Season four of Sons Of Anarchy debuts tonight on FX at 10 p.m. Eastern.
When it comes to TV shows, it’s easy to forget the importance of perception. We can think of an episode, or an entire season, as a sort of single entity, and then act like that entity can be marked as “good” or “bad,” quality-wise. Simple enough, right? Like, “The third season of Breaking Bad is one of the best seasons of any show in the history of television.” That’s a bold statement, and it’s certainly possible to disagree with it, but nobody argues that you can’t say it at all. And once it’s said, if you do agree with it, that group of 13 episodes becomes more than its individual parts. You rewatch it, you see connections between scenes you might not have noticed before, that might not even have been intended by the show’s creators. And when you go into the next season, you expect that level of quality to continue, which is good and bad. On the plus side, it means every new scene, even the most mundane, will be viewed with an eye presuming genius. On the down side, if those new scenes don’t start delivering on the same (and I mean the exact same) promises the last season provided, people will get restless. It’s a dangerous line to walk.
In a way, the fourth season of Sons of Anarchy has an easier route ahead, because the show’s third season wasn’t all that great. I’m sure it has its defenders, but the general critical consensus about Jax’s Irish Adventure, Gemma’s struggle with her father’s growing senility and the sad death of Agent Stahl isn’t a positive one. There were great moments last year, and even solid episodes, but the season faced a host of problems before it hit the finish line; the biggest one, a badly misconceived structure that left viewers frustrated by the show’s newfound inability to get to the point. SOA should be balls-to-wall, questionable violence, passionate people not always making the best choices. It has to keep moving--character beats are great, because the ensemble here is deep and worth exploring, but there are some series which can handle aimless, and this ain’t one of them. So going into season four, SOA has something to prove. It needs to recapture some of what made those first two seasons (especially S2) so much fun to watch. But it’s also coming back to a fan base which (presumably) hasn’t lost hope. S3 wasn’t so bad that it brought all of the series’ faults up to the light. It just wasn’t great—and we’re ready and waiting to see greatness again.
In that light, “Out,” is a solid start. The episode picks up 14 months after the end of season three, opening with Jax, Clay, and the rest of the incarcerated Sons (well, the recently incarcerated ones) getting released. Right from the start, SOA is working in its comfort zone: A folky, up-tempo number plays over shots of Jax getting his things, Tara at home with his son, Gemma with the baby, and various other players getting ready for the big homecoming. This sets a tone that will last for much of the episode—“Out” isn’t looking to break new ground or shake the foundations. There’s sex, violence, and motorcycles, all as we’ve come to expect. New threats are introduced to the Sons solidarity, and a new challenge for Charming is on the horizon. Some of these challenges have been building for a while; at least one is completely new. Jacob Hale Jr. is back, along with some new characters looking to pose problems for our boys down the line.
All in all, it’s a well-paced hour-plus of television, and it’s great to see everyone back to doing what they do best. (In the case of former sheriff and permanent friend of the Sons Unser, what he does best appears to be “suffering.”) There are some clunky lines of dialogue, and the urgency level is low, but if “Out” has a problem, it’s that this is a very safe episode. There isn’t really anything here that’s all that shocking or intense—there are twists, but even the twists seem the usual routine. This is a back-to-basics episode. It sets up the main storylines for the rest of the season, the ones we’ll be discussing in upcoming weeks; it does so efficiently, although not always with a lot of grace. And if it doesn’t quite have the kick that, say, seeing Deputy Hale get run over last year had; and if none of the potential Big Bads here are as immediately polarizing as Zoebelle and the White Power Players were in season two; well, maybe that’s to be expected. After running over so much shaky ground, it’s necessary to come back to the core of the show, even if that means hitting the ground walking, not running.
These aren’t reservations, exactly; before this season started, I got a chance to watch the first ep (and the episodes following, although I’ve been holding off on those) to see if I wanted to jump back on the show. While I don’t think “Out” is terrific, I do think it’s got its head and heart in the right places, and I’m excited to see how these various threads will play out. If Kurt Sutter and the SOA creative team want to get back on the same high the show once rode with ease, this isn’t a bad way to start. Bring back the family tensions that last season all but erased; focus more on the inherent contradiction at the heart of the club that often drives the best scenes—the fact that the Sons are both good men and criminals whose greed and immaturity keeps getting in the way of their best intentions. We need Jax not to spend the whole first half of the season in a funk. I have no idea what lies ahead; it could be that Sutter will meet these hopes, or it could be that he’ll subvert all of them and still turn out a terrific season. “Out” isn’t perfect, but it hits the notes it needs to hit, and I’m looking forward to what comes next. That’s another thing about perceptions; if a season is considered “bad,” it can feel like a breach in contract between the creator and the audience. So I’m a little reluctant sitting back down to the table—but I’m less reluctant now than I was before.
- In the future, I’ll be getting into the plot and character work in each episode with more depth; consider this a teaser for tonight’s premiere.