By Erik Grove
Welcome back to Erik’s Weekly Watch! This week, I’m going to be focus on the season seven premier of Sons of Anarchy! *SPOILERS* for previous seasons and the premier will be plentiful.
Creating a good ending is tough. Ending a long-running television show is especially tough. In order for the ending to work it has to be a little surprising but it also has to be satisfying and be respectful of the emotional investment the audience has in the show’s characters. A lot of great TV shows have faltered in that balancing act and few pull it off well. With this seventh and final season of Sons of Anarchy, show runner Kurt Sutter has his work cut for him but judging by the season premier, it certainly seems he intends to do it on his own terms.
Before I really focus on the premier episode, Black Widower, let’s go back to previous seasons for context. SOA, like a lot of cable television shows, has generally followed a villain of the season format. There’s been a pattern of introducing (or re-introducing) a big bad and kicking off the season’s events with something big and shocking that’s usually involved a very high body count. The Season 2 villain was Adam Arkin’s Ethan Zobelle, season 3 focused on the Irish, season 4 featured Ray McKinnon’s Lincoln Potter, season 5 gave us Harold Perrineau’s Damon Pope and last season we got a relay race between Donal Logue as Lee Toric and CCH Pounder as Tyne Patterson. Going into this final season there’s no obvious outside aggressor for SAMCRO but I think the big bad for the season ultimately plays very much into how Sutter plans to end the show.
Up front I’ll say that Black Widower is an unsettling premier and not really what I was expecting. On the surface it’s not the strongest or most exciting premier. The pacing is slow and there’s a lot of time spent getting us up to date on the sprawling supporting cast. There are moments where smart characters do things that most viewers (myself included) might think are stupid even if they are perfectly in character and a lot of the plot revolves around people and the audience knowing things long before the main character, Jax Teller, played by Charlie Hunnam, does. This is an unfortunately common thing in SOA and I found myself begging for Jax to be working on some great plan when he ultimately doesn’t seem all that clever. It may be that he’s working on a longer plan that we will see develop over the course of the final season and I expect that many of my conclusions and feelings about this premier will be impacted by how these final episodes play out.
Black Widower picks up 9 days after the brutal cliffhanger of the previous season. Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff) and Lt. Eli Roosevelt (Rockmond Dunbar) are dead, murdered by Gemma Teller (Katey Sagal) and Juan-Carlos “Juice” Ortiz (Theo Rossi). Jax is in prison and SAMCRO is facing at a massive gang war. Gemma and Juice have covered their tracks. Gemma is caring for her grandchildren with only Juice, hiding from the club in Wendy’s (Drea de Matteo) apartment, knowing the role she played in murdering their mother. Gemma and Juice both strain from the guilt and pressure while Jax, without Tara to keep him tethered, quickly goes to a very brutal place in county lockup.
Hunnam in particular does very well with his scenes demonstrating a quiet intensity and detached savagery with every part of his performance. Gone is the cowboy-like swagger he had in the first season. He is not angry or out of control as he has been in the past but is calmly brutal from the opening beating in the jail to the horrific montage in the finale of the episode (more on that in a bit). What we see in this season premier is one of the most frightening and methodical villains in Sons of Anarchy; Jax himself.
Sutter is walking a fine line here. Jax has been the point of view for the audience since the beginning. Even as he has committed a laundry list of crimes, he has remained relatable and familiar. Like Bryan Cranston’s masterful portrayal of Walter White in Breaking Bad, Jax has been a likeable sociopath that’s stayed on the right side of the audience’s sympathies. Even after we see Jax beat, cut up and rip out the teeth of a fellow inmate to get him audience with Marilyn Manson’s Aryan Nation boss (a pudgy-faced black slate of a character so far), we can still consider him a hero because he’s behind bars and because he’s attacking a neo-Nazi.
That final torture sequence though is quite a test of loyalty. Gemma tells Jax that one of the Henry Lin’s gang is responsible for killing Tara and Roosevelt. Jax arranges for the man to be abducted and then sets about torturing him with an array of tools and literally rubbing salt into the man’s wounds while members of SAMCRO watch. Even the final death blow is planned and careful, not the act of a man lost to mindless rage but of one that has plotted and taken his time in vengeance. Is this how a hero acts? Even in the golden age of anti-hero television that seems so ready to accept and cheer serial killers (Dexter, Hannibal) and mob bosses (Nucky Thompson, Walter White), is this kind of torture too far?
I think not only is this episode meant to push the audience to that limit but that Sutter may even intend to completely poison the goodwill we have left for Jax and give this protagonist an exit that isn’t noble (Walter White) or ambiguous (Dexter or Tony Soprano) but something more definitive and damning. Even if Sutter pulls back before the end and gives Jax a happy ending or some moment of redemption, he certainly seems to be threatening to do otherwise. Sutter is exactly the kind of aggressively independent creator that might go for the jugular here and make the audience uncomfortable with their love for a man that turns into a monster. Personally, I hope he goes for it and makes Jax completely irredeemable and we see his big fall played out over thirteen episodes. I hope that we see real death of Sam Crow promised in John Teller’s memoir and that it’s unrelenting and upsetting. That just sounds like great television to me.
Erik Grove is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. You can visit his website www.erikgrove.com or follow him on Twitter @ErikGrove for fiction, blogs and sundry jokes. wa