In many respects, season 4 of Sons of Anarchy was an attempt to give the series a clean slate. It was a perfect jumping on point for new viewers. Most importantly, however, the sense of starting over allowed creator Kurt Sutter and his writers a chance to redirect the flow of the series back down the path it had begun with the first season.
The premise was simple: after the motorcycle club has paid its collective debt to society, SAMCRO emerges to a world that has moved on without them. It was an idea that thankfully pulled the focus from season 3's crazy, baby-stealing Irishmen, trips to Belfast, and Agent Stahl, and helped consolidate the many subplots of lies, double-dealings and revenge. It also meant viewers were asked to settle once more into the sometimes-overwrought, Shakespearean melodrama involving Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and his Machiavellian stepfather, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman).
And while that premise made for an intriguing concept for season 4, it also forced the spotlight on that lingering plot thread that has existed since the show began, and the consequences of which SOA has only hinted at. In ‘To Be (Act I),’ it seemed as though Sutter was finally ready to address the issue – particularly where Clay and Gemma (Katey Sagal) were involved in the death of John Teller. While there are some important developments in this direction, the result of ‘To Be (Act II)’ feels as if consequence may have taken a backseat to the perception of progression.
Like the premiere, there is a lot of story to deal with in the season finale, which undoubtedly is why Sutter lobbied so fervently for more time. Ultimately, FX agreed to give Sons an additional hour, which still may not have been enough, as the apprehension surrounding the final moments comes off feeling a bit rushed. ‘To Be (Act II)’ is saddled with the responsibility of wrapping up not only the pending legal hell that is primed to drop on the heads of SAMCRO, but the episode is also asked to deliver the conclusion to Jax’s threat to finally kill Clay.
Perhaps it is the time constraint, or perhaps it is because the story is just too big right now, but given the build-up to this point, both aspects faltered somewhat in delivering a truly powerful climax.
As the Jax and Clay saga leaves the life of a major character hanging in the balance, that conflict arguably takes center stage over everything else. Thereby, it’s easy to understand why the RICO case that would effectively leave SAMCRO and several other criminal organizations in utter ruin is so quickly turned into a plot point for next season. However, it is the way that the storyline – which the viewer was asked all season long to accept as legitimate and pressing – is shuffled off, so it can be dealt with later, that feels like something of a cheat.
To their credit, the creative folks behind Sons of Anarchy do their best to provide a reasonable answer to the lack of efficacy seen in the numerous cases the Sons, Kings or Mayans. However, the crutch that the government and its various arms of law enforcement (from the law in Charming, to the FBI and all the way up the food chain to the Central Intelligence Agency) are, more often than not, battling their own internal bureaucracy and one another, while colluding in some form or another with the very criminal enterprises they are attempting to vanquish, makes the overall narrative of Sons of Anarchy feel as though it is chasing its tail.
At a certain point the inefficacy of law enforcement becomes as much of a hindrance on the program as the already unbelievable level of violence and illegal activity said inefficacy allows to continue. SAMCRO and several other criminal organizations are constantly running around, creating mayhem that apparently no one sees – which puts Rockmond Dunbar’s Eli Roosevelt in the unenviable position of being the most ineffective law enforcement officer this side of Barney Fife.
And it’s not like these guys are super criminals, or masterminds. Most of the time its one or two competent individuals leading a ragtag group of seemingly half-witted, loose cannons whose sole skill set revolves around a predilection toward violence and the uncanny ability to shrug off beatings, bullet wounds and the eye of the public – despite engaging in nearly every illegal activity dressed in what amounts to be a billboard advertising their allegiance to a certain motorcycle club.
Certainly, Sutter is painting the Sons as modern day outlaws and rebels, but without the presence of a competent adversary to deal with their shenanigans, it all just rings a bit untrue.
Additionally, as the Jax and Clay confrontation looms, the audience is bombarded with a rapid-fire succession of events and decisions made by major characters they later recant to seemingly leave the audience shocked by the turnaround.
Not surprisingly, season 4 relies too heavily on a multitude of eleventh hour reprieves and reveals to get its characters to follow the progression of the storyline. For four seasons now, SOA has been circling the same conclusion of the various conflicts surrounding Jax Teller, namely: Jax vs. Clay, Jax vs. the truth and Jax vs. himself.
All of these are fine avenues to explore, but here one would expect to find large story arcs encompassing the aforementioned themes – each building to an eventual conclusion. Instead, SOA creates a series of tiny climaxes…and then quickly negates them.
Everyone has that friend or family member who announces what major life change he or she is going to undertake months down the road, but when the time comes to deliver, they find some reason not to go through with said plans. Somehow, Sons of Anarchy has become the television equivalent of that person.
All joking aside, the end result of this constant vacillation by the characters and their circumstances is that the audience no longer believes in the effect of any decision or action, because it is immediately overwritten by the character then doing the opposite. And therein lies the major problem with the finale. From the beginning, there was a sense that a resolution was on the horizon, that the characters would have to face tough consequences, but as the season wore on, it became apparent the various plots were simply headed for the mere promise of closure.
Season 4 offered Sons of Anarchy its biggest chance to move forward and tell the tale of what happens – rather than merely suggest the possibilities of what may happen. By the end of ‘To Be (Act II)’ we see some tears, some bloodshed and some jailhouse guitar playing, but, ultimately, this season’s ending just became another promise waiting to be fulfilled.
Sons of Anarchy will return for a fifth season September 2012.