/or controversial character traits (Vito in Sopranos), to kill off main characters for shock value (Dexter, of which I was not a viewer but have heard much), to rush along outstanding plot lines (many shows) or, as the “Don’t Stop Believing” scene from The Sopranos best exemplifies, simply chicken out on doing anything definitive and leave your audience hanging. Some of these are examples of the television idiom “jumping the shark”, a term coined from a later season Happy Days episode when the Fonz ridiculously does just that, jumps over a shark while on water skis.

This seems a grim setup for talking about the conclusion of one of my favorite shows. In truth, I have enjoyed this final season and the whole series of Sons of Anarchy and credit its creator, Kurt Sutter, for a depth of character and general coolness factor that rank in tv’s upper echelon. The primary plot arch of its protagonist has been well-crafted, watching Jax Teller grow from a young man, into a father, then husband, then leader, and finally into either a tyrant, martyr or hero. Its group of core characters have grown fuller and more complex, more human while maintaining the irreverence and sensationalism that we look for in shows about gangsters.

VP_CHIBSSeeing Chibs take a more central role was a good move I think. A fan favorite, Philip’s badassness has sat in the back seat for much of the show’s previous six seasons. We saw some of his back story a few seasons back when SAMCRO journeyed to Ireland but really that was more the story of the Sons’ Irish background than a true study into Chibs’ personality. Once he took on the mantel on Vice President, the increased focus on his character was obvious. But his romantic involvement with Charming’s new sheriff and the necessity of his guidance along Jax’s warpath have provided some desired character development that, and this is important, is organic. It is the forced nature of some of the final season’s plot strokes that have given me trepidation, not necessarily their dramatic nature. As fans we yearn for the surprising, the violent, the characters going to extremes, it’s a big piece of why we watch a show about gangsters. So when a main character is killed, it may come as a shock (Opie) but it usually comes as disappointment only when that move comes from a place of contrived circumstances. The bar was set high by the series and Kurt Sutter early on and as such I (and I suspect most of its fans) hold it to an elevated standard, expecting its final ride to conclude in a way that is exciting but that also respects the integrity of its well-built characters and the intelligence of its fanbase.

As the show comes to a close, it will look to answer/wrap up a series of continuing plot questions. One that dates back to the show’s first season is what is the real story of the death of JT? Gemma and Clay have admitted to sabotaging his bike, pointing to murder. But the mystery raised by Jury makes it look like a self-sacrificing suicide. He knew he was being targeted by those closest to him and saw the opportunity in their method for him to allow, as Jury explains, his club and family to continue. If Gemma and Clay were to have killed him in a way that couldn’t have been explained as an accident it would have torn the MC apart. Left with few (if any) options about how to fix the entangled state of his club, allowing his demise provided the only means to a difficult, but in his eyes necessary, end.

Kurt Sutter is a truly talented writer, carefully crafting over the course of the series complicated, conflicting images of fathers. It’s one of the central questions of the show, what kind of man will a boy in this family of violence become? Is it possible for one to make it out or are you inevitably a product of your upbringing and environment? JT always aimed to be a strong father for Jax, even after his demise, and for Jax of the earlier seasons that fatherhood was of ulterior importance. As his character has grown blind, though, with rage, power, and selfishness that vision of the model he wanted to be has slowly eroded, transferred directly and in a primary plot position to his son Abel, a boy clearly disturbed by the gambit of parental figures moving around him.

Kurt Sutter and wife Katey Sagal
Kurt Sutter and wife Katey Sagal

What will happen with Juice and what is the story really being told there? A battered, depressed continual victim of circumstance, Juice has earned the hatred of those closest to him (especially Chibs) for all the wrong reasons. He is a truly tragic figure, never able to find peace. The last year of his life has been like one long strangulation, seeming close so many times to being over for the Sons’ favorite (read: only) Latino.  Juice obviously played a large role in last night’s episode, delivering some of Sutter’s best writing of the season as the last glimmer of hope for redemption slips away, all but closing the book on Juan Carlos Ortiz.

Will Jax have to pay for Jury’s death and if so, what price? While death and even cold-blooded murder can often be the cost of doing business, killing a member of an established crew, especially one’s own, never goes unaccounted and rarely goes unpunished. The boys of Indian Hills have a serious bloodlust for SAMCRO’s Pres and it’s a loose end that could spell the end for the show’s protagonist.

What will happen to Abel? As we’ve seen in recent episodes, Abel is a child deeply troubled by the loss of his mother and the constant cycle of violence in which he’s been raised. Jax’s pride and joy, Abel’s mental state is due as much to his father’s absence as anything else and some re-connection and reckoning is forthcoming, especially in light of Abel’s stunning revelation.  I’ve seen theories that posit Abel as Gemma’s killer and others that see him lashing out and hurting/killing his brother Thomas.  He seemed less anxious in last night’s episode, [SPOILER] freed from keeping a horrible truth and relieved to know that Wendy is actually his mother.  It’s a touching moment when Gemma gives Abel JT’s ring (“Bye, Grandma”), painting an unfortunate picture, however, of a cycle that can’t be broken.  There was a lot packed into that moment, speaking to the forces molding a child in the Sons.

