Kurt Sutter would hate any critic calling the fourth season of “Sons of Anarchy” a comeback. I mean, LL Cool J hated that term, but something tells me Sutter would take that rage up a notch or six. Stung by the criticisms of his show’s third season, Sutter lashed out at those that didn’t like Season 3 as people who simply wanted “more of the same” in dramas they liked. But what Sutter didn’t realize, or refused to realize, was that most people didn’t have a problem with the third season changing things up from its near-universally praised second season. People’s problems had nothing to do with change and had everything to do with execution.
Abel Teller’s kidnapping at the end of Season 2 capped a strong, relentless series of episodes that left SAMCRO bruised, bloodied, and barely standing. The same could be said for the show itself by the time it left Belfast by the end of its third iteration. By season’s end, what seemed like a grand plan at first devolved into a series of events planned ahead of time as narrative signposts, instead of flesh-and-blood drama. Sutter and Company needed to get its major players into certain positions throughout the year to create the next stretch of dramatic events, and the chess-like maneuvers were spread far too thin for far too long. Many praised the third season finale’s bait-and-switch techniques as a triumphant return to form. But, in fact, Season 3 was far TOO much form, with the season finale in fact a return to a looser, more improvisatory style befitting a club fighting for its very existence.
(If you want to keep in the dark about any details of Season 4, don’t click through. I don’t get into spoilers, but any information here on out will deal with vague details about the first three hours.)
Then again, the use of the word “club” there is problematic, and a way into a proper review of the show’s fourth season. It’s not a spoiler (I hope!) to say that those imprisoned at the end of Season 3 don’t stay in there very long as the fourth season starts. As the ride through a Charming they barely recognize, the new arm of the law Lt. Roosevelt (played by the always excellent Rockmond Dunbar) stops the crew in the middle of Main Street. He and SAMCRO leader Clay Morrow have the following exchange:
Roosevelt: “The conditions of your release state that no gang colors or identifying clothing may be worn in public.”
Morrow: “We’re not a gang. We’re a motorcycle club.”
Roosevelt: “Well, the federal government disagrees.”
It’s that tension between “club” and “gang” that has not only defined the central tension in the show, but also between the show and its fans. It’s easy to root for SAMCRO when they pull off a particular, spectacular piece of bad-assery (as they do in end of this first hour). But it’s also easy to forget that these people are both charismatic and lethal all at once. Celebrating their actions sometimes comes without moral complication (I’m not sure anyone shed a tear over the white supremacists they killed in Season 2.) But it’s a tension that Sutter exploits directs in the fourth season, as members of SAMCRO try to imagine life without the club, and whether or not that’s even a possibility. You can leave a club. But there seems to be only one way to leave a gang. Just ask John Teller.
This shift in focus from an ocean- and generation-spanning mythological download in Season 3 to the small, yet impossibly larger concerns within SAMCRO itself, gives the show a much needed energy, claustrophobia, and emotional resonance. It’s been difficult to peg people like Jax, Opie, Juice, Tig, Bobby, and everyone else in the club/gang as simple bad guys because of the three-dimensional aspects given both by the shows and the actors that inhabit them. But there’s little grey area in terms of the things they’ve done, but more importantly, they things they begrudgingly agree to do. And the cumulative weight starts to drag certain people to the ground as the fourth season gets into gear. It’s not always perfect (there a massively lazy narrative choice in the third episode that made me roll my eyes), but it’s a leaner, meaner story in which the clock is ticking for every major player. Sometimes that forces people to make snap judgments. And sometimes those judgments have a way of setting an already hot situation ablaze.
At the end of the third season, it looked like Jax was fully under the sway of both Clay and SAMCRO itself, with Tara in possession of letters that implicated Clay and Gemma in the death of Jax’s father. Season 4 unites Jax and Clay under a common goal, but it’s not the goal you think. What that goal is puts SAMCRO and the lives of everyone in it in peril, but it’s a choice neither men feel they can avoid making. It’s a choice that’s arrived at under a mutual understanding, but what’s fascinating about the way it plays out in early hours is how neither men are truly honest with each other OR THEMSELVES about this choice. Their reasons aren’t sound, per say, but they are imminently relatable.
This choice brings the happy party post-release to a swift close, as members start to fight amongst themselves about the future of SAMCRO. It’s interesting to watch how sides develop not so much about past history so much as present obligations. Those with families outside the “family” of the club have a much different perspective to those essentially married to the life within SAMCRO. As such, figures such as Gemma, Tara, and even Lyla still hold major influence and exert as much force as anyone in the group. Jax repeatedly refers to his mother as “just an old lady”, but that’s as much to deceive himself about her power as anything else. “Anarchy” has always stood out in the television landscape for its strong female characters, which exist outside of normal stereotypes and surprise us (and themselves) on a weekly basis.
There are plenty of external threats looming to take them down: these include a Mexican cartel led by Danny Trejo, and a new, mysterious federal agent in the form of Ray McKinnon, whom many “Deadwood” fans will remember as Reverend Smith. (Let’s just say he has a much different approach than Agent Stahl and leave it at that for now). But as always, the greatest threats lie within. SAMCRO claims to want to defend Charming from encroaching forces, but it’s always been unclear even before their incarceration if Charming even wanted that protection in the first place. Do SAMCRO wish to protect the town…or simply use it as a shield? Are they protectors or tyrants? Are they a motorcycle club or a gang? It’s that type of introspective that gives the fourth season so much weight in its early proceedings. So long as that introspection grounds the show going forth, it will be still be a wild ride this fall on FX. But it will carry the force of something much strong as it rolls on by.
“Sons of Anarchy” premieres Tuesday, September 6th, at 10 pm EST.