I’m filling in for Zack this week, who is spending his evening investigating a different sort of anarchy. Normally, I’d take some time to give some context for my thoughts on the season so far, but Noel’s thoughts two weeks ago pretty well summed it up. It’s the perfect example of how we respond to a "great" show that turns in a season that’s only "really good." Season three is more different than it is worse, and yet that difference seems to have created enough negative response that Kurt Sutter seems particularly aggressive in commenting on its reception.
There were a lot of comments during season two that the show was burning through storylines at a torrid pace, and Sutter basically said “Why wait?” And yet this season has been all about waiting, about knowing where things are going but having to hit roadblock after roadblock before getting there. The season has been one long denouement, taking last season’s climax and letting the lack of resolution settle over the audience at the precise opposite pace of the previous season. It’s a form of serialized whiplash, an experiment in storytelling that has been intriguing enough to overcome some rough patches at the end of the day. As Clay said last week, “Time don’t mean shit." No matter how long a storyline lasts, no matter how much history it refers to, so long as it resonates in the end, I am open to seasonal structures like this one.
Last week finally brought things together by merging the season’s ongoing storyline with John Teller’s time in Belfast, which is a great development (and yes, you can now quote me that “near-miss incest is great!”). It ties together questions of family and questions of the club as "family," questions that Father Ashby placed in Jax’s head last week and questions that haunt Jax when he finally finds his son. After a season-long rescue mission, Jax discovers that Abel doesn't need to be rescued from his fate in Ireland. That fate is a quiet day shopping at a market, enjoying the simple moments of life being lived. It’s being with two people who live normal lives, and who will always be there for him when something goes wrong. They are the kind of people who will give Abel a "good life."
The scene where Jax stalks Abel's new parents is haunting, one of Adam Arkin's finer moments in a strong directorial effort. Jax's observations speak to everything that he believes John Teller was trying to tell him. By reframing Teller’s memoir as a comment on his family legacy, rather a comment on the club "family," Jax returns to the intense self-reflection that the character sort of lost this season. His search for Abel has been so all-encompassing that he has pushed away emotion (Tara, for example), and the show has largely moved away from the club's internal conflict, which was so prominent last season. Here, Jax chooses to define his son's best interest independent of SAMCRO, something that Gemma considers heresy (and this is someone who held a gun to a baby earlier in the episode).
And yet the show sort of considers it heresy as well, really. Any hope of Jax truly getting out of the club is pretty much gone before this point, but the results of this strategic retreat seal the deal. His decision to separate his “family” from Abel’s life leads to his adopted parents being executed by Jimmy, a sort of karmic repudiation of his earlier decision, and he immediately reverts back to the old ways. John Teller’s manuscript becomes worthless, an idealistic document with no connection to reality, and what he really needs to do is screw societal norms in favor of good ol’ fashioned biker justice. It’s an abrupt turn, almost as abrupt as Jax’s emotional breakdown, and it says something we’ve known for quite some time: Jax Teller still has no idea who he is.
Gemma knows who she is: She is the matriarch, the figure who points guns at babies and tries to take control of her family. And Clay, albeit facing questions of what retirement will mean for him, is pretty secure in what role he plays. By comparison, Jax has always been a liminal figure in a world governed by absolute devotion to the club, and so this season’s fairly linear characterization has seemed reductive. Here, though, we see the scars of Jax’s one-mindedness in the moment where he stops to wonder what he’s really chasing, and he questions everything that it has taken to get to this point; the people who have died, the lives that have been changed, the damage it has done to the club (which he cares about, regardless of any moments of doubt).
“Bainne” is officially the end of “Where’s Abel?” but “Who’s Jax?” remains very much in play. Yes, in this moment he sees the club as the cornerstone of his life, and now that his son has been restored the family (as it is) is complete. Trinity is his “darling” sister rather than his incestuous lover, and those moments of bonding are some of the first real moments of happiness that these people have experienced. Heck, Father Ashby even sacrificed his own life in order to reunite them, suggesting both a strong case of Catholic guilt and perhaps a hope that this fulfills his promise to Jax’s father.
But the letters Maureen received from John, letters which shed light on Clay and Gemma’s role in John’s death, are a ticking time bomb. They could tear apart what the club represents, revealing that their involvement is not entirely dissimilar from the sort of rebellion that Clay snuffed out with a shove off a roof in last week’s episode. Abel being kidnapped brought the club closer together: Nothing unites a family more than an attack on one of their own. By comparison, this calm is more dangerous, as there are various disruptive elements which could tear them apart all over again. Heck, even as they celebrate, Tara is at gunpoint after trying to save the life of one of her captors after that kidnapping went south, while the remaining sons and the ATF stumble their way into making the situation even worse.
“Bainne” is an important pivot in that it has to sustain our interest while resolving the season’s primary interest to this point, and I think it succeeds outside of some ongoing (but improving) pacing concerns inherent to transatlantic storytelling: We may no longer be worried about Abel, but the show has returned to a point at which multiple balls are in the air, which could go in a number of unpredictable directions. It may have been a long journey to get here, but this hour was better thanks to the weight of that journey, and there is still plenty of time for the calculated chaos we have come to associate with the show to return in earnest.
- "Bainne," by the by, means "milk" in gaelic. Interpret Away!
- Charlie Hunnam and Katey Sagal absolutely killed their big scene here—the former, in particular, put in some series best work. He was great playing the absolute despair at the start of the season, but the internal conflict we saw here was a new level. Sagal, meanwhile, continues to be as great as ever.
- In case it wasn’t clear above, I thought Gemma holding a gun to a baby was awesome.
- The political side of Charming is technically heating up, and Unser chewing out Hale was a nice moment (and returns Unser to the Sons for information/assistance), but I would say that the political stuff still seems a bit abstract separate from the central conflict.
- I know that the show is not always one for subtlety, but the blood from Jimmy’s execution splattering onto the crucifix? Groan.
- Yes, this is four straight B+ grades for the show, from three different reviewers.