When we arrived at the final season of Breaking Bad — whether it was the final 16-episode full season, or the final eight episodes in 2013 — it felt like a final season. Every single second counted. Vince Gilligan had edited those episodes down to the bone. Every single frame, every single decision, and every word of dialogue mattered. There was no fat. Those episodes weren’t super-sized, either, until the final two, which each ran over by a mere 15 minutes. Not only was Breaking Bad one of the best final seasons ever, it was one of the most efficient. Gilligan understood narrative economy.
The final season of Sons of Anarchy — like much of the past few seasons of the series — has not been efficient. There’s probably a few things going on here: Kurt Sutter — buoyed by the massive success of Sons of Anarchy — has caught the Peter Jackson disease (ego!), and FX — encouraged by the massive ratings of Sons — has decided to let him have an extra 15 or 20 or 30 minutes each episode because it means more commercial breaks, which means more money, which means FX is can spend more on Sutter’s next series for the network.
The result is a lot of unnecessary material. Last night’s episode, “Toil and Till,” was one of the less egregious instances of this, but even still, it was 53 minutes of airtime, or about 10 minutes more than the average cable drama. It was also about ten (or 15) minutes too long.
The opening sequence is the perfect example of Sutter’s excesses: Even after nearly 90 seconds of “previously on” scenes, there’s a lengthy establishing sequence in which we watch several characters smoking cigarettes. This does nothing to push the story forward. It just reminds us of where the characters are, and it’s one thing that Vince Gilligan almost never did: Catch us up. He trusted us to keep up.
There was a lot of fat in ‘Toil and Till.’ The entire subplot with Abel’s preschool, for instance, or the car trip between Nero and Wendy, and the cringeworthy conversation that Gemma had with Abel about his mother’s death. There were a lot of pow-wows, too, where Jax would meet up with other characters, explain what they’re about to do, and then do it. More times than not, we didn’t need the explanation.
If those empty scenes were more entertaining — like, say, Ratboy and Tig’s exchanges — it’d be perfectly justified. I could watch Tig and Ratboy sit in a car and f*ck with each other for hours. But I don’t really need to see yet another character tell Jax that they’re sorry about Tara, that they’re there for him, and that they’ll give him whatever he needs knowing full well that Jax is about to turn on them.
You could boil last night’s episode down to a few simple plot points:
1. Jax still believes the Lin Triad is behind the death of Tara. He plans to completely dismantle the organization and then — once Henry Lin reaches out to Jax for help — Jax is going to kill everyone Henry Lin loves right in front of him. Step one of this plan involved disrupting a heroin-for-guns deal and killing a lot of Lin’s men.
2. For reasons I don’t quite understand, part of that plan was pinning the blame for the Lin deaths on two guys working for Jury and the Indian Hills chapter of SAMCRO. I understand the need to shift blame, but why shift it onto a couple of pot-smoking allies? Because they’re easy foils? Does Jax have a beef with Jury that I’m missing?
It’s not confusing in the sense that we know why Jax needed to shift the blame away from SAMCRO and toward someone else to keep the heat from Lin (and Marks) off of them, but it is confusing as to why they chose people who were helpful (Gibby and Renny) and who are associated with allies (the Indian Hills SAMCRO), of which their close friend Jury is the President (so close, in fact, that Jax used to call Jury — one of JT’s best friends — his “uncle.”) Why would Bobby and Chibs even go along with this? Why are they killing, essentially, they’re own people?
What is for certain, however, is that Jury — who spotted the gun and connected it to Jax — knows that Charming’s SAMCRO is behind those deaths, which opens up an entirely new can of worms going forward.
3. Sheriff Jarry (Annabeth Gish) will be investigating the death of Tara. Unser will be assisting in that investigation. Unser knows where Juice is and that SAMCRO wants Juice dead, but he doesn’t suspect that Juice — or Gemma — is behind the death of Tara. Gemma is also concerned that Unser will eventually make that connection. Meanwhile, Juice couldn’t bring himself to skip town because Juice is an goddamn idiot. Fortunately for Juice, Unser seems to want to help him. When has Unser’s help ever been good for anyone on this show?
3. Happy knows a thousand places to bury bodies. He may need them all before the final season. Unfortunately, these deaths don’t really matter that much because we have no emotional investment in the “pile of slants.”
4. Jax’s relationship with both Nero and Wendy has warmed up to the “bro nod.” I believe fist bumps are the next stage in their reconciliations.
5. The Mayans have formed an alliance with racist Robocop for him to store some South American “beans” for them in exchange for a $5,000 flat fee. The Mayans and racist Robocop do not like each other.
6. Tig may or may not get hard when simulating oral sex with Ratboy.
7. Gemma is all out of f**ks. That evil woman is perfectly content to let Jax straight-up murder dozens of men to avenge a death that she committed. Like I wrote last week, everything the Internet used to wrongly say about Skyler White is actually true of Gemma Teller.
With all of that said — and quibbles with narrative economy aside — it’s an easy, entertaining show to watch. I’t s hard to complain about Sons of Anarchy, because I enjoy it for the most part. But I do think that, with some editing, a good final season of Sons of Anarchy could be a great season of Sons of Anarchy.
— Speaking of Breaking Bad, it was hard not to make a connection to the AMC series while watching Happy — in a bright yellow hazard suit — store that poor Asian kid in a barrel.
— What I’m looking forward to the most right now, actually, is the look on Jax’s face when he realizes that all these Chinese men he killed had nothing to do with Tara’s death. Will he feel remorse, or will he keep plugging along, moving to the next target?
— Nero: “Who do we pretend we are?” Wendy: “The nanny and the gardener.” I will say this for Wendy: I’ve never liked her as much as I have liked her these last two episodes.
— It’s good to see Annabeth Gish — who recently wrapped her run on The Bridge — pop back up on my television. For once, she’s a Charming cop that’s not territorial, and who is not threatened by someone else trying to offer assistance.
— Unser made his bi-yearly reference to his terminal cancer in the episode. That is a slow-gestating terminal cancer.
— OF COURSE, my wife — who doesn’t watch SoA — would walk in the room while Ratboy was “going down” on Tig. “WHAT ARE YOU WATCHING?” “It’s not what you think, honey.” Ratboy to Tig: “Dude, are you getting hard?”
— Seriously, God bless him, but the kid who plays Abel, Ryder Londo (who also plays Gene Draper on Mad Men) should not be given speaking lines.
— If you’re wondering, this was the song from the end of the episode. It’s from Yelawolf.