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Sons of Anarchy Watch: The Long Con

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Spoilers for last night’s season finale of Sons of Anarchy coming up:

“NS,” the final episode of season 3 of Sons of Anarchy, concluded with an elaborate switcheroo: a deftly handled, elaborate long con that upended expectations and reversed our perception of events startlingly.

And I’m not talking about that con, the one that resolved the episode’s major plotline. But let’s discuss that one first anyway.

The elaborate deception engineered by Jax and SAMCRO, which ended with vengeance killings for both Jimmy O and Agent Stahl, along with the gang punking the Russians and getting the charges against its members reduced to three years (with a shot at parole after 14 months), was pretty well disguised and pulled off, at least in that I did not see it coming. And in a way—take this as a commentary if you like—in a way, I did not want to see it coming.

The show being what it is, I had no expectation that Jax would die in prison. But I actually thought that a fourth season involving the Sons behind bars, with Jax estranged from them and figuring out how to survive and/or reconcile, might have made a pretty intriguing choice. (A season of SoA set in prison? They just did one set largely in Northern Ireland, so why not?) As it turned out, Jax and Clay were on the same page all along,* having set up Stahl in such a way that they got their deal and their vengeance too, with their jail time a small price to pay as the crew set off to do it happily.

*(OK, here let me get picky for a minute. That was an awfully elaborate scam, so at what point exactly did Jax and the rest approve it and set it up—how long after Jax cut his deal with Stahl, that is—and in how much detail could they have anticipated events? How did that conversation go? “We’ll bring the counterfeit money to the Russians and get Jimmy back, then swap him to another car. We’ll make the deal with Stahl, but of course she’ll hold back on actually signing. We’ll use Jimmy as leverage to get Stahl to sign the deal, but she’ll find us and force us to hand Jimmy over. Now, Stahl will definitely rat me out, so you’ve got to be pissed off at me when she does. We can get Unser to stop Stahl on the road with Jimmy and lose a couple of her agents…” I’m assuming I likely missed something here, so feel free to set me straight on any points I’m overlooking.)

In any case: the scam works, Stahl is dead (I’ll miss Ally Walker, but the increasingly monstrous character had run her course) and everyone’s happy.

And then the really important switcheroo comes.

As Jax and Clay are headed off to prison, getting the good news that the hit has been pulled off, their respective old ladies are reading letters: Gemma, reading Jax’s explanation, and Tara, reading the letters from John that Jax brought home from Belfast. Gemma reads Jax’s first, and it’s a direct embrace of her own philosophy: he is on board, he is loyal to family, he is not—despite his conflict with SAMCRO’s ways earlier in the series—his father.

Except that maybe he is. In a clever move, their two letters overlap on the same phrase—”I love you more than you will ever know”—and John takes over. And suddenly we’re re-immersed in the perspective that he has had on Clay’s version of the club, one that Jax was at one point sympathetic to until the events of the last two seasons drove him and Clay closer. In his view, SAMCRO has lost its way. He is doomed, and his wife and best friend are behind it. And Clay and Gemma—the very characters we have spent much of the series cheering—are again the villains who turned on him.

The king is gone, but he’s not forgotten. Change the filter, and suddenly SAMCRO’s triumph—the one you’ve just spent an hour and a half watching—looks very, very different.

Though John Teller has certainly never disappeared from the show—his history hovered over the Belfast storyline this year—it has seemed to me that Jax’s conflict (does he go along with Clay or heed his father’s call to find another path?) has often been shunted aside by one emergency after another—really stemming back to his and Clay’s burying the hatchet to avenge Gemma’s rape last season. This has not always been to the show’s detriment; season 2 was SoA’s best. But let that conflict disappear too long, and what is SoA, really?

SoA and Kurt Sutter have an understandable balancing act. The show is appealing for its action, and the show is appealing for its deeper moral conflict—which, at base, is at odds with that action. It has a series-long arc, which is Jax finding his identity and his relation to the family, the club and its violent ways of making a living. But it also has series-long arcs that, to be blunt, pretty much depend on biker guys (and gals) kicking ass.

If you foreground both at the same time, the show risks becoming Billy Jack: i.e., “This show is about finding your moral center and rejecting greed and violence—but rejecting violence makes a pretty boring story, so we’re going to make sure that the hero always ends up with a defensible reason to whip somebody’s ass anyway.” On the other hand, if you lose the larger Hamlet arc too long, you could end up with a series that strains to give Jax one extreme family trauma after another to avenge—Gemma, Abel, Tara—to fill the action quota, while the references to John seem perfunctory.

If the series plays it right, though, it can do something very interesting, which I hope is what it is aiming at with the end of season 3 and going ahead to season 4. Essentially, it’s showed you, for more than a season, Jax edging away from his earlier reluctance and—maybe in extremis, but still—to ally with Clay, and more than that, to tell him, in this finale, that he loves him like a father. It’s showed you that transformation in Jax, and what’s more it’s gotten you to share in that transformation. You loved hearing Clay say, “I don’t recognize your bullshit MC.” You’ve loved Gemma’s toughness and fierceness and loyalty. And you’ve grown deeply attached to Tig, Opie and the rest, who may have their various faults, but are also complex, sympathetic and principled guys.

You’ve made all these attachments, and you’re not wrong for having done so. And yet the last moments of “NS” suddenly snap you back to the show’s first season: they show you the same moments you just saw as a victory and turn them 180 degrees, asking, Is there something wrong here? Have you been cheering the wrong people? Did Jax—having extricated himself and his club from trouble, having gotten his vengeance, having done right by his family—really win?

That is the question that fascinates me about Sons of Anarchy. And whether season 4 picks up in jail or 14 months from now, that’s the question I hope that it explores.

Quick hail of bullets:

* While again I felt it was about time for Stahl to shuffle off SoA’s mortal coil, that was a strong last scene on both sides, and I liked the callback to “the outlaw had mercy.” (As well as Opie almost sorrowful declaration that now he has none—even now that he’s moved on with Lyla.)

* “Left side. I had bridgework done on the right.”

* I cannot say I ever expected to hear Joan Armatrading on SoA, though “This Charming Life” is lyrically appropriate. Given his soundtrack choices, Kurt Sutter doesn’t strike me as a Smiths guy, but will we ever hear “This Charming Man”?