Don't read on unless you've seen the Season 5 finale of "Sons of Anarchy," titled "J'ai Obtenu Cette."
Well, I'll give this to the Season 5 finale of "Sons of Anarchy": It didn't enrage me.
Last year's minutes -- and the season as a whole, really -- capped an extensive bait and switch, in which the FX drama cataloged Clay Morrow's sins and then allowed him to evade death through a series of clunky, last-minute developments that made me feel as if the show had just hung a "Kick me!" sign on its audience's back.
So this year, what was different? Well, Jax engineered his own fate and got the club out from under their obligations to act as a middleman between Irish and Mexican factions. Let's hope both groups are gone for good: The tiresome meddling of these factions, not to mention the deus ex machina CIA element, has always been the weakest part of the show. Nobody wants the club's leadership dancing on the strings of men based thousands of miles away; it's just not that interesting.
Everything in the Season 5 finale, however, wasn't about pleasing other factions, and if there were a few of the usual sigh-inducing plot shortcuts, at least they were offset by seeing Jax pull the strings and call most of the shots. It went just about as I expected it would, even before I'd seen it: I knew certain season-long storylines would be tied up, new complications would arise right at the end of the episode, and in between, there would be weird, violent incidents. The Season 5 finale had all those things, but it felt more organic and smooth than previous "SOA" season-enders. Plus, a guy bit off his tongue, which you won't ever see on "Downton Abbey."
So what worked and what didn't about the season as a whole? I thought I would list my assessments in a "naughty and nice" segment, but let's face it, "SOA" revels in things the world thinks of as naughty, and its definition of nice is not exactly easy to pin down (for every tender story of dog rescue, you've got a gangbanger with face full of nails).
But I felt compelled to share some thoughts about Season 5, which I found clangingly, annoying mechanical at its start, as I wrote in my initial review. In the last third or so of the season, however, there was enough time and space for some interesting character moments and some effectively melancholy meditations on the toll that being "tough" takes on these characters.
So in the spirit of giving this season, here's my list of things "Sons of Anarchy" nailed (so to speak) and sort-of nailed in Season 5, and some thoughts on things I humbly believe it could do better. Without further ado ...
Donal Logue as Lee Toric. I don't think Gemma supplied the evidence that got Tara arrested; I bet it was something Toric uncovered. Of course, the show will find a way to undo Tara's imprisonment without much trouble next year, and of course that storyline will put a dozen more mechanical plot lines in place. Few shows on TV have more mechanical plots than "Sons of Anarchy," i.e., plots that may make some kind of literal sense but don't have much meaningful impact on characters, themes or atmosphere. They're there to create other plots, and that's fine up to a point, but the whirligig of busy shenanigans often threatens to overwhelm everything else. Toric wasn't a huge part of the season overall, but I hope to see more of him next year. As he proved on the late, lamented "Terriers," Logue is a wonderfully compelling actor and I look forward to seeing what his uncompromising character will do in the "SOA" world. (Sidebar: Karina Logue, the actress who played Toric's sister in the show, is Logue's sister in real life. I think every FX show should have them play siblings, from "Archer" to "Justified.")
Jimmy Smits. There's a lot I didn't like about Gemma's story line in the first half of the season, especially her idiotic catfight with Tara (a Season 5 low point that felt especially random and unearned) and the implication that half a joint led her to run her car off the road. (Since when does "SOA" subscribe to the "Reefer Madness" school of storytelling?) Katey Sagal has proved again and again that she's a terrific actress, but the show isn't always sure what to do with Gemma, and when it's dithering about the Dowager Old Lady, it gives her scenes of selfish meddling and trouble-making. But once Season 5 settled down and allowed Nero and Gemma to show their vulnerable sides to each other in the second half of the season, I enjoyed the vibe the two actors created together. Smits isn't always the most subtle of actors (I thought his season of "Dexter" was dreadful), but he did fine work here.
It was an undeniably neat trick to set up Clay as Pope's killer. Not that I think Clay's going to die in prison (if you believe that, I've got some swamp land I'd like to sell you) or otherwise be taken out of the mix permanently.
I loved the story about Tig and the pup. Anything that Tig finds "so wrong" is way, way beyond wrong. Kim Coates always does tremendous work with whatever he's given, and the show rarely goes wrong when it shows the tender side of these allegedly tough bikers.
