Zack is graciously allowing me to fill in for him this week on Sons duty because I’ve been itching for the chance to write about the phenomenal second season of what’s become one of my favorite shows. I liked Season One of Sons Of Anarchy fairly well, but if I’m being honest, I found it a little broody and self-serious at times, especially in the early episodes, and again at season’s end. My favorite S1 SoAs were the one that either dealt with the minutiae of biker club life or amped up the pulpier plots. I liked the patch-over party, and the chronic masturbator, and the dispatching of Kohn, and the burning off of the traitor’s tats, and the old ladies hosting a carnival, and the backroom deals that turned gang against gang. I like my Sons tough, seedy and twisty.
This second season has been rife with all I like. There’s been a lot less angst and a lot more action, as Jax and Clay work against each other to guide the future of SAMCRO, both openly and behind the scenes. The introduction of The League Of American Nationalists has added more colorful characters and higher stakes for all concerned; their addition has been a masterstroke of storytelling by creator Kurt Sutter, in my opinion. And, let’s face it, this season of Sons Of Anarchy has been extra-pulpy, between the bombings, the rape/revenge plots, and the club’s full-scale investment in the porn business. Sutter’s been unafraid to delve into the trashy, but has been doing so with a confidence of tone and a richness of character that elevates the show.
Consider the opening of tonight’s episode, “Fa Guan.” We begin with Jax visiting Otto in prison to inform the poor blind bastard that his wife Luann has been beaten to death. On one level, the scene is classic exploitation: Here we have a bruised con, still recovering from a beat-down he got from a skinhead gang, finding out that his beloved porn-impresario bride has been dumped on the side of a road, as part of some larger gang war. And yet, even though we’ve barely seen either Otto or Luann over the course of two seasons of Sons Of Anarchy, their moments on the show have been so indelible that we know exactly what those two mean to each other and to the other characters. Jax and Otto don’t say much, yet while the context surrounding their scene is lurid, it packs a real emotional punch.
And so it goes throughout “Fa Guan.” Sutter and his fellow writers (who tonight included Liz Sagal, sister of Katey Sagal, and thus sister-in-law to Sutter) have set so much in motion this season, and so clearly and forcefully, that all they need to do is put two characters in a room together and faithful viewers will catch the double-meaning of everything that’s said. This episode was fraught with such double-meaning. And strange bedfellows to boot. This has been a season about people working against their entrenched interests in order to get what they want—even if it ultimately costs them their core ideals—and “Fa Guan” had those alliances and counter-alliances working like crazy.
For example, we have Gemma and Wayne, biker chick and sleazy sheriff, who’ve bonded over her sexual assault and his cancer. This episode finds Wayne comforting Gemma in the hospital chapel, and then her returning the favor at the black evangelical church where Wayne prays. (And speaking of strange bedfellows, what’s going to happen when Gemma tries to bring God into SAMCRO?)
And then there are Clay’s efforts to restart SAMCRO’s gun-running business by striking a deal with the Triad, who’ve promised to get the club’s supply line reopened if the Sons can help clear up the INS troubles of one of their members, who’s being hung-up by his ties to Hamas. Clay orders the increasingly unstable Opie to lean on the judge in the case, who has a junkie son at Berkeley that the club thinks they can exploit. At Bobby’s request, Jax tags along with Opie in order to keep Opie’s emotions in check, which comes in handy when Opie begins torturing the kid in front of the judge’s eyes, shouting, “Look at what you’ve done to your family!” (Speaking of lines that have double-meaning!) Jax is able to calm Opie down, perhaps rebuilding a bridge that’s been in disrepair all season. Then they get the judge to flip by exploiting another weakness with which Opie can sympathize: they threaten to burn the memorabilia of the judge’s late wife.
What’s really interesting to me about the Triad/judge action in “Fa Guan” is how it reveals a rift between Clay and Tig. Already irritated at Tig for being gun-shy when SAMCRO tried to liberate their stolen guns from L.O.A.N., Clay pulls him off the judge job, which should be Tig’s responsibility as sergeant-at-arms. In response, Tig corners Jax, and all but lets Jax know that his loyalty to Clay is not absolute. Strange, strange bedfellows.
