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Sons Of Anarchy: “Papa’s Goods”

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Remember when Ron Perlman was on this show? I’m not being sarcastic; not exactly. Any long running show has a history, and that history is something that’s almost impossible to fully reckon with in a series finale, no matter how long that finale ends up running. (This one didn’t seem too much longer than other episodes of the season, which was a relief.) The best writers and actors can hope for is to give some sense of generalized closure. As other, smarter critics than I have already noted, pilots and finales are odd because they’re unique. You only start a story once, and you only end it for good once, and that creates certain expectations that can’t ever be truly reconciled with the episodic storytelling, even when that storytelling was as serialized as Sons Of Anarchy’s was. “Papa’s Goods” only really works in the moment. If you try and reconcile this vision of Jax as a man finally at peace, a man who realizes that the greatest gift he can give his sons is by leaving their lives forever, with the various Jaxes we’ve seen over the years… it sort of works. But if you try and look at all the other characters, and start remembering the past, the whole thing threatens to fall apart. Clay Morrow died last season, but he might as well have died last century.

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That’s okay, though. This was a better finale than I was expecting, and probably a better one than the season deserved. After seven years full of murder, mayhem, and the occasional bout of existential despair, the end result of the contest for SAMCRO’s soul seems to work out as a draw. Sure, Jax’s leaving cleans away a lot of the bad blood and trouble the club’s been struggling with, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the show’s run, it’s that trouble will always find the Sons, no matter how much they might wish otherwise. Chibs will probably make a sane club president, and all the major enemies are dead, but this is still a gang of biker outlaws, and they’re still very good at killing people. I can’t imagine Charming turning into a land of peace and prosperity any time soon. For Jax’s vision to ever really happen, he would’ve had to stay around to ensure it himself, which makes his decision to kill himself seem more like a forfeit than a triumph. It’s the writers washing their hands of the whole thing; and if the choice feels like the right one at this point, that’s as much due to the wrong turns made in recent years as it is to any philosophical conclusion.

Still: It does feel right. I’ll grant you the goofiness of the execution; the slow motion chase from the cops was fitting enough, but the effects work of Jax riding into Michael Chiklis’ truck (the “Papa’s Goods” of the title, DO YOU GET IT) was laughable and distracting, and the whole sequence took way too damn long to play out. Yet Jax spending his last day trying to tie up loose ends is really the only good conclusion left. It’s manipulative and a bit obvious, and it’s pretty convenient the way his enemies keep wandering into his hands, but it’s better than “Jax saving the day” or “Jax running off to live with Wendy and Nero and his boys on a farm” would’ve been. There’s something immensely satisfying in hearing him, and the show, finally show its true colors—the realization that yeah, despite all the psychodrama of Tara’s efforts to escape, she really did have the right idea all along, there really is something toxic going on, and the best thing for Abel and Thomas is to get as far away from this awful place as possible. Putting the blame on Jax and his fucked-up family’s shoulders is a slight cop-out, but it’s an earned cop-out, if that makes sense. Jax, Gemma, and Clay had a lot of shit to answer for by the end. Getting rid of them doesn’t fix everything, but it’s a start.

It made for some great sequences, too. The opening montage of Jax pulling his shit together (set to Bruce Springsteen’s “Adam Raised A Cain”) set a tone that most of the episode managed to maintain, and it was nice to see Jax still remembers Opie. (Man, remember how awful his death was? And I mean awful both in the “horrifying” and “oh for fuck’s sake” sense.) Jax’s last club meeting as president offered some optimism for the future, as he was able to patch in T.O. from the Grim Bastards, bringing an African American member to the table. It’s not much, but maybe a more racially diverse SAMCRO will be a more stable one, who knows. The resolution of the Irish gun-running storyline did not go as expected, at least not for me, and there was some small satisfaction in seeing Jax take down one of the IRA kings, even if I can’t really tell you why it was so satisfying. I want to say it has something to do with one of his sons getting kidnapped, but I’m not sure. That’s the other thing about history. There’s so much of it after a while that it can be hard to tell the happy endings from the ambiguous ones. Still, people got shot, and they appeared to be the right people, so that’s nice.

The best scene in the episode was Jax explaining himself to Nero, and then saying goodbye to his kids. The last scene with Chibs and the others was almost as good, but by that point, the show was running on empathy fumes; there was a lot of dramatic weight to Jax’s decision to kill himself, but that weight couldn’t ground every tender moment, and this show has long had a problem with falling too much in love with self-mythologizing. (I was with it right up until that last montage.) Still, Jax and Nero and Wendy and the kids was as good as the show gets; an intensely private, tragic moment full of sadness and something like relief. And there was texture from all that we’ve seen Jax and Nero do together, and all Jax has done for his kids, and for and to Wendy. Sometimes, history can be a good thing. Charlie Hunnam made the most of it, too. A lot of this episode rested on his ability to make Jax’s final decision seem like a release, and he made that work.

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What didn’t work? We already covered the bad effects at the end, and while the impulse is understandable, the way the final montage kept checking in on various characters regardless of how important they were robbed it of some of its impact. The final, ultimately, for-real-this-time end to the Chibs-and-Althea affair really just rubbed in the fact that their arc together was a waste of two good actors trying to make the most out of underwritten material. And there was a certain sense of self-satisfaction to the whole deal that made it increasingly hard to take seriously by the end, peaking half a minute after Jax’s death when a quote from Shakespeare pops up on the screen. I mean, we see the homeless woman again, because—I dunno. She gives Jax a blanket to use to hide himself before he shoots Marks and the guy who was standing next to Marks. Her presence is an affectation, and while the good parts of the episode are good enough that it’s possible to stomach this stuff, it’s still distracting and forced.

But say this for the show: It went out like it wanted to. There’s no sense of compromise to this finale, no impression that Sutter had to reshape his vision to fit the demands of others. There’s something to be said for that, even if I’m not huge on the end result. For me, this is a show that peaked early on, and never quite realized how to reclaim those heights. Often shocking, regularly infuriating, and sometimes inspired, Sons Of Anarchy was messy, violent, and more than a little lost. It told the story of a successful man who aspired to greatness, but kept getting dragged back down into the muck by his own worst impulses—the same impulses that, to a degree, made him a success. Which is what tragedies are all about, really.

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Stray observations:

  • Much as I appreciate Jax passing on presidential reins to Chibs, his “This is how you learn to be a leader, brother,” was more than a little condescending. I mean, Chibs has been around. I think he knows some shit.
  • “What happens at the end of the day?” “The bad guys lose.” Okay, I’ve dinged the show for being way too much in its outlaw code bullshit, but that was a pretty great exchange.
  • It’s nice of Jax to arrange it so the other members of SAMCRO don’t have the guilt of his death on their hands, but poor Michael Chiklis isn’t going to be sleeping easy after this. But then, that was always Jax’s (deeply flawed) M.O. Club and family first, all other lives and considerations are secondary at best. Which makes sense for the character, but it’s a shame how often the show seemed to take his side of things.
  • It’s been a fun seven years. Thanks for reading.
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