Spoilers for last night’s Sons of Anarchy season finale below:
The two-part season 4 finale of Sons of Anarchy was titled “To Be,” a direct declaration, if you needed one, that the series had returned to its initial form, patterned loosely on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Where the Prince of Denmark delved into his father’s betrayal and murder by Hamlet’s mother and new husband, the Prince of SAMCRO gradually learned about the fate of his own father, betrayed by his mother Gemma and her new old man, Clay.
Unlike Sons of Anarchy, Hamlet was a play, which meant that it could achieve finality; Hamlet famously dithered between action and inaction, but by the end of the proceedings, there were a lot of important corpses on stage. At the end of “To Be,” despite a plethora of murder weapons—gun, knife, poison—the new king and the old king were still on stage, with a new queen (Tara) staring down the old one (Gemma). Oh, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Working for the CIA the whole time!
I didn’t need Clay Morrow to die at the end of “To Be,” not exactly. What was more important to me was that SOA commit to the stakes it set when it started–Jax’s moral battle for the soul of the club. Season 4 did that, often powerfully, and refocused the series after two seasons in which Jax and Clay were often driven by external forces to fight on the same side. In these last few episodes, it made it clear: the way Clay has run the club is corrosive, people know it, and it can’t go on. But it ended the season with some too-convenient plotting, leading to a resolution—Clay still alive with a seat at the table, Tara and Gemma squaring off–that felt like a concession to the TV need to make sure the show can, in fact, go on, and on, and on.
So I didn’t feel that Clay “needed” to die, but it also felt like he didn’t need to get shot in the first place–except to set up a cliffhanger in which we thought he might die. He could as well have been confronted, the truth could have gotten out, he could have faced the repercussions of his violence and lost the gavel–but that doesn’t satisfy like a gunshot to the chest. There needed to be a big moment, but Clay also needed to stay in the picture. (And does anyone doubt that he’s going to find a way, if not to come back, then to make a serious run at it or undermine Jax?)
This has been my reservation about SOA this season. Overall, it’s the strongest the show has been since season 2. (I actually enjoyed season 3′s Irish mythology, but not the way it back-burnered the Clay-Jax conflict.) Episode by episode it’s been thrilling, and there have been some excellent arcs: Juice’s encounter with SAMCRO’s racist legacy; Lincoln Potter’s weird, but in the end oddly noble, pursuit of the RICO case; creator Kurt Sutter’s own turn as Otto; and especially, Opie’s finally being pushed over the edge.
But it’s sometimes hard not to notice the plot machinations that are going on to make sure that problems are set up for the future and that its core conflicts are not resolved too soon. Mechanically, the way Potter’s case fell apart makes sense: it keeps the Sons out of jail, it keeps Jax in town and it keeps the club under the thumb of the cartel, in the process setting up plenty of action for the future. But that didn’t make the way the case fell apart feel like any less of a deus ex machina.
This is a problem SOA has had to wrestle with as the show has gone on and become FX’s highest-rated drama. Its appeal comes from raw passions and oh-my-God moments, but it has to reset to the basic structure: the Sons battle an outside enemy while tensions simmer at the top of the organization. It has to top itself with dramatic events that feel like they could come out of the final season of a TV series—but it has to stay on the air.
For instance, the midseason episode in which Juice hangs himself, torn between his loyalty to the club and its racist charter, holds back nothing dramatically; “Strange Fruit,” the powerful Billie Holiday song about lynching in the South, plays over the final sequence. The message is plain, that SAMCRO is as culpable as if its members had strung Juice up themselves. If you’re going to go that route—if you are literally going to compare the situation to the systematic murder of black people in American history—you need to be making a statement, not just setting up for an almost slapstick moment in which the tree branch breaks, saving a character you don’t want to kill off and can’t lose for plot purposes. (Nor can you later, further let the club off the hook by saying that, it turns out, no one will care as long as Juice’s birth certificate doesn’t say he’s black.)
I say all this knowing that it sounds like a simpleminded critique of a show with much more complex ambitions than telling an action story: “You need to kill off more characters!” But it’s not the killing, it’s the principle: you can only turn up alive at your own funeral so many times before it starts to lose its impact. (This applies just as much to the letters, which would drastically change things in the club if Jax shared the full truth, and the truth about Clay, with the rest of the Sons… which he will… eventually… just not yet.)
All that said: within the constraints of its plot machinations, season 4 has often done a fantastic job by its individual characters and their struggles. I was surprised to find how affected by Lincoln Potter’s story at the end, as he strode in to bust up the Charming Heights deal, “Because I don’t like you, and because the good guys need a win.” Suddenly, his odd behavior the entire season, his eccentricity bordering on misanthropy, was cast in a new light, as a kind of lonely, weary nobility: he was like an avenging gunman from a Western, only armed with sex toys. Maggie Siff has established herself in the top ranks of the show’s actors this season, especially in its last episodes, when she projected power and dynamism even from a hospital bed.
The season’s larger story got back to what makes SOA powerful to begin with: the conflicts between survival and principle, between your immediate family and your larger family, between the right thing and the easy thing. And you can’t say this finale moved nothing forward at all: Gemma’s immense info-download to Jax laid a lot of cards on the table, (even if she held some back for self-preservation). Above all, setting Jax up as the leader of SAMCRO feels like something the show needs to explore before it ends.
But increasingly this feels like a series that needs to end, not now, not next season, but sooner than FX needs it to. Hamlet’s “To Be” soliloquy came early in Act 3, with more than half the drama yet to go, but SOA feels like it should be entering its endgame, if only it could. It was fitting that we got a glimpse in “To Be” of The Shield (which Sutter wrote on), a show that had a similar dynamic–and which, when granted an end date, went out with one of the most satisfying series-ending arcs in TV history.
TV’s a business, and I don’t know if SOA can work out a similar plan. (Sutter has said he envisions seven seasons for the show, though I’m not sure how hard-and-fast that is.) If not, maybe another option is to dial back the show’s plotting to a simmer, which might disappoint some fans but would reduce the number of times the show needs to hurtle over a cliff and manage to land on a pile of mattresses.
SOA ends season 4 with a potentially strong setup, with Jax the reluctant leader. From here, it could just further stretch out the Clay-and-Jax intrigue endlessly, or it could commit to having Jax find his principles and put them in action, in a way that sticks. Will SOA be that show—a show where big changes matter and they stick—or will it not be? That, still, is the question.