This is what she felt
Sons of Anarchy – “NS”
Great finale to a mixed season. Credit has to be given to Sutter and the writers for producing extraordinary drama out of (apparently) low stakes; once Abel was recovered, what seemed to be a long denouement has turned out to be the show returning to its real story, which is the club’s ATF case and pending imprisonment, the question of how Jax’s loyalty to the club would manifest, and the resolution of Donna’s death from season 1. Does that make the Abel story a misfire? In some respects, maybe; it’s questionable whether stones really did get unturned in Ireland, and in retrospect the two storylines don’t fully cohere. On the other hand, the confidence with which “NS” picked up very old plot arcs and handled them capably suggests that the real outcome of the Belfast episodes may still be in the future. I have to admit that my trust in Sutter as a storyteller has been restored a good deal after last night, but that possibility, while encouraging, also bugs me a bit – to what extent do season-spanning narrative arcs trump coherent storytelling on the week-to-week level? (Again, the LOST effect).
Rather than going right to Jax’s (slightly murky) big triplecross, I’ll start with the double murder on the roadside. Is anyone going to miss Stahl? No, I don’t think so. I’ve actually been a defender of her character before, but by the end of her run, she’s devolved into someone so pathologically evil and manipulative that she became a drag on the show. Her murder of her partner and girlfriend last week in many respects pushed things over the edge. The problem wasn’t its believability – it’s a plausible developement for her character, who would do anything for her case against the IRA, which had devolved into pure obsession at that point. The problem was that the motives were so unclear – I’m still foggy on what investment she had in Salazar’s fate so as to provoke Tyler’s shooting, and more to the point, I don’t find myself compelled to sort it out. Things are exactly opposite with Fr. Ashby, a figure whose motives were totally ambiguous for much of the season, until a single clarifying moment completely changed his character and made all of his actions lucid. That was no longer possible for Stahl’s character, and so – farewell to her.
On the other hand: what was fascinating about “NS” last night was the way the episode demonstrated how well the show plays with the murky morality and twisted power relations surrounding the club. Like The Shield, but seen from the opposite side, Sons lives in a world in which “law” and “outlaw” become increasingly meaningless the more one pushes into their interrelationships. Like Tara’s FBI stalker, Kohn, Stahl revealed the law as predatory, parasitical, and – inept. In the politics of the Sons of Anarchy, justice dwells somewhere else than in the rule of law, and one of its supreme principles is retribution.
The reason why I’m concentrating on Stahl, rather than Jax and the ATF deal, is that for all of Stahl’s cartoonishness, her final scene with Opie was the most powerful moment the show has delivered in a long time. While Chibs murdered Jimmy with a vicious placidity (“why so serious?”), Opie quietly said to himself, “this is what she felt,” before gunning Stahl down with a burst of rounds to the skull. It was a horrifying moment, but a deeply satisfying one, too (and I say that knowing how compromising it sounds), because it took us all the way back to season 1, and resolved a long-standing tension. The events of season 2 seemed to have put Donna’s murder permanently in the realm of memory, but last night showed that for all of the trouble Kurt Sutter had with the story of this season, the season-spanning arcs are still in control. “NS” provided closure on Donna’s death, the counterpoint to “the outlaw showed mercy” of season 2, and presumably healed any lingering rift between Clay and Jax. The responsibility for Donna really lies all with Stahl, and with her death, any reason for Jax to wander from the true path disappears.
Indeed, the major turning points of the back half of the season seem to have solidified Jax and Clay’s alignment in terms of the direction of the club. The opening of the gun pipeline in Jimmy’s elimination, the resolution of Donna’s death, “I’m done listening to dead men,” the hearty laugh in the ATF truck – it all points to Jax’s commitment to the club. The nice symmetry of the episode displayed this more than anything – the scene with Stahl set in the cemetery, calling back to the season 1 finale, and the “you love the right things” episode earlier in the season (“SO” – the first of the two rings): everything indicates a settling of accounts in Jax’s mind. Of course, the only problem there is Maureen’s letters, discovered by Tara in the closing moments while “the king is gone but he’s not forgotten” is sung in the background. All seems well, or as well as could be when half the club is off to prison, in the world of SAMCRO; and just as the opening montage felt far too good to be true, it was just one of the many misdirections of this episode. I didn’t know whether to be offended or thrilled that the primary con of the episode was on us, the audience,* but I’ve actually settled with thrilled, because the big reveal of the episode sets up a the possibility of some really interesting developments next season. That is, all seems happy and well as the MC is carted off to prison, but after the big laugh, there was a lingering silence and an unflinching closeup of Jax’s face. It reminded me of nothing so much as that haunting ending of “The Graduate” – when joy fades to…now what?**
*As soon as Opie and Lyla announced, “We’re getting married!” in that opening montage, I turned to my wife and said, “Something is going to go badly wrong.” Turns out not so much!
**(Ssn 6 Buffy spoiler) Alternately, this could easily have been the closing song: “The battle’s done, and we kinda won.”