[This is a review of Sons of Anarchy season 7, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
After Sons of Anarchy sent both Clay and Tara to meet with Mr. Mayhem last season, the show found itself without two of its most charismatic and endearing stars. It also found itself facing a final season without the benefit of two highly antagonistic relationships that had fueled much of the program’s drama from the very beginning.
This may have left even the most die-hard Sons fan wondering whether or not season 7 – a.k.a. the Final Ride – would have enough of a dramatic charge left for its final 13 (undoubtedly extended, montage-filled) episodes to be as wild and unpredictable as the show’s creator would like them to be.
Now admittedly, the on-again, off-again conflict between Jax Teller and Clay Morrow had threatened to erupt into a maelstrom of violence so many times over the course of seasons 1-6, only to be delayed for one elaborate reason or another, that by the time their twisted and brutal father-son relationship came to a bloody close, the sensation it produced was one of relief more than genuine satisfaction.
Over the years, the Gemma-Tara conflict wasn’t much different. The battle for matriarchal supremacy in Jax’s life, as well as the SAMCRO clubhouse, led to more than its fair share of fisticuffs, screaming matches, and bizarre plots, especially last season when it devolved into a wildly ambitious but ill-fated scheme that included a fake pregnancy, an equally fake miscarriage, and eventually the intimation that Tara would testify against the club. The history between the two was so complicated and so drawn out it had long since exhausted itself of any actual drama; it was careening down a path filled with increasingly convoluted storylines.
So, in order to prepare the road for the series' final ride, choices had to be made.
And although Gemma’s murder of Tara at the end of ‘A Mother’s Work’ felt like it served the need for gruesome violence more than anything else, it’s hard to stay upset considering, at long last, Sons of Anarchy finally made a decisive choice regarding its characters. Along with Clay’s death earlier in the season, those decisions, good or bad, would largely determine how season 7 played out.
Moreover, the Freudian nightmare Jax is now unwittingly faced with in ‘Black Widower’ offers the show a chance to play with something it hasn’t necessarily had before in a season premiere: a single, relatively straightforward plot.
Despite being bracketed by torture sequences (and montages, naturally), it is a fairly low-key opening for the season. And despite the series’ well-documented love for schemes, double-crosses, and eleventh-hour saves, the premiere offers little in the way of the over-plotting that has burdened the narrative in the past. Instead, it is predominantly focused on the emotional baggage of its characters.
For his part, Jax spends much of the premiere chain smoking like a man who has recently been given a terminal diagnosis. Nothing he does is going to change that conclusion, so he’ll just smoke them since he’s got them, thank you very much.
Even before his jailhouse meeting with Ron Tully (played by Marilyn Manson with 100 percent less greasepaint), the third most powerful player in the West Coast chapter of the Aryan Brotherhood, it’s plain to see that Hunnam has stripped his characterization of Jax to little more than a head full of greasy hair and a haunting, dead-eyed stare. It’s been roughly two weeks since the death of Tara, and Jax has all but been hollowed out. Hunnam’s portrayal is so severe that Gemma's description of her son as being “sad” becomes the one truly funny moment in the episode.
And in the stripped down or emptied out persona of Jax Teller, Sons of Anarchy finds the simplicity that may very well drive it through the remaining 12 episodes.
In spite of its tendency to overindulge in its TV-MA rating without making much of a case for those elements to actually be onscreen – let alone constantly commented on by Tig – what's refreshing about 'Black Widower' is that Jax isn’t conspiring to make a play for SAMCRO in one direction or the other. Sure, he gets wrapped up in some gun talk with Nero, the Mayans, and Lin, but he’s not really interested in business right now; it’s all a smokescreen to get what he really wants: revenge for Tara’s murder.
And even though Jax is afforded the opportunity to enact some of that vengeance on the party he wrongly believes responsible, you can bet he's not done there. Playing up this angle provides the show with an early trajectory; something for Jax to build toward, especially now that he’s ostensibly the primary protagonist again and his wants will almost certainly dictate how the season plays out.
Whether or not that is going to be better for the show remains to be seen, but the relative simplicity of it all is rather enticing. And considering how many times the show has burned its audience through unnecessary scheming, the way it presents the story here as something as simple and straightforward as a broken man yearning for revenge, just feels like it will serve the series quite well.
Sure, Sons of Anarchy likely won't be able to resist playing three, four, or five hands, even when it's holding the best cards possible – a fact that's already evident in any scene featuring Juice and his pained conscience – but for now, there's sense of apprehension and anticipation hanging over every loving word Gemma utters to her son.
And that's enough. The tension generated by these moments relies on the audience having information that many of the characters do not. This marks new territory for a show that likes to keep things from its viewers, as it makes it easier to gut punch them later by reversing course at the very last second.
In the end, though, 'Black Widower' benefits from this new level of transparency; it makes every action that Jax takes to get his revenge feel significant for him and for Gemma.
It's probably just the vapors from the notion of this being the Final Ride, but there's a sense of real consequence running throughout the episode, and that makes what's lurking around the bend seem more exciting than usual.
Sons of Anarchy continues next Tuesday with 'Toil and Till' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Prashant Gupta/FX