For the past few weeks, I’ve been struggling with “Sons of Anarchy.” Not in a bad way. No, I’ve been struggling with the inevitability that “Sons of Anarchy,” a show I actually quit watching for several episodes in ins first season due to what I was perceiving as needlessly Byzantine plotting, is going to find its way to a very high position on my Top 10 list for 2009. And that isn’t something that usually happens.
I almost never quit on TV shows once I’ve committed to them. Heck, it took “One Tree Hill” six seasons before I admitted to myself that the guilty pleasure was only making me guilty. And once I’m out? That’s usually it. But I can back for the “Sons of Anarchy” finale in the first season and I’ve been relishing a second season that keeps getting better. Every once in a while, a character mentions something that I can only guess happened in the two or three episodes I bailed on, but those gaps don’t bother me.
“Sons of Anarchy” has, in fact, become a show so good that no matter how heavily serialized it is, the best episodes can stand mostly alone.
And Tuesday (Nov. 10) night’s “Sons of Anarchy” is the show’s best episode to date.
[More teasing of Tuesday’s episode, but only minimal spoiling (VERY minimal) after the break…]
Titled “Balm,” Tuesday’s episode was written by Dave Erickson and Stevie Long and directed by Emmy winner Paris Barclay. Calling it a series best may be an understatement.
“Balm” is a series-defining episode, the sort of densely packed, cleverly constructed installment that packs so much information in that it had to run 90 minutes, but still rushes by so confidently that you’ll never know it was extra-long (except that FX is kinda bloating the sucker with commercials). It’s the type of episode that allows “Sons of Anarchy” to stop being just “that FX series about the bikes” and makes it into something more. It’s the kind of episode that will cement the show’s place on some Top 10 lists and move it near the top in others and it ought to be the kind of episode that’s so rich that Emmy voters can’t ignore it. We’ve already reached the point at which failing to recognize Katey Sagal would be a black mark on any award-giving organization, but “Balm” should be in the running for writing, direction and for a slew of supporting performances.
Yet it’s an episode that pauses the season’s main story arc. We’ve been dealing with Sam Crow and its fight with Adam Arkin’s Ethan Zobelle, a White Power leader and fierce capitalist. But for one episode, “Sons of Anarchy” steps back. Arkin and henchman AJ Weston (Henry Rollins) are nowhere to be seen. It’s like creator Kurt Sutter and his team decided that for a week, the characters could actually deal with the things that occurred earlier in the season, and back into last season, without any any new trouble to their plate.
So the episode further advances the growing chasm between Jax (Charlie Hunnam) and Clay (Ron Perlman), following up on Jax’s announced decision to “go nomad.” What does “going nomad” entail? I’ll let the episode explain it, but let’s just say it’s not a decision to be taken lightly and it isn’t necessarily all that popular with the other members of the M.C., with the other members of Jax’s literal and symbolic family. Never has “Sons of Anarchy” gone so far to show the depths of the bonds tie these characters together, bonds that go beyond running guns and riding motorcycles.
While the episode pushes to several moments that fans have been waiting for since the series premiere, it also steps outside of its core. The strength of “Sons of Anarchy” has never been more evident than in the ability to spend roughly half of an episode this central on Tommy Flanagan’s Chibs, a tertiary character for much of the first season and out of commission for recent weeks after a bombing that nearly claimed his life. If the episode is primarily about Jax and his family, Chibs’ family, or the things he’d do for his family, dominate the B-story, with help from Titus Welliver, who has taken a place with folks like fellow “Deadwood” alum Garret Dillahunt on my list of television guest stars who I’d watch in anything.
This season of “Sons of Anarchy” has been full of tense set pieces, with shootouts, fist-fights and explosions, but “Balm” concentrates on conversations, shattering moments where characters are laid bare. The action is amped up again in next week’s episode, but in “Balm” people hurt and, as the title implies, heal with their words. That leads to great work from Flanagan, Welliver, Perlman and Sagal, as well as Ryan Hurst, William Lucking, Theo Rossi and Dayton Callie. Really, look any direction on “Sons of Anarchy” and you’ll see stellar acting.
So far, I haven’t spoiled anything here and I’m not going to say anything more. The purpose of this post is really just a reminder to tune in.
The question I’ve been asked a couple times on Twitter is “Can I watch tonight’s awesome ‘Sons of Anarchy’ if I’ve never watched before or I’ve missed a few episodes?” And the answer is “Maybe.” Certainly if you’ve watched the season’s first couple episodes and missed out on a handful, “Balm” is a fine time to return. If you haven’t? Pay attention to the “Previously on…” montage and you may be OK. “Balm” does a great job of articulating the stakes of the series, of explaining what SAMCRO means to its members and the damage Zobelle and his team (plus their own internal feuding) have done to the club this season. I’d tell you to give it a shot and then go back and catch up later if you’re intrigued.
Tuesday’s “Sons of Anarchy” is that good.
“Sons of Anarchy” airs at 10 p.m. on FX. Tuesday’s episode is a 90-minute episode.