I love it when a story surpasses your expectations. We've all been there. When you've watched enough of this stuff, you look for warning signs–sloppy plotting, bad world-building, clunky dialogue. None of it has to be obvious to catch your attention; you see some bad acting, you recognize boring character arcs getting slotted in to place, and you decide to move on. Eight or nine times out of ten, you're right to do so, but it's the tenth time that you look out for. Those rare moments when something twists into shape and you realize what you'd dismissed as crap was part of a plan after all.
Sons of Anarchy never seemed like crap, but back at the pilot, I didn't like Jax much. Charlie Hunnam projected this empty pretty-boy charisma that bored me to tears, and the idea of having to put up with him while far more interesting actors hung at the sidelines wasn't appealing. When we started doing the regular blog, I started digging him more, but he still seemed more like a standard requirement for the series than a compelling element. Like how the Marx Brothers always kept Zeppo around.
Between last week and this week, he's fast becoming my favorite person on the show. Clay still takes the prize–Ron Perlman after all, and he gets some awesome business in "Hell Followed"–but Jax blows everybody else out of the water. First it's shooting Kohn and then screwing his ex on the bed by the body; and now, we're finally seeing that whole pretty-boy thing collapse in on itself. At the beginning of "Hell," Jax dumps Kohn's body, and for once, he isn't wearing his Sam Crow leather. That doesn't happen too much on the series, but small a change as it is, it meant a lot; Jax is going off reservation, doing things that aren't in the club's best interests. He's vulnerable now, in all sorts of ways.
Leave him there for the moment, because as great as it is to see Jax finally coming in to focus, tonight's ep really belong to Clay. After the botched hit by the Mayans, Sam Crow is looking for payback, but Sheriff Unser isn't having any of it. There's been violence on Charming soil, and if something isn't done, there's going to be a lot more of it. A debt has to be paid, but the Sons can't risk an all out war. Too much heat on an already troubled situation. So Clay beats the crap out of Darby till he gets the truth, and then he has Unser bring Alvarez in to the jail so the two can have a conversation.
Perlman is better than ever here; the beat-down on Darby, with Clay struggling to land every arthritic punch, was badass, and it was great seeing him talk through the Mayan problem. Whatever he may have done to Jax's father, Clay earned the president's seat in Sam Crow. The compromise he comes up with–selling guns to the Mayans–gives the club a stronger financial footing and avoids any further blood shed. Although there's still the debt to be paid, Alvarez is willing to pay it; he gives up his son's life in exchange for the gun connection. Another reminder that family may be important, but the club trumps all.
But back to Jax. He's got an edge in "Hell" that he didn't have before; he stares down his mother and Tig when they find him coming out of Tara's house, and the whole episode he seems like he's trying to see his way through something that just won't play out. He tells Tara that he keeps seeing bodies, and he reads in his dad's book about how blood leads to blood, so you wonder if some kind of consciousness is growing, some desire for a different life. And yet, when the opportunity presents itself to add another body to the pile, Jax is right in line. Sam Crow's new IRA contact wants them to off a port commissioner responsible for the death of their last contact. Opie's decided he wants back in full time, and he immediately volunteers, but Jax fights him for the privilege. Clay sends the two of them to do the job, along with Bobby to make sure it gets done right; Opie's supposed to pull the trigger to prove his commitment to the club, but Bobby ends up killing the guy. I'm not sure what Bobby's look to Clay was at the end, and we'll have to wait till next week for the consequences, but it's Jax I'm interested in here. He's trying to get over Kohn's death by getting into the game and pretending nothing happened; he even tries to burn Dad's book over Kohn's corpse. But in the end, he jumps back into the fire and pulls the pages out. Much as he would like to follow in Clay and Gemma's footsteps, there's something in him that balks. It's going to cause problems down the road.
So is his relationship with Tara. Jax pulls her in to help deal with the IRA guy's ass-wound, and she ends up staying the night. The next morning, she walks into the bar to see the club and all the hangers-on slumped over chairs and pool tables. There's an awkwardness to her presence in the room that would make her and Jax's relationship difficult even under the best of circumstances. As Gemma points out, Tara isn't with the club. She's not going to be anyone's old lady. So where exactly do they think they're going with this? For once, Gemma's warnings don't sound exaggerated; she tells Tara to leave before something bad happens, but it's a little late for that.
—That sounded like an acoustic version of "Fortunate Son" over the ending montage; whatever it was, it was nice.