‘Sons of Anarchy’ – ‘NS’: Today I settle all family business?

A review of the “Sons of Anarchy” season 3 finale coming up just as soon as I loan you my hand…

“There’s no trust. Something will go wrong. Somebody will get hurt.” -Gemma

“Let’s just finish this.” -Jax

I went into “NS” feeling very much the way Jax is: frustrated and tired and just ready for this current mess to be over so we can move onto the next phase of things.

I came out of it pleasantly surprised. “NS” didn’t retroactively solve many of the problems I had with this year, but it was a very strong, satisfying episode on its own, and one that leaves a much better taste in my mouth as we go into the usual lengthy hiatus between seasons.

So why did “NS” work for me when so much of the season didn’t?

First, because both the club and the show were back on their respective home turf: in Charming, dealing with threats from within (the danger of Jax turning rat) and without (the Russians, the unpredictability of Stahl). I don’t need to rehash the problems I had with the Belfast/Abel storyline, but this was much more the show’s bread and butter. I’m not saying I don’t want Kurt Sutter to feel free to experiment in the future – just that most of this season was an experiment that didn’t work, and so it was reassuring to see the show temporarily get back to its comfort zone.

Second, because it was nice to see the club get a relatively clean win for once. One of the few flaws I found in the second season was that once Gemma told Clay and Jax about the rape, and the schism in the club healed so everyone could team up to fight the League, the big plan our master strategists came up with involved little more than luring AJ and his goons to a spot where they could beat them up. This, on the other hand, was a fairly well-executed short con(*), taking advantage of the fact that not all of SAMCRO was arrested in the gun bust, Unser re-bonding himself with the club, the school bus on loan from their bullet-making Native American pals, etc. I still imagine the ATF would want to take a long, hard look at where Opie, Chibs and the others were when this went down, but overall it was a fairly plausible, effective plan. And while I’m not someone who always roots for the club – which, like Vic Mackey on “The Shield,” has always been presented as morally ambiguous at best, selfish and corrosive at worst – these guys are the protagonists of the show, I’ve bonded with them to an extent, and after a season where they were too often puppets to agendas they didn’t understand, it was just a relief to see them in full control.

(*) I’m curious about exactly when Jax decided to tell the others and betray Stahl. Was that always his plan, or did he make up his mind after she told him what happened to Tyler – which made Jax realize he was dealing with an utter sociopath who would always screw him over in the end? Either works, but the former explanation would give me a reason to go back and rewatch the earlier scenes between the two.

Along similar lines, I was just glad to see the end of Stahl. As I said last week, the murder of Tyler took her several bridges too far as a useful, interesting character. She had just become pure, cartoon evil, and an excuse to keep piling misery on the club, and I feared she would somehow skate away after closing the Jimmy O deal, and keep coming back to torment them. Instead, she’s gone, and after a nice callback to her overall history with Opie and the “outlaw had mercy” scene in particular.

Fourth, the 90-minute running time, and the sure-handed direction Sutter tends to bring to these finales (his episodes tend to have the most interesting, emotional imagery) allowed “NS” to be about more than just resolving a bunch of complicated plots. There was a lot of time for the characters and show to breathe: to hear a resigned Gemma chide Stahl, to see Unser putting his badge and department-issue gun away for this assignment, Clay put the SAMCRO cap back on Abel’s head, Jimmy ask Chibs to take care of their girls (right before Chibs gives him a pair of scars on his face to match the ones Jimmy gave him years before, Inigo Montoya-style), etc. Just a bunch of great small moments from many members of the expanded ensemble.

And finally, I really like the balls that have been set in motion for season four. Presumably, we’re going to come back at or near the end of the guys’ prison sentence, which not only allows the show to catch up to something resembling real time, but will give us an interesting new snapshot of some familiar characters. Even if Clay is calling the shots from inside prison, it’ll be up to Piney, Opie and Chibs to actually run things on the outside; will Piney and Opie be so willing to return power to the men responsible for Donna’s murder? Will a year-plus in prison have further hardened Jax’s new militant attitude? How much further will Clay’s arthritis have advanced? Even with a lot of help from Gemma, Lyla, Neeta, etc., what shape will Tara be in after so much time as sole parent to two small kids, and will she adjust well to having the usual SAMCRO drama return to her life full-time? What will Unser be doing once the sheriffs take over, and how much muscle will Jacob Hale get to exert, assuming he’s elected while the majority of the Sons are in prison? If not Kozik, then who comes in to fill out the ranks? Etc. The re-adjustment period alone should be fascinating.

And then, of course, there’s the question raised by the love letters Maureen stuck in Jax’s bag, which Tara found in the episode’s closing moments. Remember what I said a couple of weeks ago about what the iPhone app said about JT’s death? Nevermind. Because we’re now getting some blinking neon signs that Clay and Gemma did, indeed, have something to do with that “accident” – and Jax coming home to find that out after spending so much time bonding with his stepdad should lead to some great conflict, as well as returning the show to its roots in examining the purpose and value of this club and its culture.

I realized a while back that this season’s big story arcs weren’t clicking for me, and I’ve been marking time until they were over and I could see what Sutter had in mind for next year. “NS” offered us a taste of that, while also brginging season three to a far more satisfying conclusion than I could have expected a few weeks back.

Some other thoughts:

• Lot of good music in this one, as always. Most notable was Battleme’s cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My” over the closing scenes, but other songs included Joan Armatrading’s “This Charming Life,” Attika 7’s “Cracker Man,” Gary Clark Jr’s “Don’t Owe You a Thang,” Sad Girl’s “Today Again,” “Miles Away” by The Forest Rangers (featuring Battleme & Slash), The White Buffalo’s “The Matador” and TurboNegro’s “Get It On.”

• Had Lyla known Opie would be so quick to propose upon his return, think she still would have gotten the abortion? And is that yet another secret that’s going to come to light and cause problems next year?

• Clay’s comment about how the deal with the Irish kings will set them up for the rest of their lives sounded very much like Vic Mackey’s talk about the retirement fund, and all the terrible things he and the strike team did to keep it full.

• The finale brought with it our only glimpse this season of Sutter as Big Otto, whose life in prison has just spiraled ever downward ever since he smacked Stahl’s head into the table. Dead wife, badly-diminished sight, and now he’s heading for Death Row for the revenge killing last season. I know convicts can sit on Death Row for years, or decades, but is there a chance we come back next season and Otto’s already gone?

• Also, the Otto scenes gave Sutter a chance to play a scene opposite legendary Hells Angels member Sonny Barger as Lenny the Pimp.

• So how exactly do things resolve with the Russians? Can the Sons get the IRA to send them the funds to belatedly pay them off now that there’s no deadline? Or will this be another big beef for next season?

• Speaking of which, what do we dub the business with Chucky’s convenient boxes of counterfeit money? Deus ex Chucky?

• What are the odds that Jax’s “SO” ring would still be sitting on JT’s grave two weeks or so after he left it there back in the season premiere?

• I know I mentioned the Opie/Stahl scene before, but damn is Ryan Hurst a good actor. “This is what she felt.” Wow.

Finally, I ended the two previous seasons with long post-mortem interviews with Kurt Sutter. Though I wasn’t nearly as high on season three as I was on the first two, we’re trying to do a similar conversation about this year, but scheduling issues will likely push it off into January or February or something like that. So keep your eyes peeled for that sometime in early 2011.

What did everybody else think?

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