Will Uncer die? My money is on yes. He’s too peripheral-but-important of a character and it would be too good of a pull on the heartstrings of their fans for Sutter not to off Charming’s former sheriff.  His love for Gemma runs deep and with her [SPOILER]  ugly truth now on the table and Uncer unfortunately entangled, his odds of survival seem low.

While Jax’s fit of rage may have [SPOILER] come to a grinding halt with last night’s episode, I would still be surprised if another few central characters didn’t wind up dead in the final two episodes.  I wager either Happy or Rat will meet a tragic and violent end.  And truthfully I think Gemma will die but I’m not sure how it will go down.  Jax seemed fairly sure [SPOILER] as he spoke with Nero that he wouldn’t be able to commit that kind of atrocity but the notion of her sailing off into the sunset with Nero has always been too good to be true.  And for Kurt Sutter the only real way to correctly honor his characters’ dark sides is in death. It will be a big moment (think Clay’s assassination).

This brings me to my gripes with SOA’s final season. Though my feelings have been amended after last night’s blockbuster episode,  IMHO, the biggest plot contrivance this season took place in the premiere, and I remember thinking it was odd then and it has only grown in its nuisance since given its centrality to the plot. When Gemma begins talking to the loner among Lin’s crew, she seems to be playing a caring mother role in her typical gangster-mom way. When she asks about wife and family, though, and finds he has none it will later turn out to be a question of a more nefarious nature. When she walks over to tell Jax that he’s the one she saw leaving Tara’s house the night of her murder it’s clear that she and Jax have had a conversation about it previously but their motives are still somewhat unclear. Is Jax in on the lie, part of some larger scheme to take down Lin and if so, why, given the recent work to turn the inter-gang relations to a time of truce?  Gemma was shown to be the originator of the lie, part of some need to give her son relief through vengeance over the death of his wife. Jax would, indeed, exact that revenge upon that innocent Chinese gangster and embark upon the over-arching warpath that has defined the final season.  Before last night, my problem with this moment is that Gemma has no need to tell this lie, no need to implicate the poor loner. It is a plot contrivance, a burning hot poker needed to prod Jax onto a path of rage and vengeance. That vengeance would upset the whole apple cart of gang relations carefully balanced in the previous season(s), moving from Pope to August Marx and moving on from a difficult alliance with the IRA. All that peace talk makes it difficult for President Jax to go through his final character quandry, choosing between the straight life he’s been vowing for the MC and his family on one hand and the allure of power, rage and violence on the other. He must be pushed in order to become the monster he’s been avoiding. And with so much riding on that push (from Gemma) and such thin motivation for her doing so, it’s difficult for the moment not to seem forced.  [SPOILER]  But in last night’s stunning chapter, it was revealed that Juice had constructed the false story, a more believable scenario that diminishes the season’s biggest inconsistency.

Katey Sagal as Gemma is central to Sons and her importance to husband and show creator Kurt Sutter is evident throughout the show’s run. She sings on the soundtrack often, she is many fans’ favorite character, her influence is felt even beyond where it is seen. Her character’s path tells the tale of the “given” family within the “chosen” family and the twisted path she’s had to travel in defense of her family makes the conclusion of her personal tale as the show winds down important.  In last night’s episode, Juice delivers [SPOILER] a great line about Gemma being the “gatekeeper… [she] knows every truth behind every lie”.  In truth, the show is as much about Gemma as it is about Jax and an appropriate final statement on her is crucial.

Problem #2: Bobby didn’t need to [SPOILER] die. Part of this is me as a fan talking and part as a critic. “Bobby was the heart of [SAMCRO],” says Jax and while a main character’s demise is meant to be jarring, his death, after already having been tortured, was an unnecessary stroke. There was no honor in the death of one of the best Sons, other than his resistance to Moses Cartwright’s brutal torture, he was merely the biggest casualty in a series of unfortunate/murderous events.

I began writing this article before last night’s episode, the best of the season in my opinion, full of great writing and finely acted moments (Nero’s reactions while on the phone and then sitting on the curb were spectacular).  Sutter carefully tapped a few of the well-placed dominoes holding together the show’s delicate balance, and gave his characters the space to begin saying goodbye.  While the meandering pace of some the season’s earlier episodes may cause the final ones to seem rushed by comparison, last night Sutter showed that there is still a little deeper to dig with these characters, a little further we must go to see what they’re really about.  I, for one, am glad to be along for the ride.

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