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TV Tonight: Sons of Anarchy Goes Back to Cali

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The third season of Sons of Anarchy was, shall we say, divisive. The chief issue that divided fan from fan, critic from critic, and creator Kurt Sutter from people who criticized creator Kurt Sutter was the season’s long sojourn in Northern Ireland, where the abducted son of protagonist Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) was spirited away and where much of the founding legend of the eponymous biker gang took place.

I’m not sure I had the same problem many others did with season three. Which is not to say I had no problem with it. I was actually interested in the connections between the Charming and the Belfast chapters of the Sons and the backstory of Jax’s father. My problem—and one that I suspect separates me from a lot of Sons fans—was that the search for Abel sidelined what was for me the most interesting part of the show, the conflicts between Jax and current SAMCRO head Clay (Ron Perlman).

The founding tension of the show from its first season has been whether Jax, the Sons’ scion, would follow the idealistic vision for the club that his late father had or would follow in the bloodier, more openly criminal direction Clay and Jax’s mother Gemma (Katey Sagal) had taken it. This conflict (based loosely on Hamlet) is a good one for a story, but a difficult one to follow over several seasons of an ongoing series—at some point someone needs to win out, Jax needs to leave the club (as he’s considered doing), etc.

Having Jax’s son (and Clay’s grandson) kidnapped was, among other things, a way of back-burnering any differences between the two and focusing them on a blood bond and a more immediate problem. (As, to an extent, did Gemma’s rape in season two.) The search for Abel—and the numerous complications that spun from it, not to mention the Sons’ legal scrapes—gave the show a way to put Clay and Jax on the same time, and put the audience on both their sides’, without it seeming implausible.

But at some point, I felt like the show was losing the complicated allegiances that distinguished it at its best. There are plenty of reasons to watch Sons besides Jax and Clay; it’s developed one of the best retinues of supporting characters on TV. But if Jax and Clay are essentially allied—even for temporary reasons—for too long, SoA at heart becomes just a show about how a biker gang will kill its enemies and elude the law again.

I don’t have a moral problem with that; it’s just less interesting than a show that does all that plus, through the Jax-Clay dichotomy, looks at the tricky questions of whether Clay has really corrupted the gang, or conversely, whether Jax’s father’s ideas were naive and delusional to begin with. In fact, at the end of the last season, I found myself half-hoping that Jax had ratted out the Sons—as, it turned out, he had only pretended to. (Here’s where a lot of SoA fans probably disagree with me; there seems to be a pretty big contingent that prefers to see Jax and Clay kicking ass on the same side.)

This is all a long way of saying I’m glad to see that, in SoA’s fourth-season debut tonight, the show hasn’t just returned to its setting of Charming, California. (Without giving away anything too spoilery, the season opens with the Sons being released from jail, fourteen months after their group arrest at the end of season three.) It also returns, slowly, to Jax’s realization that he doesn’t want his life to be Abel’s, and that he wants a way out. But he also recognizes—as if in a nod to the fact that SoA still hopes to have several seasons on the air—that it’s going to take time. “The only thing I ever did well was outlaw,” he tells his old lady Tara. “I just need to make some bank.” It’s a convenient way of keeping his moral dilemma at a slow burn, but it also involves the intriguing complication of Jax rejecting both Clay and his father—after all, he points out, his own dad’s rebellion left Jax with little more than the manuscript of a manifesto.

In the meantime, the season debut offers several new wrinkles for the Sons as they get adjusted to life in the new Charming, chief among them a federal investigator (Deadwood’s Ray McKinnon) who wants to bring a RICO case against them, and a new sheriff whom they don’t own. Despite the mixed response to season three, I hope that Sutter hasn’t taken the lesson to never try anything new on the show. (In fact, I remember hoping briefly during the season three finale that the Sons’ arrest would set up a season four that took place mostly in jail.) But more than the return to Charming, I’m hoping that what I’ve seen in the season four premiere means the show is returning to its thematic home territory.

Because I’ve been cutting back on the weekly review/recaps here, I don’t think I’ll be writing up Sons every week, but I’ll keep checking in on it. Are you still on board?