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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sons Of Anarchy: "Sweet And Vaded"

Illustration for article titled Sons Of Anarchy: "Sweet And Vaded"
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In most respects, Tyne Patterson is an improvement over Lee Toric. She’s saner, more focused, and less of an obvious spastic caricature; she’s not running around Charming shooting women and then framing innocent men for the crime, nor is she arranging the rape of her enemies behind bars. Donal Logue is a fine actor, but CCH Pounder is no slouch herself, and it’s great to see another strong woman on the series, especially one who isn’t a prostitute or a biker’s wife. But as good as it is to have Lee gone, and as much as his crazed, over-the-top villainy was detrimental to the first half of the season, Patterson brings her own problems. Namely, she isn’t really a character. It’s possible to define her in terms of what she isn’t, but take Lee out of the picture, and she’s just one more determined, fixated officer of the law, persecuting SAMCRO for, well, reasons, I guess. We don’t even know if she’s driven by her conscience or by outside pressures, because apart from determination and a wig, we have no idea who this woman is.

Sons has a long history of law enforcement antagonists, but whether it’s the show running out of ideas, or it’s just the scramble to replace Lee after his untimely (although much welcome) departure, Tyne is almost shockingly generic, a presence whose sole purpose is to pop in a few times each episode and remind everyone that shit’s about to get real. It’s not that every character in the series needs to be finely honed, but as someone who’s arguably the closest thing to a Big Bad left right now (with the possible exception of Tara, who has issues of her own), she’s just not all that compelling. CCH Pounder? Awesome actress, always great to see on anything. Tyne Patterson? I honestly have no idea. It’s frustrating how much she feels like a fictional Mad Lib, the writers plugging in variables to maintain the same basic conflicts. To acknowledge the club’s debt in the school shooting, to give Patterson's quest some actual weight beyond the threat of jail-time, would be to accept a kind of darkness I’m not sure the show is willing to allow in. Tara’s struggles to get her children out of town are the closest we’ve come, but that raises its other concerns.

But putting Patterson and Tara aside for the moment, “Sweet And Vaded” continues “Salvage”’s trend of bringing in some sunshine, featuring the ascension of Ratboy (real name: George Sedgstraw) from prospect to full-fledged member of SAMCRO. I’ve criticized this season (and past seasons) for how often the writers indulge the antics of biker subculture anti-heroes, crossing the line between observing their often dangerous behavior to something dangerously close to exulting it. The fact is, though, it's good to belong somewhere, and be needed by a family you built with your own sweat and blood. The scene in the club’s new headquarters, over top an ice cream parlor they’re renting through Mayor Hale, captures this feeling of warmth and brotherhood very well. In a way, the sequence plays out like a continuation of Bobby’s reveal last episode; this time there’s no big twist, just the slow, steady process of ritual and welcoming, but the optimism that drives each unanimous vote is infectious. After all the awkwardness and betrayal the group’s been through, it’s deeply satisfying to watch them embrace the old routines, and while it’s possible to feel a twinge at Ratboy’s ascension (mainly because getting promoted is usually a good way to get a target on your head), it’s hard to resist the enthusiasm of it all. Somehow, Sutter found a way to make these boys worth rooting for again.

This good vibe continues with the (apparent) conclusion of the Venus Van Damme arc, a thrilling, sordid affair that has Jax and the others facing down against one of the vilest characters the show has ever seen. Venus’s mother, Alice (Adrienne Barbeau, clearly having fun playing an absolute monster) has taken custody of Venus’s son Joey, and Venus wants to free the boy from her clutches; when pressed as to why, he sets down a hellish tale of sexual abuse, exploitation, and, oh yeah, a goddamn child pornography ring. So the Sons head into the fray, which gives us this week’s morally justifiable action setpiece. Barbeau’s hatefulness is mesmerizing, and Goggins (as Venus) delivers a fantastic, sad little speech about her slim hope of ever being able to tell her son the truth without him turning on her, because that’s what her family does: they hate. It’s questionable if introducing a child pornography ring into the show in the same season as a school shooting is in good taste, but “good taste” has never been a question anyone involved with Sons has ever had much time for. While the school shooting remains a cheap, manipulative move that demands some equivalent narrative balance within the ensemble itself (maybe Tara will give a speech about it?), Venus’s story is strong because it describes a whole cycle of suffering that can’t be easily resolved by car chases and gunplay. Jax shoots Alice in the head mid-tirade, and it’s hard to blame him. The whole arc is an unsubtle, potentially offensive story that’s nonetheless deeply felt and undeniably sincere.

