As the helpful "previously on" bumper reminds us, Charming isn't as much fun as it used to be. At least, not for the locals. Half-Sack, the perpetual prospect, is still dead, his ghost a blood-stain circle on the kitchen floor; Gemma, after being framed by Stahl for a pair of murders (when she really only committed one), is still on the lam, shut up in a motel room, cut off from the connections that make her life worth living; and Abel, Jax's son, is still gone, kidnapped by the Irishman Cameron. It's all Stahl's fault, really, but while she continues to be a thorn in the Sons' side, "fault" isn't the most important issue. What is important for Jax, Clay, Tara, and the rest is to figure out how to get the people they love back home to safety as quickly as possible. These aren't going to be easy problems to solve. (Gemma's framing and Abel's kidnapping, I mean. Half-Sack is dead no matter what happens next.)
Coming into a new season, a series has two basic options: it can pick up right where it left off, or it can do a time jump. Most shows opt for the latter, possibly because we're all big on the idea of seasons as being closed-off these days; we don't expect the stories to conclude entirely, but there's something appealing about picking up a box set and knowing it tells something like a complete story. That's roughly how the first season of Sons played out. At the end, Jax had a new purpose in life, Tara had decided to stand by her man, and Clay and Gemma knew there'd be trouble ahead—but they didn't know when. That meant coming into season 2, we had certain basic expectations (that the Jax/Clay relationship would come into some difficulties, that the real truth behind Donna's death would almost certainly do damage to the club), but no specific requirements, which left the writers a lot of freedom in deciding what direction the show took next. And while Jax and Clay did have it out, and while Opie did eventually find out who killed his wife, the main thrust of season 2 was in how the Sons could band together to deal with the external threat of Zobelle and the Fun Time Nazi Bastards.
Season 3, in contrast, starts with some very specific story demands. The Irish remain a threat, Gemma's on the run, and there's that whole missing baby thing. So while the second season started like coming home after time away, "So" feels almost like a direct continuation of last year's "Na Triobloidi." We get the expected "mournful song with scenes reintroducing familiar faces" montage, but instead of feeling like a new beginning, this is almost claustrophobic—we've had nine months to catch our breath, but Jax and the others have had a day, maybe two, and there's no moving on here, no getting ready for the next stage. Sons is great at building tension and then exploding in unpredictable ways, and right from the start here, the tension is rising. It's a ballsy choice, because there's no real safety here; and while the characters may think they have time to grieve the lost or wallow in misery, by the end of the episode, it's clear even that's a luxury they can't afford.
Jax is a mess. The first we see of him, he's getting drunk in his missing son's room, and it takes Clay and the others to drag him awake and force him to deal with what's happening. One of the longest running conflicts on the show is the struggle between Jax's way of running the club, and Clay's; Sons started with Jax finding his dad's manifesto, and his slow-burn towards, I dunno what you'd call it exactly, but something approaching morality? At least, that's how it used to be—at the end of season one, it seemed obvious that as the show went on, the battle between the son and his surrogate father would be the driving engine behind whatever else happened. Eventually, their war would become public, people would pick sides, and the bodies would fall.
That could still happen—there's a lot of show ahead of us, god willing—but as season 2 developed, the clarity of that conflict became muddled. Yes, Clay is a bit of a bastard, but faced with Zobelle's crew, it became obvious that the club needs all the bastard it can get if it wants to survive. Jax's dream of a better, purer Sons is still on the table, and given that Clay's short-sighted, shoot-first-and-pray approach cost Donna her life (and arguably made the club more vulnerable to some of Zobelle's machinations), the question of who holds the future still needs answering. That makes for great drama; and what helps that drama last is that it's possible to give both sides roughly equal weight now. That isn't something I thought possible after the first season, when Clay seemed well suited to filling the shoes of King Claudius.
While it doesn't set up the season's major villains in the same way that the premiere of season 2 did, "So" does lay some groundwork. Obviously Jax's hunt for his son is going to be important, although who knows if that will last the full season or not. And we have Gemma, who leaves the safety of her motel sanctuary after she learns her mother has died. It's a nice fake-out (we're supposed to think she's found out about the kidnapping, which Clay has decided to keep hidden from her) that leads to a great reminder of just how much of a live wire Gemma still is, when she tries to steal a car, gets caught, and stabs the guy who catches her (who, it has to be said, is kind of a dick) in the balls. It's not the most shocking moment in the episode, but it's close, and it provides a terrific counterpoint to when we finally see Gemma arrive at her destination: her father's home. The Reverend is played by Hal Holbrook, which means this isn't just a one off, and there's some kind of painful history going on in that house. Seeing Gemma sitting at her daddy's knee, the old man's mind so far gone he doesn't even know his wife is dead, she looks lost—combine that with the joint-shanking action of before, and we have a character who's capable of anything in the best possible way. Gemma's storyline last season was one of the boldest, best things the show has done yet, and I have high hopes here, because Katey Sagal is awesome, and because really, I have no idea what happens next.
I'm also not sure what happens next for Charming and the Sons, but after Half-Sack's wake, and the carnage that follows when a van full of Irish open fire on the mourners, I think it's safe to say there will be more blood coming. There's an uneasy quiet through most of "So," dick-stabbing and all, because it feels like the lines have been drawn very clearly. That quiet is destroyed in the bullet spray, when Hale, the closest thing to an uncorruptible left in Charming, is killed. Now, I'm not sure anyone is going to cry bitter tears over this; the character, who started the show as a potential adversary/moral counterpoint to the Sons, became increasingly irrelevant as the morality of the leads became more complex. His square-jawed sheriff type was never all that interesting, not even when he was screwing around with Stahl. But now that he's gone, the quiet's gone too. Sons feels up in the air right now, like somebody just grabbed everyone and threw them sky-high and we're just waiting to see who lands where. It's an exciting feeling, and it's risky. Jax tries to take Clay's advice in the end and beats the craps out of one of the gunman to show everyone he's still in control, but who knows how long that will last? His son is still missing. And it's a very big ocean between them.
- Anybody else get chills when the theme song kicked in? I missed it; this is one of the few shows I'll bother to watch the opening credits all the way through every time.
- Glad we got the "I'm going to push you away because I can't bear to lose anything else I love!" scene out of the way early. Tara's made her choice. She's still struggling with the consequences, and I don't think her professional medical career is going to last that much longer, but I'd rather not spend half a season watching Jax push her away.
- Seriously, how amazing is Katey Sagal?
- I've defended her for a while, but I've had about as much as I can take of Agent Stahl. She makes a great catalyst, but she's basically just a venomous cartoon.