[This is a review of Sons of Anarchy season 7, episode 2. There will be SPOILERS]
With the possible exception of a five-minute montage set to a Dollar Store version of a rock 'n' roll classic, nothing makes Sons of Anarchy feel more like Sons of Anarchy than when a chase sequence is kicked off with the dulcet tones of any vaguely P.O.D.-sounding band, before a series of rapid-fire edits inevitably results in a low-angle moving shot taken from one or both vehicles in question.
That is to say, the show definitely has its own distinct comfort zone, and with 'Toil and Till,' the second episode of the final season, it settles into that comfort zone with the kind of ease that borders on blissful indifference. It's sort of like a dad's insistence on wearing black socks with sandals. You know it's going to happen, but aside from the general awkwardness of having to watch it go down, there's little reason for anyone to try and stop it now.
Besides, given the ratings success of last week's premiere, the appreciation of that formula seems to be one shared by many.
And although the series' comfort zone doesn't produce any great surprises in storytelling or technique over the hour (and 16 minutes), the episode does make good on the decisive action of Jax Teller against Lin, thanks to the cock-and-bull story recounted by Gemma that pointed the finger at a now-dead soldier in Lin's gang.
After the torture and murder of a (relatively) innocent man, Jax has decided to step up his assault on the Chinese organization by doing what he does best: engaging in the systematic destruction of his enemy, by first talking about it in exacting detail with anyone who asks.
'Toil and Till' is largely a table setting episode. Things happen that will have an impact down the road, but for now, the show is content to have them linger in the mind of the viewer.
It is an episode that, in its later moments, relies primarily on the emotional impact of its imagery. The shot of Jury cradling the young man Jax just had a hand in killing, and the closing image of Jax holding his child while a tear rolls down his cheek. are indicative of the emotional cost of what these men do. And depending on how successful you feel the show is with regard to its willingness to comment on the ramifications of violence versus what may be seen as the simple glorification of it, these scenes will likely affect you differently.
Whether it is successful in that arena or not, the episode does handle one aspect quite well: the persistent weight of Tara's absence and the need to avenge/hide from culpability for her death.
Last episode worked to establish Juice's role in the season's narrative, with the tacit implication that the only reason Gemma hasn't killed him, too, is his role in saving her from Eli, and the fact that Jax wants him dead essentially gives her an ally. To what end Gemma plans on using Juice, however, is unclear – which works to the advantage of both characters.
And while his continued existence confounds logic to a certain degree, and the seams are most definitely showing in any scene in which his pangs of conscience over old sins and new ones seem to get the better of him, offering Juice as a plot device and one of two possible spoilers for Gemma's secret may prove to be best possible scenario for the character.
The other, then, is Wayne Unser and his recent appointment as a consulting investigator with Charming's new sheriff, Althea Jarry (played by Annabeth Gish, late of FX's The Bridge).
The plot thickens after Wayne fails to put his Charming police file in a safe place before taking a nap, despite knowing that Gemma's going to bring him a cup of tea later. Wayne has no reason not to trust Gemma in this particular situation, but still, his file placement carries a distinct hint of convenience. Although the presence of the file isn't necessarily problematic in and of itself, the glimpse Gemma gets at Wayne's ID card may just spell trouble – for Wayne, that is.
As with the chase sequence and the inevitable montage, Gemma's involvement in Juice and Unser's threads again feels like Sons of Anarchy is positioning itself to work from a familiar place. It's unchallenging in a way that is neither intensely intriguing nor particularly problematic at this point.
There is a pleasant levelness to this season that, although it borders on sameness, seems to point toward the inevitability of several plots coming full circle. While a certain amount of inevitability can work to the show's advantage, it raises the question as to whether or not a sense of inescapability will pay off from a creative standpoint in terms of validating and satisfying the needs of the show's complex history.
Sons of Anarchy will continue next Tuesday with 'Playing with Monsters' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Prashant Gupta/FX