The outstanding season 2 of Sons of Anarchy ended in a blaze of action: the SAMCRO motorcycle gang got revenge (of sorts) for the rape of matriarch Gemma (Katey Sagal) by the minions of a white-power group; Gemma herself went on the lam after being set up for murder; and protagonist Jax (Charlie Hunnam) was dealt another blow in the conclusion as his baby son Abel was abducted in a revenge kidnapping by an IRA sect.
Season 3 (debuting tonight at 10 ET on FX) begins like a hangover. Not that there isn’t action; there’s a breathtaking scene of violence in the first return episode, and the hunt for Abel and pursuit of Gemma keep the characters hurtling along, albeit on separate tracks. But the premiere also finds the characters absorbing the afereffects of what was a season of harrowing change.
There are people who were excited about SoA from the get-go because it was about the inner workings of a biker gang, and other people who have written the show off (expecting it to be brutal and unpleasant) for exactly the same reason. In truth, the series took a while to find its bearings, but by season 2 it had become a nuanced, though action-intense, character drama about people who have committed to the lives of outsiders and whose bonds—and conflicts—with one another are more intense as a result.
The central conflict has been between Jax and SAMCRO leader Clay (Ron Perlman), who took over the club after the death of Jax’s father (and married Jax’s mother, Gemma). Jax’s late father envisioned the Sons of Anarchy as being a more idealistic, countercultural group, an alternative society/family seeking to live by its own ideals. Under Clay, the group has become more of a full-on criminal organization, running guns and fighting battles—though one with its own sets of ideals and pronounced principles of loyalty. Through two seasons, the brooding Jax has been torn between working within Clay’ SAMCRO and rebelling against the betrayal of his father; he nearly left the gang last season, but returned to fight the white-power threat. (If the paternal-vengeance plot seems familiar, it’s because the concept for the show is loosely taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.)
With the disappearance of Abel—Jax’s son and Clay and Gemma’s grandson—Jax and Clay are again thrown together, despite their past differences, to fight an outside threat, this one even more all-consuming as it involves a child in peril. If there’s one thing I’m hoping for from the third season, it’s that the Jax-Clay schism doesn’t get wholly subsumed in the emergencies that continually beset SAMCRO; that base conflict is a powerful source of moral tension for the show.
The early episodes of season three, though, find SoA retaining what there was to love about it—the well-drawn characters, including the strong women in SAMCRO and its orbit—while expanding the show as well. Paula Malcolmson joins the show in a role connected with the IRA thread of the story, while Hal Holbrook is wonderfully cast as Gemma’s elderly father, suffering from dementia, whom she returns to while on the run. (Already that storyline seems destined to give Sagal another fantastic performance for Emmy voters to ignore.)
One caveat that I’d offer, prompted by a question on my Twitter feed: if you’ve never watched the show but are intrigued by the reviews, don’t cheat yourself—catch up with seasons one and two first. Season three will still be there. As for those of you who are caught up with SoA, what are you hoping most for from the new season?