Say this much for “To Be, Act 2”: It shows its hand very, very quickly.
This doesn’t take away the fact that the show has been bluffing about its hold cards since the very start of the season, but it mitigates the pain a little, and for that, I’m grateful. The Galindo Cartel is, for all intents and purposes, under CIA control, and Romeo and his lieutenant are agents, with badges and everything. The government is supporting Galindo over Lobos because they want to gain a stronger foothold in the region, and he who controls the drugs controls the people, or something along those lines. On one level, this fits in with Sons Of Anarchy’s views on the essential corruption of bureaucracy and federal law enforcement, with those in power using anyone smaller than themselves to achieve their goals without care or concern for how their actions affect the little people. On another level, this is weak, sloppy storytelling, an insultingly vapid deus ex machina designed largely to make sure we get to the end of the season with minimal shift in character or situation. It’s a reset button, and what’s worse, it’s a reset button that hits at the exact moment when all the built up tension the show has been accumulating over the past few weeks was primed to explode. If you’ll allow me to be crude for a moment, “Act 2” caused what can only be termed the viewing equivalent of blue balls, a state of high excitement cut short by a slamming door, and no cold shower in the world can take away the ache.
There are, as always, ways this could have worked. There are shows that made a habit out of screwing with viewers’ expectations in ways that left them panting for more (all right, I’m going to need to avoid anything even remotely sexual from now on). The Sopranos springs to mind, for one, and while that show had its critics, there was at least an intention behind the constant deflation of expectation. Creator David Chase was trying to provoke his audience, and force them to pay attention to other stories, to realize that, for Tony Soprano, life was always going to be a series of near catastrophes, right up until the point it was an actual catastrophe, and the world fell down. By the end of “To Be,” I don’t feel like Kurt Sutter and his writing staff really have the same goals. And whether they do or not is beside the point; this is a lousy case of dictated convenience, of an arbitrary and unbelievable reveal used to shift characters around to where the writers want them to be for next season, as opposed to where they might land organically. It’s not just that the Galindo reveal means that Linc’s plans are all for naught, thus saving Jax and the club and the Irish from getting pulled into jail. Romeo’s CIA connections mean that Galindo’s arrangements with the IRA have to go through, and wouldn’t you know it, the Irish will only make a deal with Clay. So Jax can’t get his revenge after all, and even worse, he can’t leave Charming now, because he can’t abandon the club to the feds. The episode ends with him taking the President’s chair in the clubhouse and Tara taking her place at his side, the two of them just happening to recreate the same tableau John Teller and Gemma formed in a photo taken many years before.
As a visual, it’s striking; as a concept, it’s silly. The whole scene leading up to that final shot is silly, all grand portent and Shakespearean drama, but unable to shake the hollow, weightless feeling so much of the episode carries. It’s supposed to be a dramatic statement of Jax finally sitting at the throne, and raising questions about whether or not he’ll be able to pull the club above the muck of crime and violence it’s fallen into; maybe we’re also supposed to be thinking about fate and destiny and the like, and the way events arranged themselves to take away any illusions of choice he might have had left. Really, though, all I could think about was the level of contrivance required to get him into that chair, and how that contrivance took away one of the cornerstones of great drama: personal responsibility.
Jax has been a passive protagonist for far too long, and this season looked to change that, to force him into a confrontation with the man who killed his father, threatened his wife, and was slowly but surely destroying SAMCRO. And we almost got that. In the end, though, Jax’s options were stripped away, as his mother manipulated him, his wife gave him his marching orders, and then the government came in and removed whatever was left. I’d like to get excited about where the show goes next with Jax in the lead, Tara supporting him, maybe Opie hanging back, looking to get some vengeance. And I won’t lie, part of me is excited. But the cost it took to get to this point meant sacrificing much of the reason why it was so important for all of this to happen in the first place. Jax isn’t taking control. He’s surrendering. There’s drama in that, certainly, in a strong man being forced into a role he doesn’t want, paying for his sins in a way that will only force him to go on sinning till he dies. But even that’s largely missing from this episode, with all its comments on “the good guys” losing. This isn’t tragedy. It’s happenstance.
