[This is a review of Sons of Anarchy season 7, episode 12. There will be SPOILERS.]
Death is nothing new to Sons of Anarchy. It has been dished out so many times and in so many different ways that an episode without a visit from Mr. Mayhem feels like something was inadvertently left on the editing room floor (not that too much editing or restraint of any kind has been much of a problem this season).
After all, the series is built on a foundation of aggression and violence. And those two elements, no matter how they came to pass, eventually pointed to the inevitable confrontation between Jax and Gemma. So when the series serves up an episode like 'Red Rose' for its penultimate run, it's not too terribly surprising that it would be as chock-full of death as it was.
Maybe, then, it is the overwhelming sense that the events of this episode were a long time coming long before the goings-on of this overstuffed season pushed them back 11 episodes. Or maybe its the fact that Unser and Juice also wind up dead in what is essentially Gemma's swan song that gives this momentous ride a strange but also fitting sense of anticlimax. That may seem odd to say, but if Sons of Anarchy really is a tragedy, then the idea that Jax, and by extension, the audience, are to receive as little catharsis as possible from Gemma's death (and the end of at least one infernal subplot), then the episode definitely hits the nail on the head.
Many viewers will likely be wowed by what transpires in the final moments of 'Red Rose,' and they're right to feel that way. It is, after all, the payoff of what the series has been gearing up for since Jax first cracked open his father's manuscript. But, to the episode's credit, it goes beyond the simple visceral pleasure of seeing vengeance meted out by having Juice and Gemma welcome their demise. That simple twist effectively denies their killers (and those watching) the satisfaction of depriving these wrongdoers that which they fought, killed, and lied to keep a hold of – i.e., their lives.
Looking at it, the sense of anticlimax, the lack of a cleansing release from one final act of violence, makes sense: the series, like Gemma and Juice, painted itself into an emotional corner where there was nothing left for either of them to feel, or for the audience to feel about them, but total exhaustion. In its own way, that weariness, that mutual desire for it all to just stop, for all the pain and violence to just come to an end, feels exactly right. After eleven extra-long episodes of blood, gore, and viciousness effectively wore everyone down (many viewers included) the only thing left was to wait for oblivion's comforting embrace.
That is a unique sentiment to (attempt to) end a series on: the idea that the end isn't something to avoid, but something to welcome. That's not to say there isn't plenty of time to stop Jax and his bum foot from taking Mayhem's hand before limping off into the great blackness beyond, but if that's the way the narrative is headed, then it will, if nothing else, feel like a fitting conclusion to the series.
But even though it is certainly memorable, and by far the most ambitious episode in terms of its willingness to take out key players, 'Red Rose' is still as uneven and poorly paced as every other episode of this season has been.
Again, there is the issue with the show being too long and doing nothing to justify its massive runtime. Much of the episode breaks down into two important threads: Gemma's fate and Jax's attempt to protect the organization by coming clean to the other presidents about his role in Jury's death. These are two potentially meaningful components of a rather gigantic story, and still the episode spends a good chunk of time discussing the shifting power dynamics of heroin and gun dealers. That's like Star Wars deciding it should center a story on the discussion of intergalactic trade routes and taxation.
To put it another way, at this point, how important is it that the Mayans and the Niners are assured future business? What does that add to the story in this particular case? To make matters worse, Jax is facing a vote that will decide whether he lives or dies, and now the Irish have tasked him with rounding up Connor? With Barosky still to be dealt with, not to mention the future of a club that may well be without its president very soon, it's incredibly hard to see the focus on these issues as time well spent.
In that sense, 'Red Rose' is another mixed bag that delivers an interesting and slightly subversive twist on two inevitable deaths, but ultimately undermines their potency by dragging the viewers through too many scenes whose outcome won't really matter after next Tuesday.
Still, despite all that happened – good or bad – the episode delivered a very good scene between Katey Sagal and Hal Holbrook, and another between Jimmy Smits and Charlie Hunnam that was nice continuation of the final moments of 'Suits of Woe.' With Hunnam's subtle line delivery undercutting Smit's eagerness with a chilling portent of doom, it's hard not to appreciate just how potent their chemistry can be. On one hand it's a shame the two didn't get more scenes like the ones they've been given in these final episodes, but maybe these emotionally resonant interactions between Jax and Nero will become the one thing the show leaves audiences wanting more of.
Sons of Anarchy will air its series finale next Tuesday @10pm on FX.
Photos: Byron Cohen/FX