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Sons Of Anarchy: “Red Rose”

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For most of the second half of “Red Rose,” I was trying to remember the consequences of a Mayhem vote. I knew “Mr. Mayhem” was never a good thing, and, given Jax’s confession to the other club presidents, and given his reluctance to tell the rest of SAMCRO what had come out of that conversation, it seemed likely Jax was setting himself up to get a bullet in the brain. But I wasn’t sure of this, and I wasn’t sure if the precedent for this had already been established with absolute certainty. Maybe the price Jax would end up paying would just be sacrificing his role in the Sons and having to live like a schlub on Nero’s farm. Sure, there’d be some painful tattoo removal, but at least he could watch his boys grow up, and maybe someday get some counseling for all the awful shit he’s been through and done. (Mostly done, at this point.)

Then we hit the final big scene, and Jax killed Unser, and I realized he’s on a suicide run. As usual, take my predictions with whole bag of salt, because I’m often terrible at this shit; and besides, my job isn’t to figure out what happens next week, but to assess what’s happening now. But as a character statement, Jax shooting one of his oldest allies in cold blood (and it’s cold, too; the argument could’ve been heated, but Unser is just sad and desperate, and Jax is just gone) is pretty goddamn definitive. This isn’t a step you take when you have a bright future ahead of you. It’s what you do when you’ve finally given up at making it out alive. It’s possible, even easy, for Jax to kill Unser because Jax knows he’ll be dead himself soon enough. There’s a calmness to Jax throughout the entire episode that suggests a man who’s made a very important, very final decision, and his actions at Gemma’s father’s house back this up. He’s calm and direct and quiet, right until it comes time to shoot his mother in the head.

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“Red Rose” is, like last week, another overlong episode that manages to largely justify its running time by sticking to the basics. Yes, there’s too much here, and yes, not everything works. While I’m sure Jax’s efforts to negotiate with the Irish and work out a settlement between the Mayans and the Niners are going to somehow pay off in the finale, the backroom dealings don’t feel like the real story anymore. These are insignificant details that a tighter show would’ve trimmed away, not because they’re necessarily bad (the idea that Jax is trying to leave things in some kind of order before he goes is important), but because they get in the way of the parts of the episode that actually matter.

We say goodbye this week to a surprising number of major characters; some deaths have a greater impact than others. While Juice’s death was surprisingly haunting, it still seems like a mistake to have spent this much time on his character in the final season. Like Clay before him, Juice had long outlived his usefulness, and every cutaway to him trying to compose himself in his jail cell, or getting raped by various inmates, didn’t change this fact. As a showrunner, Sutter’s biggest weakness as a writer—bigger even than his inability to edit—is his infatuation with suffering, his apparent need to punish characters good and bad far beyond any necessity of narrative or convention. It’s possible this fictional sadism (which never comes across as sadistic, exactly; there’s something queasily intimate about every brutal killing, every act of torture, every scene of sexual violence—the show doesn’t fetishize them so much as wallow in the misery as if misery itself was the only meaning that mattered) is part of the reason why the series is so popular. Even with the surprise gone, Sons Of Anarchy can still sink to some new horror, and there’s something fascinating, and weirdly compelling, about that. But it plays hell on actual storytelling, transforming what should be recognizable human beings into tormented cartoons, doomed to suffer without ever truly changing.

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The point being, while Juice’s decision to give himself up to Tully achieves a certain amount of grace, it’s still something that should’ve happened ages ago; if not with Tully, than literally with anyone else who had a reason to kill Juice. As is, it’s a subplot in an episode which is good, but could’ve been so much better with a bit more focus. Bye Juice. You won’t be missed.

Unser, though… I’m not sure what to make of losing Unser. It’s a bold choice, and one of the rare times this season that Sutter and his writing staff have done something that surprised me and that also didn’t immediately feel like a mistake. Because if Wayne had to die, this way makes as much sense as any, and it creates a sense of finality that helps lead in to Gemma’s death. Everything else awful that’s happened so far has been par for the course for a season of this show, but Unser? That dude has been around since the beginning. Even cancer couldn’t (apparently) kill him. For Jax to shoot him, and to shoot him in such a direct, unemotional way, changes the whole feel of the scene and the episode surrounding it. It creates an energy and sense of danger in a show where I thought those things weren’t really possible anymore. Awful things happen as par for the course in Charming, but certain people always seemed to survive no matter how bad it got. Unser was one of those people, and while I can wish the season had done better by him, there’s something harsh and effective about his exit. No more sitting on the fence, Wayne.

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And then there’s Gemma. The episode probably spends too much time giving her a final story arc before shutting her down for good; none of it’s bad, and it’s fun to see Michael Chiklis and Charisma Carpenter pop up briefly in cameos that almost justify themselves. And it’s always good to see Hal Holbrook. But it’s hard to shake the feeling throughout that this is just stuff we’ve been seeing Gemma do for ages now: taking stock of her past, trying to reconcile who she was with who she is, facing what comes next as best she can. It makes sense to include some of it, but the length once again drags things down. Not horrifically so, thank goodness, because the stakes (which, at least with Gemma, don’t have a damn thing to do with club business, thank god) are sharp and clear, and the ending, while inevitable, still feels like something that could go either way. Right up until the moment when Jax pulls the trigger.

So Gemma’s dead, and her death helps to clarify certain ideas the season has been struggling with. It doesn’t make up for the sloppiness, the padded, bloated scripts, and the laughable repetition, but it at least gives some kind of underlining theme to all the chaos in Gemma and Jax’s wake. When it comes time to kill her, Jax struggles to do the deed, and Gemma tells him to go ahead, that he has to, that it’s who they are. It’s the sort of moment (and really, that whole scene at Gemma’s father’s house is great) that reminds you of what this show was at its best; a tragic story about people who knew just enough to want to be better, but not enough to know how. When I first started writing regularly about Sons Of Anarchy, I said that one of its strengths was that it was an anti-hero series that was willing to raise the possibility that its protagonist might actually become a good man, that Jax might learn from the mistakes of his parents and change things. Maybe this was even true at the time. Now, though, it’s just bodies and rivers of blood, and the only decent thing left to do is end it.

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Stray observations:

  • The other sequence that helps make this episode work is Jax coming clean to the other club presidents, telling them what really happened with Jury, and agreeing to push for a full Mayhem vote from his club, in exchange for a small favor. We don’t know what that favor is yet (although maybe it’ll end up with Chibs as SAMCRO president somehow? Jax wanted an unwritten bylaw stricken, and I can think of a few that would keep Chibs out of the chair), and we don’t know how SAMCRO will react when Jax tells them what they have to do; presumably that will be the major focus next week, along with the fallout from Gemma and Unser’s deaths, and more negotiating with the Irish. But Jax’s confession made for good drama.
  • Really hoping there are no rapes in the finale.
  • “This isn’t about saving Gemma, it’s about saving Jax.” Poor Nero. I hope he gets his farm instead of buying it.
  • Potential spoiler for The Sopranos: Okay, it’s possible I’m reaching here, but at one point, Wendy (who has a solid, low-key outing this week, ending up in Jax’s bed so we could get another shot of Charlie Hunnam’s ass) and Nero are joking around, and Nero mock threatens to drive her to the farm in the trunk of his car. “Wouldn’t be the first time,” Wendy says, and I’m wondering if that’s a stealth nod to Drea de Matteo’s character’s fate on The Sopranos. Nero’s joke is so awkward, and Wendy’s line so odd, that I kind of think it has to be.
  • “Just let me finish my pie.”
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