To give credit where it's due, the actors certainly give it their all, especially Charlie Hunnam, who spends most of the hour with wearing an expression of furious despair as though it were another patch, marking him as a member of a club no one wants to join. Between him, Katay Sagal, Maggie Siff, and the rest, “To Be” works better than it might’ve, and it's easy to fall under the spell of committed performances and hushed, dramatic lighting. And for some scenes, the mournful tone seems indicative of a much deeper, more powerful hour of television, to the point where this is not really the catastrophe it might’ve been. Jax telling Tara that they can’t leave after all is a well-handed scene, as there’s no sense of confrontation or anger between the two of them. Jax isn’t reneging on his word; he’s adjusting to circumstances he couldn’t possibly have foreseen, and Tara doesn’t blame him for that. It’s a fine moment, although that doesn’t mean I buy Tara’s final decision to stay in Charming and put her boys at risk. I get the intention; Tara is shifting from “I’m going to be a doctor” to “I’m going to be an Old Lady,” and while that’s sort of horrible, it works as a dramatic arc (and was most likely inevitable if she was going to stay on the show). But it doesn’t fit together the way it should. We saw her despair and her anger, but the final transition seems more like someone decided, “Oh, it would be great if they were to pose like the photo of JT and Gemma!” and that was that.
I’m nitpicking, maybe, because Tara was far from the worst problem here. How about Jax’s big confrontation with Clay in the hospital? No matter how hard Hunnam tried to sell the intensity, the fact that Clay is basically let off the hook for his actions is hard to stomach. This was the most awkward twist of the episode, really. The IRA’s refusal to deal with anyone but Clay has some history on the series, but that history didn’t make the refusal enough reason to keep Jax from killing the man who murdered his father and tried to murder his wife. And what do we get in the end? Clay loses the presidency. That’s all. He’s still a member of the club, he still sits at the table, he still gets to vote, he just can’t pretend he’s in charge anymore. There are ramifications to this, and I’m sure there will be all kinds of intense undercurrents next season between Clay and everyone else, but after everything else, it can’t help but feel like a one step forward, two steps back exchange. I love Ron Perlman, but the show would’ve been better without him after this year. As it is, it’ll be hard to get too excited when he starts pulling strings again, because we know how far the writers will go to make sure he doesn’t get anything cut. Last week, I said I could imagine a situation in which Clay would survive that would actually be better for the show as a whole, but that situation depended on Jax making a choice not to kill the man he had every reason to want dead. There’s no choice here. I won’t deny there’s something darkly effective about realizing that Jax and Clay’s plan was doomed from the very start of the season, but the way it plays out makes this whole season feel almost like a bad joke. Are there consequences to what happened this fall? Sure, there are. But compared to what was implied, compared to the stakes these characters were fighting for, this was small change.
If I sound dispirited, well, that’s because I am. For the most part, this was a good season, a return to form after the show briefly lost its way, and that makes it more disappointing when it fails to stick the landing in the finale. Worse, that failure was brought about by a fear of risks, rather than an embrace of them; the potential seismic shift in the status quo has been reduced to a few minor tremors. Hell, even Juice is off scot-free, and Bobby (whom we see playing guitar in jail, a shot which I don’t think was intended to be funny, but really, really was) will be out soon. Lincoln Potter, because apparently he’s a nice guy now, manages to stymie Hale’s attempts to build Charming Heights, which is fine, except I spent the whole season waiting for the Charming Heights story to have anything to do with the main story, and it never did, really. On the cliffhanger side, the woman Tig ran over last week (who was Laroy’s girlfriend, not his wife) was the daughter of an important crime lord, so I’m sure that will come up again next fall. But it’s hard for me to get too excited anymore. Back at the beginning of the season, I said that when a show stumbles, it loses a certain amount of its audience’s faith. The fourth season of Sons Of Anarchy was fine, occasionally amazing, often absurd, and, in the end, full of unanswered prayers. I’ll probably be back next year. But I won’t expect much.
- I spent a good part of yesterday afternoon trying to find the right comparison point for the Galindo reveal. The best I could come up with was the end of the second season of Dexter, or any number of episodes of Heroes. It’s not just that the show cheated, so to speak. It’s that it cheated after focusing all our attention on a conflict it had no intention of seeing through.
- Juice was watching The Shield in prison. Neat!
- “You’re a really odd dude, man. You know that’s hard to get past, right?”
- “I don’t really like people all that much.”
- See you next year, folks.