I’m not sure the same could be said for Tara’s big play: after episode upon episode of build-up, she finally puts the first part of her plan in motion, tricking Gemma with Wendy’s help, instigating a fight, and then faking a miscarriage by bursting a blood pouch under her skirt. Accusing Gemma of the “crime,” Tara is able to convince Jax to sign the restraining order against his mother, which brings her one step closer to getting the boys out of Charming. It’s a strange series of events. The sight of Tara, screaming and bashing herself against the corner of her desk, is shocking enough, but after waiting so long for this plotline to finally begin to pay-off, it’s startling to realize how unpleasant the whole thing is, how sad and miserable and strangely flat. There should be something fascinating about the way all of this forces us to question our investment in the characters, the way it demonstrates Gemma’s fury (she attacks Margaret without any real physical provocation, because that’s what Gemmas do best), while at the same time leaving her vulnerable and once again alone—and this time, apart from history, there’s no real crime she’s paying for. Someone finally outsmarted her. Meanwhile, Jax, who has his swagger back and his club and maybe some hope for the future, watches unwittingly as his family is torn apart by the person he trusts the most.

That should be devastating. And it almost is. It’s definitely unpleasant to watch, but not in a thrilling or suspenseful way. We’ll have to wait and see how this unfolds, but what sticks out most painfully right now is how underserved Tara's been this season. In the past, we’ve seen her struggle with her new lifestyle, try to break free before settling into her role as old lady. We’ve seen her worry about her sons, and handle the pluses and minuses of loving her husband. But as of right now, she’s opaque. Yes, her motive is clear: she needs to get the boys out of Charming. In theory, this should be easy to root for. Yet this whole season has seen her working behind the scenes, manipulating and plotting, without giving us much chance to share her drive, to connect with her in a way that would make this whole sad tale complete. Tara has long been problematic. Maggie Siff is a great actress, but even she’s never quite been able to sell the decision of an ambitious woman to settle for a small town life, in a culture she has barely any connection to, for a man who only occasionally seems like her equal. And now that she's finally decided to break ties, it somehow makes even less sense. Tara has plenty of reasons for wanting the kids out of town, and the looming threat of her incarceration also serves as an excellent reason to rethink her priorities. Yet so much of this has happened behind the scenes that it remains difficult, if not impossible, to connect to, to make the final moments of this episode anything but a kind of “…huh.” moment. Between Tara’s machinations, and Patterson’s determination, is there anything to look forward to in this season’s end game?


Stray observations:

  • Maybe Tara will dodge the jail time? That would throw off her plans some, although since she’s planning on divorcing Jax, maybe she could still run off with the kids on her own.
  • In retrospect, Tyne’s decision to ditch the wig really doesn’t make a damn bit of sense.
  • I think Tig and Venus might hook up, which would be nice for them.
  • Okay, so at what point would Tara get the burst blood bag out from under her clothes? And wouldn’t it be possible for the doctors to tell she was never pregnant in the first place? I honestly don’t know. It’s weird to see her work so hard to manipulate Jax, though. Very… Gemma-ish.
  • Line from my notes, re: Alice: “WHY ARE THEY LETTING HER TALK SO MUCH? Oh. So Jax can shoot her.”
  • The point is debatable, but it does seem like the show manages to give Venus a tragic, ugly backstory without ever suggesting that her past was what drove her to getting a sex change. She was hurt, but she is who she is regardless of what her mother did to her. That’s gratifyingly open-minded. I guess you could argue that Alice’s drunken attempts to “turn” her son are what led to the creation of Venus in the first place, but it doesn’t really read like that. I think that’s partly the script, and partly the way Goggins plays the character; Venus comes across as quite sane.
  • “Oh, Alice is a 24-hour network of bad news.” -Venus