In a recent blog post, show creator Kurt Sutter talked about how TV critics view Sons Of Anarchy. I'm not really interested in that; I understand why he said what he said, but I'm not sure there was much point to the post beyond letting him vent some steam in a fairly tactful way. What interests me is how Sutter compares Sons to Battlestar Galactica. I can see the connection--both shows are pulp with terrific gravitas and amazing ensembles, both are about flawed characters making impossible choices in a world where missteps cost lives. My problem with the comparison is that BSG started with a genocide. Its heroes were on the run from the destruction of their homes and very nearly all of their race. That meant their worst decisions were easier to justify.
There's nothing like that on Sons. The reason so many critics (myself included) mentioned The Sopranos when this show first premiered is that, at first glance, these were a bunch of criminals doing their best to keep breaking the law and getting what they wanted through any means necessary. Sons has deepened considerably since that first episode, and it's easy to sympathize with nearly every character on the series by now, up to a point. One of the smartest things season 2 did was provide us, in the form of Zobelle and his creeps, with bad guys who were so much worse than anything the Sons had gotten up to on their own that questions of culpability were well-balanced. There was a still a line, and sometimes it got crossed (I remember Tara going a little crazy), but there was justification.
Now, though, it's more ambiguous. Yeah, Abel's been kidnapped, so that's a big deal, and the shooter from last week (who wasn't Irish after all, my bad) is also a big deal. But the curious thing about "Oiled" is that even as it pushes us back into the Sons world, we still don't have a clear sense of what the stakes are. Which is an odd thing to say, I realize; again, Abel's missing. That's a stake. But gone is the clear-cut conflict from last season. The shooting, which turns out to be the start of a potential patch-over from a gang friendly to the Mayans, has definite consequences. Hale is dead for sure, which means Unser is back to being sheriff (remember when that seemed like a bad thing?), and the last thing the Sons need is another rival to fight off. But it still feels like prologue right now. That "right back up where we left off" feeling from the premiere is still there, and while the claustrophobia that inspires can be effective, it can also muddle the impact. Like, with Abel, it's not as upsetting as it probably should be. Unless we're building towards the baby getting killed (and while that's possible, I'm not sure how the show could come back from it), this just seems like empty noise right now; the effect the kidnapping has on Jax has potential, but with Cameron dead, the baby doesn't seem in that much danger. Plus, he's over in Ireland, and a field trip episode would just seem an odd fit for this show.
Still, this is just the start of the season, so it's a little early to get too concerned. "Oiled" does have its share of solid beats, like the torture the boys lay down on the contact for the patch-over gang, or the introduction of Bobby's ex, Precious. I loved the smaller moments, too, like how Opie seeing his girlfriend on the cover of a porno DVD distracts him on guard duty, or realizing that the woman taking care of Abel is Paula Malcomson, who played Trixie on Deadwood. And so far, everything over at Gemma's dad place has been gold. Tig freaking out over the figurines? Genius. (And it's even pre-established, given the issues he's had about dolls in the past.) That this led to the Reverend freaking out? Also genius. The rest of the leads are too shell-shocked and intent on pushing forward so far for there to be that much tension in what they do; Jax's beat-down outside the church was bad-ass, but the sense of danger that drive-by promised wasn't all that pressing in "Oiled." (Probably because the threat of the patch-over seems largely academic right now.) But at Gemma's dad's place, everything is on edge and weird, because we don't know what to expect. I don't know what estranged Gemma from her family, and we don't know what the Reverend's caretaker is going to do now that she knows there's a reward out for Gemma. Plus, Tig is as hilarious as always. It's a plotline that could feel extraneous, but so far doesn't.
There are rumblings of something interesting going on with the Irish; I love how everyone believes Clay's story about what really happened with Gemma and Cameron's son, but just believing doesn't mean they immediately return the baby. Cameron dies at the end of the episode, which should make Abel safer--Cameron is the kidnapper, after all, and Cameron was the one acting on rash emotion. But then, at least Cameron was working on a clear moral code; he wasn't a calculating man. These new men are, and that's worrisome. Because Clay is also a calculating man, and the problem with men like that is that they are very sharp, and they are willing to do anything it takes to hold onto the power they have, because they believe that no one else is capable of wielding that power. Which is bad enough, but as we've seen on the show before, it gets worse when these men (and women) turn out to be not quite as sharp as they think they are.
So who knows where all this is going. I miss the clear villain, but I respect the ambition of what it looks like the current season is aiming for--something more complex than a simple evil vs. mostly good. Jax and Tara are still having problems, which is believable, if not exactly compelling. We've been working on Tara's slow evolution into Gemma for two seasons now; it's a good plotline, but it's also one that needs to move into some kind of next stage. (I'm also a little weirded out to see Tara's boss portrayed in a somewhat sympathetic light this year. Wasn't she just a one-note creep last season? I doubt getting the crap kicked out of her would make her a better person.) But I'm sure there's something happening there, and I'm wondering if maybe the conflict between Clay and Jax may become relevant again. Right now, it feels like the show is edging backwards towards a cliff edge. We don't know when the drop hits, or what it will entail, but it's coming. I just hope it gets here soon.
- "It's gonna get a lot worse before it gets better." People are always saying this, and it's never that dramatically effective. The Sons self-importance wears a little thin sometimes. I keep waiting for a reveal that this is all set twenty years into the future, and the rest of the world is ruled by S&M freaks from The Road Warrior.
- Precious's new husband, a bounty hunter, shouts "No! Don't shoot him!" to Jax while they're chasing a fugitive. This seems like a very dumb thing to shout when the escaping bad guy is within ear shot.
- Anybody else think they were going to kill the guy they buried in the dirt, even after deciding it would be better to let him live?