“It”s gonna get a lot worse before it gets better,” Jax Teller warns a friend early in the third season of “Sons of Anarchy,” the superb FX drama about outlaw bikers. (The new season begins tomorrow at 10.)
If Jax and his fellow Sons of Anarchy are looking for a new motto for their motorcycle club, that line about sums it up. Like “The Shield” before it (where “Sons” creator Kurt Sutter cut his teeth as a writer), this is a morally-complicated drama about men whose problems tend to multiply, Hydra-style, every time they come close to eliminating one.
In the show”s incredible second season (whose complete snub by the Emmys says a lot more about the value of the Emmys than it does about “Sons of Anarchy”), the Sons had to deal with an all-out assault by a white supremacy group at the same time the club was going through a vicious civil war of its own. Those problems in some way feel quaint as season three begins.
Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the conflicted but quick-to-anger son of the club”s late founder, is in despair because his baby son Abel has been kidnapped by an Irish gun runner who mistakenly blames the club for his own son”s death. Jax”s mother Gemma (Katey Sagal) is a fugitive from justice for two murders – one she actually committed, one she was framed for by a crooked ATF agent. A rival club is looking to move its heroin operation right next door to the Sons” turf. The Sons are all facing federal gun charges from a trap the Aryans set last season, and Abel becomes a pawn in a very complicated game being played by the club”s IRA contact Jimmy O (Titus Welliver, last seen turning into the smoke monster on “Lost”) over in Belfast.
But the darker and more complicated life gets for the Sons, the better the TV show tends to be. And based on the four episodes I”ve seen, “Sons” is still at the incredible level it achieved a year ago, when it became one of the best dramas on television. (The only others that are in the discussion with it for the top spot are “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”)
Sutter designed the second season in part as a showcase for wife Sagal, who soared in a story arc about tough old lady Gemma being raped and trying to keep it a secret for the good of Jax, her man Clay (Ron Perlman) and the club. The new season, meanwhile, is very much a star turn for Hunnam, who finds new depths of sorrow and rage as Jax goes looking for his son. Hunnam took a while to grow into the role – in part because Sutter needed time to figure out how to write for him, in part because of the American accent – but he owns it now, with both depth and swagger that let him command the screen no matter who he”s put opposite.
If this is primarily Hunnam”s season, Sagal still has plenty of great things to do. The fugitive life is not good for Gemma Teller”s psyche; at multiple points, friends ask her if she”s lost her mind, and she never quite denies it. But she has a reason to stay focused when she gets a piece of news about her father Nate (played by the great Hal Holbrook) that makes her risk her freedom to go see him. Put in a room with the man she still calls “daddy,” Gemma turns from cold Lady Macbeth into a vulnerable, anguished daughter, and Sagal is again wonderful. (Maybe playing her scenes opposite a four-time Emmy winner might make award voters notice her, but I doubt it.)
My one concern with the season is that a kidnapped child – a kidnapped infant, in particular – is a problem with such gravity that at times that story threatens to suck every other part of the show into it. Sutter and company do their best to make the other storylines worth investing time in, but it”s hard not to adopt Jax”s mindset and refuse to focus on anything but getting the kid back. And because we have an omniscient view of the show”s world, there are a few moments in the third and fourth episodes where it feels like the obstacles standing between father and son are less a natural outgrowth of the story than of the writers” desire to stretch this arc out over the whole season.
Hopefully that isn”t solely what”s driving things. What we”ve seen from two-plus seasons of “Sons of Anarchy” is that whenever Jax gets his son back, his life won”t be close to fixed. If anything, the things he”ll have to do to get to Abel are going to bring him grief from a completely different direction. Better to find out what the club”s next mess will be rather than dragging its current one out too long.
As Jax puts it, “Every time I think maybe I”m heading in the right direction, I end up in a place I never even knew could feel this bad.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org