Sons of Anarchy: “Bainne”
Last night, Sons of Anarchy evoked all of the agony Jax has undergone in three seasons in one scene. It began, of course, with Fr. Ashby’s dumbfounding words last week – he was doing for Abel what Jax could not, or would not do: deliver him from the nasty, brutal and short life of SAMCRO. This is the very deliverance Jax set out to accomplish at the end of season one, and yet now he had the choice being forced upon him; as Jax stood in that mall and watched Abel’s adoptive parents walk around with his son, and as the conflict raged across his face (astonishingly acted by Charlie Hunnam), it was clear what had to happen: he had to let Abel go.
It was an agonizing scene to watch – at multiple levels. On the one hand, the choice Jax was making was right; but I also heard cries of frustration from viewers everywhere, sensing a shark-jumping moment when the show failed to deliver what it had been promising (the freaking kid, already) all season; and, I have to admit, I felt a parent’s visceral, even reptilian, struggle to keep yourself from ripping anything standing between you and your child to shreds. That moment when Jax made a decision – a decision that would cost him everything, likely including his relationship with his mother – was doing something impossible: it was throwing off the fatal inevitability of the way of life of the MC and embracing something higher, but doing so precisely by simultaneously denying and embodying the very ethos of the MC – loyalty to family.
It was an impossible choice, and so, characteristically, the writers did something completely different when they brought Abel back to Jax in the murder of the Petries. Abel now returns locked into the history of violence that’s at the core of SAMCRO. The rapid series of events that facilitate Abel’s return virtually guarantee Jax’s future for him, because Fr. Ashby’s machinations have managed to strengthen the ties between the IRA and the Sons, much to the MC’s benefit, but at the expense of inscribing Clay’s direction for the club even more firmly. By every possible metric, the club comes out on top in leaving Belfast, but this simply means that Jax looks more and more like his father, left to regret the thousand cuts by which the Sons became something monstrous that he never desired, and finding escape only in death. That inevitability looks very much like the future now facing Jax, but this is a show that finds surprising ways to turn on a dime, so I don’t think the great struggle of Jax Teller is done yet.
Once again, I find myself without much to say about B story – the stuff with Hale is still too under-realized, and the Tara storyline really continues to feel contrived. We’ll get more, no doubt, as the Sons return to Charming; but I do continue to root for Tara’s character. The contradiction between cutting a woman’s throat to save herself, and negotiating with her own life to save that woman, actually embodies Tara’s paradoxes – erstwhile old lady and surgeon – nicely. What isn’t working is the ways the writers find to keep the storyline in the air – Margaret’s release, the botched handoff, Stahl’s assistance. That said, the final scene was a great sign of how much the show has found its rhythm again; it built the tension of Tara’s – disappearance? murder? rescue? – as Bobby received the news out of focus in the background, all while apparent happy goodbyes were exchanged in front of the camera. Jax held his son and embraced his “darling” half-sister, and Maureen and Gemma patched up their differences, but at the same time, a deeper problem was emerging in the wake of a previous problem’s resolution. And therein is Jax’s fundamental problem: the life of the club provides no way out for him. There will always be someone looking for retribution, and therefore, someone to protect or avenge. It was a perfect moment blending the potent combination of characterization, plotline, and mythology that Sons offers at its best; and here’s where I think something interesting is emerging in the show this season.
In the opening credits of every episode of Sons of Anarchy, there’s a shot of Gemma’s hand tracing a scar over her sternum, and I always find the words of the angel to Mary coming to mind (stay with me here): “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” This show has always centered around Jax as the chosen son, the man torn by the conflict urges of loyalty to the world of the MC, the world he knows and loves, and the possible world of something more noble and just promised in the writings of his father; and that conflict has always been directly reflected in Gemma, who has to balance her marriage to Clay, the king of the club, and her motherhood to Jax, the conflicted heir. Both are souls pierced to their core; Jax’s we’ve seen, in his wild vacillations from thoughtful idealist to raging beast. But Gemma’s is more subtle. When Jax begins to stray from the vision the way Clay runs the club, it is Gemma who absorbs the conflict and hurt; but Gemma’s problem is that those two things – family and MC – are absolutely conflated, and when Abel’s status and future is thrown into the equation, Gemma is torn in a way that, I think, she doesn’t fully understand.
I’m not, of course, suggesting SoA is anything so banal as a religious allegory (it’s a Shakespeare allegory, duh), but it has a powerful ability to quietly appropriate theological motifs in the service of its epic dramatic aspirations; last night, we had blood splashed on a cross, and the invocation of Solomon’s test, as Gemma held a gun to a baby (!) to convince a nun to offer up Abel’s whereabouts. And we had a priest offer himself up as a sacrifice to save Abel. I’m not sure any of this has any profound theological or symbolic meaning – this would be too contrary to the realism that is the basic grammar of Sons – so much as it points to the show’s ability to evoke powerful moral and existential questions out of humble material, and to use loaded symbols to construct that mythos. For all its influence and its international connections, the MC at the end of the day is a small motorcycle gang in a backwater California town; but the mythology Sutter et al have been building for three seasons feels much larger. With the last two episodes, the show has finally found a way to bring together all the disparate threads operating at different levels: the metastory of the rise and fall of Sons of Anarchy; the seasonal arc of Abel’s abduction and the relations of Charming and Belfast; and the week-to-week character building that has been the predominant motif of this season (sometimes at the expense of anything happening).
As Sons gets deeper into the multi-season arc Kurt Sutter has envisioned, it is increasingly struggling with what we might call the LOST effect: the inherent tension in trying to balance largescale metanarrative and microscale character creation and week-to-week plot. Sons is not of course LOST, whose cosmic reach often exceeded its narrative grasp, although the mystery of John Teller has given the show a surprising amount of mythological mileage; but there are similar patterns in the shows, and like LOST, Sons has struggled when its metastory overtakes the weekly storytelling. When this happens, the writing begins to show through, and the cost is always in the characters: they stop acting like people, and start behaving like pawns – they do things not because real people do such things, but because the story requires them to do things. The result is a loss of believability, emotional disengagement on the part of the audience, and most significantly, the danger of arbitrariness intruding into carefully constructed narratives.
Sons has wallowed in that slough a bit more than it should have this season, and the Tara storyline still dips into it far too much; but in Jax’s astounding journey of the last few episodes, in Gemma’s uncertain sisterhood with Maureen, and most especially, in a stack of letters from a dead man Jax doesn’t want to listen to, the show has demonstrated how powerfully it has built characters unlike anywhere else currently on tv.