In case you haven't guessed, I'm something of a low rung on the critical totem pole. This means that while I get to write about awesome shows like Sons of Anarchy, I don't usually get a chance to look at screeners. That's not a problem, but it does make for a weird rumbling effect when I hear other critics talking about an amazing episode of a show I cover that hasn't actually aired. I knew "Balm" was supposed to be tremendous before tonight, but I had no idea why. So I spent most of the episode waiting for greatness, but because I was looking for one thing, I nearly missed it.
Jax wasn't kidding about joining the Nomad charter of the Sons. It requires approval of the Nomad president and a full club vote, and it also means convincing himself and every person who cares about him that leaving town to wander is the right play to make. Sitting at home, it's easy enough to be sure that Jax is making the wrong call. While Clay and Jax's feud has been fracturing the club from within for a while, the external dangers SAMCRO faces means they need to be at their strongest. Clay is a stone cold warrior, make no mistake, but he doesn't have much patience, and he's not a big one for strategy. With Jax gone, the club will lose it's strongest advocate for looking before leaping, and, most likely, wind up as easy pickings for Zobelle and his crew.
But just because we can see that doesn't mean it's not believable that Jax doesn't. When the stakes are this high, when there's a good chance he could kill Clay if things get even a little worse, stepping back and getting some air must look like a necessity. The second season of Sons has been so pedal to the metal exciting because every choice seems like it could mean the difference between life or death, for the club and for the people who've dedicated their lives to it. And when choices get that important, it's nearly impossible to make them fast enough without making a mistake.
"Balm," the Sons first extra long episode (not that it felt longer than usual), was all about people trying to find some kind of peace. Jax is looking for a way out before he does something he can't take back, and Gemma's trying to find a way to keep her son safe. She even talks with him about her dead husband's memoirs, warning him that John died for being too "complicated," and pointing to a specific page of the book where Jax's father debates going Nomad, but decides against it. That, combined with Unser's evidence that Clay wasn't the one behind the Caracara arson job, is almost enough to convince Jax to stick around, but when he asks Clay point blank, "Do you want me gone?", Clay says, "Yes." The unanimous vote for transfer that follows is almost like a betrayal, but it's hard to know who's doing the most damage: Clay for all his crimes, or Jax for wanting to run.
We meet Chibs' rival, Jimmy O'Phelan, played by the supremely awesome Titus Welliver. Welliver is a character actor who's face should be familiar to most people who watch good TV (he was great on Deadwood), and he really makes the most of his two scenes in this episode. At one point, Jimmy starts threatening rape against Chibs' daughter—the daughter who Jimmy has raised as his own—and it's a ploy that could've come off as overly theatrical, the sort of thing that only really works if you're doing it while tying someone to the train tracks. But Welliver is calm and direct enough that it's convincing and incredibly evil, which makes Chibs' decision to betray the local IRA safe house to Stahl understandable. Again, we know this is going to be some bad shit in the future, but there's no way to really blame him for doing it. Jimmy is a potent threat who has Chibs' wife and child at his mercy. If the Sons were held tighter together, Chibs could've looked to them for support, but as it is.
Like I said, I knew "Balm" was going to be good, but I expected the drama to be about a bad situation becoming hellish. I expected blood, death, explosions, I figured Jax would storm off and the instant he left, Zobelle would make some kind of master move. But even as I was expecting this, I couldn't help thinking how much I wanted it to work out otherwise. Take Opie. Having him find out who really killed Donna (Tig didn't do a whole lot tonight, but his drug-induced but still heartfelt apology to a doll said all it needed to about what's happening in his head) would make for, no question, some unbelievably dark and thrilling drama. But he's been through so much, seeing him instead find some measure of hope in a new girlfriend and a restored connection with his kids—that was better than an explosion.
What made "Balm" tremendous was that it offered a glimpse of that salvation that's long been one of the show's defining characteristics. Unlike other crime dramas, Sons of Anarchy has people who can be noble, people for whom family life and brotherhood aren't just ways of hiding their essential venality. It didn't really come home to me until Gemma called Clay, Jax, and Tara in to her dining room and finally told her husband and her son about her rape. It's a revelation that could've destroyed the club, but here Gemma uses what has to be one of the worst moments in her life to make things right. Gemma's reaction to her assault has been one of the few things left on the show I was entirely sure about, but seeing her take that ugly scene and make it work for her and the people she loved… I was not expecting that, and it made for some powerful TV. The long-delayed justice that Zobelle and his have coming to them is going to be tremendously satisfying, but I don't imagine it will be quite as remarkable as just this simple act of conversation.
- You don't often think a guy having sex on the floor with his porn-star girlfriend could be a beautiful thing, but Opie made it work.
- No sign of Darby or the Two-Fingered Freak, but Unser didn't mention any burned bodies at Caracara. So I doubt they're gone for good.
- I generally don't mention the performances of the main cast because, well, it's always good, but damn. Everybody really brought their A game tonight.
- Thanks to Noel for covering for me last week! And man am I glad he got last week instead of this one…