The problem, I think, was the cliffhanger.
The second season of Sons of Anarchy ended with the expected bang, as the men of SAMCRO tried to take back their own from the evil, duplicitous Zobelle. Zobelle got thrown out of Charming (although he's still out there, somewhere), but not everything went as planned; due to Stahl's instability and arrogance, one of the club's main IRA connections was killed, and the crime was pinned on Gemma. The other IRA connection, Cameron, who just happened to be the dead man's father, heard of Gemma's supposed involvement in the death over police radio, went crazy, and tracked down Tara, who was taking care of Jax's baby son, Abel. Cameron killed Half-Sack, the prospect charged with protecting Tara while all the craziness was going down, and kidnapped the baby, fleeing on a boat as Jax watched, screaming himself hoarse but unable to follow.
It was powerful, thrilling stuff, and it left a question heading into the third season that seemed to have all kinds of potentially exciting answers: How can Jax get his boy back? And what does this betrayal mean to the club's IRA gun-running? There were ways of resolving this that could've worked, but looking back now, I don't think there was as many ways as I'd initially believed. Cliffhangers are always tricky business, because they create narrative concerns that have to be dealt with, but those narrative concerns aren't automatically connected into the show's larger storylines. The Sons writing staff had to figure out a way to deal with Abel's absence that also fit into whatever larger plan they developed for the season as a whole; otherwise, however many episodes it took to get the kid back would become a drain, a tedious chore that prevented the show from moving at its usual white-knuckle intensity.
The third season started strong, with a blast of violence that took one of the show's few decent, non-club connected characters out permanently (with Hale gone, is there anybody left who hates the Sons and isn't somehow inherently corrupt?), and Gemma's time on the run, visiting her dad and trying to deal with the fallout from her mother's death, had enough poignancy to justify its existence. Plus, hey, a Stephen King cameo that didn't suck. I wasted a lot of electronic ink speculating how Gemma's Dad's thread would connect back in with the rest of the series, how the Big Bad of the season was turning out to be Time itself, and how our pasts don't necessarily leave us no matter how often we think we're done with them. I was impressed by the change in direction, the decision to avoid using one major villain and instead show the Sons beset on all sides by inconvenience, bad luck, and occasional tragedy.
Maybe this was actually the intention; probably, I was just blowing smoke. Whichever it was, it didn't really work. Sons has a good enough cast and a strong enough sense of itself that it's still watchable even when it loses its focus, but man, did this start to sag after a while. And, unsurprisingly, the big problem was Abel. Once Cameron made it overseas back to Ireland, it was only a matter of time before the club followed him over, and the problem was, that matter kept get pushed further and further back, so that by the time we got out big trip to Belfast, it was less a thrill and more a "Gah, finally!" moment. Exciting things happened in Ireland (people were shot, things exploded, half-sisters were nearly fucked), but after so much build-up and so much focus put on it, the Ireland vacation couldn't possibly live up to what it needed to live up to. It couldn't justify the meandering, and it didn't really make sense of what had gone before. There were too many plots on too many fronts and no clear urgency to any of them. The show should be about bikers kicking ass and staying just ahead of the law, with maybe some dabbling into the morality behind their choices. Instead, we got complicated relationships that were less about character and more about remembering who was named what. When a show makes an iPhone app full of series mythology, you should be curious, not relieved that you'll maybe finally figure out just who got screwed over by whom.
The last couple episodes made some smart choices, and tonight's finale, "NS," was promising. Finally, everybody is back in one place, and finally, we get the last nails in the coffin of Abel's kidnapping, as Jimmy is betrayed by his Russian pals and brought to justice at Chibs' hands. (And knives.) We find out that Jax's betrayal of the club was a ruse to throw Stahl off and to put SAMCRO in position to get everything it wanted. Gemma isn't going to jail, but we won't know how much time Jax and the others will be serving till next year. The twist was fun, and it was nice to have at least one complication off the table; I'd still like to see what would happen if Jax was pitted against most of the others, something they've been threatening to do since Jax first read his dead dad's book, but if that happens, Jax needs to be in a position where he has some kind of authority, even if its not a completely effective one. Reducing him to a rat and then watching him struggle to redeem himself would've been tough to pull off.
Plus, Jax's big play was one of the first times in a while that the series has managed to capture what it does best—turning a horrible situation into a triumph. We haven't been able to really root for these guys in a while, and this isn't really a show that thrives on subtle emotions. It's capable of subtlety, but Sons seems to work best when it's pulpy, raw, and a little crazy. And, wouldn't you know it, Agent Stahl is now all three of those things. At least now we know for sure why she killed her partner last week. Oh, yeah, plot-wise it helped her advance her nutty scheming, but she really did it, so she would be so irredeemable that Opie would look like a hero when he shot her in the back of the head. Yes, he was getting revenge for Donna, but since Stahl herself didn't directly shoot Opie's wife, she had to do something with enough visceral evil in it that her execution would be a relatively clean act. So, bye-bye, Stahl. She overstayed her welcome by a season and a half, and she wasn't much more than a cartoon at the end, but, um, she sure went as you would've expected her to go, eh?
What worked the best about "NS" and what allows me to be optimistic about next season's potential, even while having largely mixed feelings on this season overall, is the ending. The episode doesn't manage to make all the IRA stuff feel organic, and Hal Holbrook doesn't pop back in to remind us about that basically innocent housekeeper that got murdered a while back, but it does introduce a new threat to the Sons, and, unlike Cameron and his Disappearing Baby Trick, this threat fits in beautifully with the context of the show overall. Maureen smuggled John's letters to her in Jax's backpack, and Tara found them. Reading them, while Jax and Clay grin at each other in triumph and while Gemma sits with her grandson in her arms, propped up like a queen on her throne, we hear Teller's voice-over again. It's long been hinted at that Clay and Gemma had something to do with John's death. This is a Hamlet riff, after all. And now Tara, the outsider who finally found her way to belonging, has reason to be suspicious. Makes you wonder what else is in those letters. And it makes you wonder what Jax'll do if he reads them.
Till then ...
- So, Opie and Lyla are getting married. Which is nice for them. I guess shooting Stahl was his final act of closure on past relationships.
- In the opening montage, Stahl touches the empty side of her bed, and then she smiles. Yes, we get it, guys. She's EVIL.
- Overall, I'd rank this season at about a B. Which doesn't fit at all if you average all the episode grades together, but still feels about right.