Venus Van Damme. As performed by the incomparable Walton Goggins, this trans prostitute was a great addition to the show and absolutely owned every second of the Season 5 scene that featured her. If "Sons of Anarchy" doesn't bring her back, it's going to make me sad, and if, in the final season, Venus, Tig and the pup don't all move in together and create a very "SOA" picture of domestic bliss, it'll be a prime opportunity wasted.
- The weird intimacy between Otto and Tara was somehow moving; they established some kind of connection, even if it ended badly (and it only ended badly because, once again, the show turned Tara into a moron temporarily; what other explanation could there be for her giving that cross to Otto?). "Sons of Anarchy" is so often about the loneliness of damaged, fearful people, and Otto's condensed story is one way the show has driven home uncomfortable points about the ultimate toll that SAMCRO takes on its members and their families. Also: We will never get that tongue-biting scene out of our minds. That counts for something, right?
I still think Season 4's "Clay must go! Oh, er, Clay didn't go" story was a giant mistake, but, well, if I was going to watch Season 5, I had to make some kind of peace with that. And whatever shenanigans were responsible for Clay's continued presence in Charming, Ron Perlman gave gravitas and even yearning to Clay's arc, which concerned the former president's realizations about what he'd lost and which of those losses actually mattered. "Sons of Anarchy" constantly takes any number of lazy or sloppy shortcuts when it comes to both short-term stories and long-term arcs, and those dumb moves end up, over the long haul, eroding whatever investments I had in the the character's journeys. It's often left to the actors to give emotional truth to the characters' situations, and the show is blessed with a cast that can do that in all but the most ridiculous contexts.
Harold Perrineau was fine in his scenes, but he never really got much to do this season. I had higher hopes for Damon Pope, but I suppose a show with so many stories spinning around all the time is going to tend to underuse good guest actors.
- As I wrote here, Opie's death was moving, due to great performances from the cast (especially Ryan Hurst) and the way in which the show spent concentrated time on the few characters around Opie and didn't spin out in a dozen directions. Having said that, though Ope's death clearly made Jax harder and more vindictive, it's hard to say what effect it truly had on the show. Once he was gone, he was barely mentioned, and that didn't sit quite right with this Ope fan.
Don't bother explaining to me why the Mexicans opened fire on the Irish in last week's episode. Even if there are "logical" reasons for it, it didn't make a ton of sense in the moment. I enjoy a good action scene, and "Sons of Anarchy" has some fun ones, but too often the show sacrifices momentum and clarity in favor of, "Let's just invent some random reasons for people to shoot at each other." Shows get free passes on that kind of things once in a while -- not a few times per episode. Yes, I will admit that the show's ratings don't indicate that fans have an issue with this. But as is the case with everything else, I expect more from "Sons of Anarchy" because I've seen it when it's more disciplined, and it's a better show.
What does the show have against its own supporting characters? I will never understand why it privileges random plots and players that don't have much connection to Charming over individual story lines for people like Bobby, Chibs, Lila, Unser or Tig. What if they had realistic, compelling storylines of their own -- ones that intersected with those concerning Jax and the other core cast members, but which also reflected and built on the show's foundations? What if they had arcs of their own that amplified the show's core themes about how true intimacy is scary and how loyalty is dangerous and evolves in unpredictable ways? As it is, the show's fine supporting cast really only exists so that Clay, Jax, Gemma and -- to some extent -- Tara can interact with them and bounce ideas or schemes off them. I suppose this will never change, but I can't stop myself from wanting that.
- I find the annual "Tara plots to leave Charming" storylines comical at this point. It's glaringly obvious that those plans will never pan out, and I find it especially ludicrous that, once again, Tara announced her plans to leave in advance to Gemma. That always works out well, Tara! Keep it up! Even if Gemma wasn't the one to sandbag Tara this time, it's clear that the show has no intention of removing Jax's old lady from the scene, just as it has no intention of removing Ron Perlman from the show. The wheelspinning about anyone ever leaving Charming is ridiculous. It's like the island on "Lost," except these people will never escape it.
Go to Bloggingheads.tv to listen to or watch a that critic Alyssa Rosenberg recorded on "Sons of Anarchy" and dark dramas in general. And this week's Talking TV podcast concerns both "SOA" and "Homeland": It's here, on iTunes and below.
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