I don’t really like people all that much
So Sons of Anarchy: sitcom or soap opera?
Hold on, I’d better explain why I’m asking that question. I’ll be upfront: I think this finale demonstrated some of the glaring weaknesses at the heart of SOA. And so now I’m having to recalibrate my expectations of just what Sons is capable of. Because it’s capable of a lot – it can, as I’ve said before in recent weeks, demonstrate an exhilarating capacity to raise tremendous dramatic stakes, it can put together fantastic action sequences, and it can traffic in tremendous pathos (mostly on the strength of its cast rather than its writing, I’m finally realizing). But here’s the problem with Sons: it is, apparently, utterly incapable of messing with its formula. It’s a show married to its premise, and a change that would require a drastic change in that premise – a move from Charming, or the death of a significant character, basically anything that can’t be reversed – seems to present too big of a challenge for the writers to take on.
Here’s the frustrating thing: a massive development happened in this finale, as Jax finally took the gavel and Clay was forced to step down. It’s something the show has built toward for a long time, and it deepened the emotion, if not the portent, of the moment with Tara and Jax doing their best JT-Gemma iconography. But everything else in the episode seemed custom-built to rob that moment of its significance. After weeks of demanding that Clay must die, and building the pressure toward that moment to impossible weight, we have what everybody actually pretty much expected – Clay still around to plot and scheme, just demoted from this throne. After finally putting those damn letters to some use after almost two seasons of them being the show’s most egregious plot device, yet again we have them put back into play under the scheming eye of Gemma (who has, in the last few episodes, lost all semblance of coherent motivation as a character). And, after finally putting some traction into Potter’s sting operation, to the point where the warring factions in the show were ready to come to blows, we have…the Galindo cartel as CIA operatives?
When that reveal happened so early in the episode, I had two simultaneous reactions. First, yeah it explains a couple of things, but really? To build up a threat to that level of urgency, only to switch it out at the last minute with the flash of a badge, ranks with the worst of the dei ex machina 24 used to pull. Second, with some part of me still holding out hope in the writers’ integrity, I assumed this was setting us up for something far more massive and game-changing. Otherwise, it was completely deflating, an explicit admission that whole stretches of the plotline this season have been an utter waste of our time. And that is, in fact, exactly what it was. This follows for Jax and Tara’s big plans, too – everything we’ve been told about them wanting out is explained away with a few moments of meaningful looks. For the writing to show this badly signals something very bad – as it did when Juice’s big secret turned out to be something utterly unimportant.
So what is it about this show that leaves it completely unable to commit to a change? Everything in this episode seemed designed to maintain the status quo. Sure, Jax is president, but this is in the service of maintaining the formal structure of the show with complete continuity. There have been deaths, but always expendable characters (Donna, Piney, whoever Tom Arnold played). Next season we’ll find the club in precisely the same situation it’s always in, hounded by the law and fighting complicated, convoluted turf battles only to end up battered and bruised but still the same ol’ MC. It’s profoundly difficult to invest in a show that consistently signals its inability to commit to something happening with consequences; a threat that we know will be surmounted is simply a contrived annoyance.
Series that have been willing to radically change their premise or setting don’t always see it work out, to be sure (Weeds is an obvious choice, but its problems were always deeper than simply being set in Agrestic). Some hold, for example, that Buffy lost its way after it left high school (I’m not one of them), or that BSG was never the same after New Caprica (ibid.). But the really successful and game-changing dramatic shows, like Breaking Bad, have been able to maintain continuity in their premise (there’s no show if Walter White doesn’t cook meth), but have radically altered the conditions and tone of the series. While The Shield, Sutter’s predecessor (which gets a shoutout in this episode, yay) and inspiration, always had the Barn, it was driven by a profound conviction that sins were found out and consequences followed upon certain kinds of actions – the precise thing Sons has not been able to do. The closest parallel I can conceive for Sons’ rebarbative habit here is the drive into banality The X-Files experienced as it ran out of ideas with its mythology, and contented itself with shutting down the X-Files, only to open them again, and again, and again (and at least The X-Files had the genius of its monster-of-the-week episodes well into its run). But weak series manufacture drama by conjuring up empty threats to their central situation/characters, only to wave away the threat when the time comes to set up the next season. When Lincoln Potter utters the resigned words I quote in this title, the deliberate, but slightly bored, misanthropy in them expresses pretty precisely the attitude of this show.
I asked the question above because when a serialized drama begins to embrace a transparently self-perpetuating cycle of false drama, it seems to me that it’s lost the most basic sense of genre conventions. A serialized drama is premised on the presence of a narrative arc that can’t simply be reset. There are interesting ways that economic and technological realities place constraints upon a show – I get that. You can’t replace the cast every season, and if you’re successful, your network will want you to continue. Sometimes characters have to live when they have no right to, for no other reason but the actors have contracts to fulfill. But when a show is so married to functioning in a particular highly specific and codified setting, and all of the drama functions only to reinforce that setting, that’s something more like a sitcom or a soap opera, which are essentially designed to repeat the same formula over and over. It’s a bit pathological – this is not how life works, and it’s not how storytelling works. And it’s certainly not dramatic tension; it’s the cinematic equivalent of OCD.
Hmmm. Well, let me respond and we’ll see where we go from there. First, I think the question of whether SoA is a “soap opera” is right on. But, that sort of question is something I’m consistently thinking about with many of the shows we watch. You suggest that something like “characters that change” is what ought to qualify a show as *not* being like a soap opera. And something like that is right, but then again, there are soap opera where characters change (not that I ever watched any, you know). I suspect we’d want to say something about how the characters change (organically or not?), but I suspect that the most important difference between good television and soap opera (sorry Days of our Lives fans) is that there is some *destination*, i.e., it’s not *pure* serialization. There’s a sort of unity that holds everything together.
And this is the *only* reason that I’ll disagree with your assessment of the show.
Yes, this episode, while interesting, was deeply unsatisfying. I found it mostly because of the crazy, hair-brained idea that Danny Trejo’s character works for the CIA (Machete don’t text…especially with CIA, this is absurd). This was an incredibly unpredictable plot point, mostly because it was so out of the blue and peculiar. I didn’t find it entirely implausible, as the acting (as you point out) sold it for me. I also didn’t even find the lack of “real change” too problematic…after all, we got *some* change. But the *way* in which I decided to deal with all of this is by giving Mr. Sutter the benefit of the doubt: maybe the idea is that, like The Shield, these 7 seasons (if there will indeed be that many) are meant to move *slow*. Maybe, there is an organic unity that will emerge once all 7 seasons are revealed.
This messianic notion of ultimate completion is the only thing that would lead me to disagree with your assessment. In this way, perhaps the lack of change is a heightened sense of tension, and perhaps the apparent resetting of everything is the calm before the storm. Aside from that, I think you’re right, so I can’t dispute your basic reading of the finale and this season–I can only suggest perhaps that we defer ultimate judgment?
I don’t know. Simply in light of the acting thus far and some of the great episodes that SoA has managed to pull off (and on the strength of The Shield), I’m willing to give Sutter the benefit of the doubt.
Until next season,