Meanwhile, back at the hospital, Chibs has awakened and is off the critical list, which isn’t exactly the best news. Dr. Tara warns him that his insurance has lapsed and that the hospital will have to move him to a less secure facility, but when Chibs lets Tara know that his life may be in danger, she goes against what she’d previously said to Gemma about keeping her work-life and her Jax-life separate, and she teaches Chibs a way to game the system and get back on the critical list.
For me, the real take-away from Chibs’ plight is the reminder that the guys in SAMCRO aren’t rich. This isn’t The Sopranos, where people can throw money around when they need special consideration. Think about what Jax says to one of his Caracara girls when she gets busted for prostitution and asks him to bail her out. He walks away with a smirk and says, “Let me just get an advance on my trust fund.”
And speaking of Caracara, with Luann dead Clay wants SAMCRO out of the porn business for good, even though it’s their most lucrative operation at the moment. Club rules won’t allow Clay to just shut down a project that the members of SAMCRO have already voted on, so when Jax throws those rules in Clay’s face—and reminds him that Luann’s not the only club wife who’s been murdered lately—Clay tries to flex his muscle and stare Jax down, reminding him of his threat to kill him if he ever mentioned Opie’s accidentally dead wife Donna again. Jax hands Clay a gun and calls his bluff, with a smirk so smart-ass that I kinda wanted to shoot him.
You’ll have to forgive me from stepping away from “Fa Guan” for a moment and talking again about why I’m so impressed with Sons Of Anarchy as a whole, but since this is my one opportunity to grapple with the show in print, I’ve got to take it. Last season, SoA introduced the memoir of Jax’s late father John, and suggested that John Teller was murdered (by Clay or one of his lackeys) because he wanted to extricate the Sons from their criminal enterprises and get back to their ‘60s anti-establishment ideals. This season though, I’ve been finding myself feeling a lot more sympathy for Clay, who I believe shares a lot of John’s outlook on life, even if he has a different way of achieving it. John, Clay, Gemma… they’re just small-town kids who bought into their own kind of American dream: A community of their own, with their own rules, outside the proper law. I have a hard time thinking of Clay as an out-and-out thug, no matter how many dead bodies he’s left in his wake. I think of him as a guy trying to protect a way of life, the only way he knows how.
In that context, there’s something tragic about Clay being fenced-in by Jax’s clever finessing of official club rules. There were a few moments in this episode where Jax and Clay walked through the SAMCRO rec room and all I could think about was how the club really can’t be that much fun for either of them anymore. Even after Jax stands up to Clay with a smug expression, he wears an entirely different face outside when he’s commiserating with Bobby. And he has another face altogether at the end of “Fa Guan” when L.O.A.N. burns out Caracara studios and Jax blames the fire on Clay. “I’m going nomad,” he spits as the episode cuts to the credits. And because we’ve been watching the various power-plays and emotional appeals of these dudes for the last two seasons, we know exactly what that threat means.
Last season this show was at it’s most fun when it was pandering to the audience’s craving for titillation, but I’m not sure “cheap thrills” is the best way to describe what Sons Of Anarchy is delivering right now. I'd call these deep thrills.
-Hat tip to Alan Sepinwall for pointing out the Liz Sagal connection, and for linking to this YouTube video of Liz in her own TV star days.
-This was a great episode, but I can’t quite give it the full “A” because everything’s still in flux. There’s an incompleteness here, by design. And despite Jax’s “nomad” comment, “Fa Guan” didn’t end with a punch in the gut the way so many episodes have this season.
-Have you noticed how many characters on this show are “incomplete,” physically? One eye, one ball, two-fingers on each hand… it’s an interesting motif.
-There’s nothing I enjoy more than hearing the FX voiceover guy inform me that an Sons Of Anarchy episode contains “strong language, violence and nudity.” I kick back in my recliner, pump my fist, and shout, “Hell yes! Full boat.”