At just under 73 minutes without commercials, “Suits Of Woe” is the longest running episode of this season of Sons Of Anarchy so far. It’s also easily the best. Those two facts aren’t really connected; while there’s a lot of great stuff here, there’s also the usual assortment of repetitive or unnecessary sequences which an editor facing a shorter running time would’ve most likely edited out. Still, this one hits the ground running, and the tension of that opening, songless montage never really lets up. I speculated last week that Abel telling Jax about Gemma might not have immediate repercussions. There were, after all, three episodes left to go, and the truth about Tara’s murder was such a potent reveal that it seemed more likely something Sutter and his writers would save for the last or second to last entry. Given the sluggishness with which the rest of the season has proceeded, the odds of such an important revelation landing as soon as it was introduced didn’t seem very high.

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As is so often the case when it comes to plot speculation, I was (thankfully) wrong: Jax spends what looks like a sleepless night after hearing the truth from Abel, then spends the rest of the day doing whatever he can to confirm this truth. The pieces all seem to fall into place at the same time: first Abel, then Wendy confessing to Jax that she, Gemma, and Unser tried to help Juice escape; then Unser (who spends most of the episode seriously pissed off) tells Jax that the Chinese gang member Gemma ID’ed as one of Tara’s killers—the gangmember Jax tortured and murdered—was out of town on the night of Tara’s death. None of this is airtight, but while the script’s dialogue is as graceless as ever, it’s fairly well-structured. Everything comes together, and Jax arranges to see Juice in prison, to finally get the truth.

I’ve taken some shots at Charlie Hunnam over the years (actually, no, I don’t think I’ve ever been that hard on him, although I’ve always been amused by the way he walks), but he brings it this week, and the scene with Juice is some of the best work he’s done in whole series. Under Peter Weller’s direction, the is slow, methodical, and devastating. Theo Rossi does a fine job as well—it probably helps that Juice gets to act vaguely sane for the first time in ages. (His resignation works a lot better than his intermittent, desperate stabs at freedom and murder in earlier episodes.) But what makes this really effective is the fact is that the information we’re seeing exchanged actually matters. This isn’t yet another negotiation about guns, or discussion of turf war politics, or a repetition of information with no emotional weight. This is truth that means something. It’s the sort of truth that honestly does change everything, at least for Jax; and drama desperately needs that sort of truth if it needs to remain vital.

It’s fascinating (and telling) just how much better the show is when things that actually matter start happening. Jax’s determination to get answers provides a sense of momentum that gives all the usual bullshit—Nero selling his half of the club to the Mayans, the discovery that Barosky was the rat, Juice killing Lin—a veneer of relevance. Nero leaving creates a sense of something ending, while Lin’s death is another body to lay at Gemma’s feet (admittedly, he did have it coming for ordering all those women killed). The fact that Jury didn’t give information to the Chinese makes Jax’s case for shooting him that much harder to prove, which will have ramifications for SAMCRO. But really, what matters the most is what Gemma did, and the willingness of the writers to cover a lot of ground that they’ve been avoiding for far too long.

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For much of its running time, “Suits Of Woe” seems to avoid stalling. That’s something of an illusion, but still: Jax gets what he needs, and Gemma, after a warning phone call from Juice, realizes she has to run. There’s no attempt to patch things up and pretend like this was all some little boy’s brutal fantasy. Hell, there’s even a fight with Unser, and it’s the sort of fight that could actually be more than just posturing. Unser, disgusted by Jax’s demand for answers and assistance without ever offering information in return, tells him he’s done helping SAMCRO, and then picks a fight by yelling at Jax that he might have handled this whole situation better if he’d been more interested in solving his wife’s murder than he was in playing thug. Which is pretty much dead on. It’s refreshing to hear someone, especially someone who still has Unser’s moral authority (he’s been too passive over the years, and put up with way too much shit, but he’s still smart and trustworthy), call Jax on his shit, especially when Jax is at a point where he might be able to listen. I mean, he doesn’t, at least not yet; instead, he punches Unser a couple of times, which lets Unser put out a warrant on him for assault, which might have been Unser’s plan all along. But surely some of that sank in.

The problem, admittedly, is that for Jax’s fate to really matter at this point, you have to sort of overlook a lot of what he’s been up to for the past few seasons. Take everything into account, and he’s just an asshole who’s been skating by on good lucks and cleverness. But that’s clearly not how the show wants us to see him, and in order get any value of these remaining episodes at all, it’s necessary to find some way to see Jax as a potentially good man gone astray; a figure of great promise brought down by the lies of those he loved, but redeemed in some part by his loyalty to his friends. (As he says, after telling Chib, Tig, and the others about Gemma: “I’m sorry the family I was given has created so much chaos in the family I’ve chosen.”) That’s essentially bullshit, but it’s bullshit that’s a lot easier to believe in episodes like this one. Jax was more interesting and sympathetic throughout than he has been in ages, and his willingness to take full responsibility for everything that’s gone wrong helps to make his fate worth caring about, at least for now.

There are still some basic problems. Some things get resolved, but others still drag on; Gemma skips town, despite Jax’s best efforts to find her; Jax tells Juice that he’s doomed, but Juice is still alive at the end of the episode, for some reason; and so on and so forth. The wreck that is the first three quarters of this season isn’t going to go away no matter how effective the show becomes, and it would be surprising if the final two episodes manage anything like this level of emotional intensity. All that’s really left is for Jax and Gemma to have one last scene together. Everything else, as “Suits Of Woe” inadvertently reminds us, is just details. Gemma’s said her goodbyes, and Katey Sagal made the most of them. The final scene between her and Nero brought out the best in both actors, but it’s hard to see what’s left in these stories that’s going to need two more hours to resolve. There are various details that need cleaning up, sure, but so few of them have the same impact as what Gemma did to Tara that the odds seem like this brief burst of excitement and intensity is doomed to be a fluke. Still, it’s a relief to see this show is still capable of generating something more engaging than dull irritation. I’m overrating it, I’m sure. But if nothing else, it’ll kept the final season from being a complete waste.

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Stray observations:

  • That Jax quote about families rings a bit false, in part because of the scene of Gemma giving Abel a Sons ring of his own before she goes. The show’s love of SAMCRO is so strong that I’m never sure if the rot and corruption that seems to define the group is supposed to be intentional commentary, or just something I bring to the table with my inherent distrust of people who shoot other people for a living. But the idea that Jax “chose” his biker family seems like bullshit, and the fact that Gemma is already pushing a little boy barely capable of stringing words together towards the club just makes it even more bullshit.
  • So, is there any way that Jax can get out of this and keep his patch? Because it really looks like he’s going to sacrifice himself to save SAMCRO.

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