Thursday, November 10, 2011

"Sons of Anarchy" - "Hands"

Spoilers for this week's "Sons of Anarchy" after the jump:

To understand just how great of an episode “Hands” is, it’s instructive to take a look at the numerous scenes that take place in between. For instance, there’s a small sequence between Juice and Roosevelt that is superbly acted and intelligently written. Roosevelt apologizes to Juice and admits that Potter has been manipulating both of them. Juice then says something to the effect of “fine, but that doesn’t do much for me now”. And Roosevelt agrees, but says he can at least “man up” and own his mistake. It’s a great scene, and one that might stand out at some other time. Here, though? No. No one cares, including me.
You see, no one cares because this scene occurs in between the assassination attempt on Tara going down (with tragic if nonfatal consequences) and Gemma making a critical, series-changing decision in the episode’s final seconds. And that’s of course after she gets beaten up by Clay in a sequence that is quite simply nauseating in its brutality and shows just how far gone the club president really is. Then there’s the remarkable scene with Tara and Jax at the hospital. So yeah, who really cares about Juice and Roosevelt? But the fact that a scene like that (and there are quite a few others like it in this hour) is thrown into an episode with so many other things going on speaks to how well “Sons of Anarchy” has woven its narrative together this year.
Okay, enough of that. I always tend to fall back on the one-word response “wow” when describing an episode this good, and “Hands” is as good an episode as anything I’ve seen this year, aside from perhaps “Remedial Chaos Theory”. It’s a destructive episode for sure, but in that destruction the show finds a dramatic intensity that I don’t think I’ve ever seen from it before. Things, violent things, happen here that are going to forever alter the fates of these characters. In general, the violence on “Sons of Anarchy” happens at a rather safe distance. People get hurt and die on this series, but the show's never been particularly in your face about it, even when it’s a character we care about like Piney.
The violence in “Hands” isn’t like that. It’s immediate, visceral, and frankly upsetting. The attempt on Tara’s life gets the adrenaline pumping, true, but it does so through creating a sense of terror rather than excitement. The door slamming on her hand is a sickening image, and the sense of desperation as Jax chases after the van is palpable. It’s one of the best scenes the series has ever done in my book, and breaks the stylized mold of most of “SOA’s” action sequences in favor of something that feels almost too real. Rarely am I left slack-jawed at a television program not named “Breaking Bad”, but that did the trick. And it’s not even the best scene here.
No, probably the best individual moment in the episode comes after the attack, when Tara is taken to the hospital and we discover that she’s likely going to lose the full use of her hand, and with it her career as a surgeon. When Jax told Tara he was getting out, it was obvious to us viewers that he wasn’t. Kurt Sutter has said that his plan is for seven seasons, and since the story is about the club as a whole as well as Jax Teller there’s no way he was going to leave. But that left me with a question: how does Tara stay in the show’s universe? And perhaps that’s why that attack felt so terrifying, because I felt like we were at a point where Tara could conceivably be killed.
Well, now we know. Is this a plot contrivance designed simply to keep Tara in Charming? Of course it is. But it’s a believable one that I didn’t see coming. And what I admire most about that brilliant monologue Tara delivers from her hospital bed is how she acknowledges that what happened to her seems by design. And of course it was: Sutter and company’s design. It’s a masterful piece of acting by Maggie Siff, as she portrays many different types of emotion (anguish, resignation, more than a bit of drug-fueled delirium) perfectly in a way that left me haunted when it was over. And yet it’s also a perfect piece of commentary on the series itself, which I kind of love.
Tara’s life as she knows it is almost certainly over. The same can be said about Gemma. She deduces rather quickly that Clay lied to her face about not harming Tara and confronts him about it. Unser had already warned her that Clay was beyond help at this point, but it takes Clay beating her half to death for her to finally come to the same conclusion. And after witnessing that beating, we’re very much in agreement with her when she declares that Clay must die. (I wanted to avert my eyes throughout that entire scene, but somehow couldn’t. I’m pretty sure that’s what the show was aiming for, so if that's the case... well done.)
“By the hand of the son”, though. It’s still unclear which son she means. After all, Clay killed Piney, and combined with what happened to Donna that should be more than enough to make Opie want Clay dead. But I’m going to go with the more obvious son: Jax. He still thinks he can get out, but Gemma knows as much as Tara does that revealing the truth about those letters would probably put an end to that. And despite all the misery it’s brought her (the rape in season 2, Abel’s kidnapping, and now this), the club is her life. She wants it to remain in the family, and Jax taking over after killing Clay would ensure that.

These are major, series-changing events going on here, on so many different levels. "Sons of Anarchy" has been a very, very good show pretty much from the start, and it reached this level of quality late in season 2, only to be hurt by a weak, rather disjointed finale. So I'm holding off on saying that the series has finally made the leap into the realm of the great until we see how all this plays out over the final four weeks. But this was just extraordinary television in every way. I've held off saying it until now. but it seems like the only appropriate way to end this review: wow. And again... wow.

Other Thoughts

- In the spirit of that opening paragraph, a few other great scenes that may have been somewhat overlooked:

- Margaret's confrontation of Gemma, in which she makes her opinion perfectly clear. Gemma's often a sympathetic character (and she certainly is for much of "Hands"), but Margaret's harsh statements certainly relate to what she does during the final scene. If she is indeed involving Jax in this, she's ruining his chance to get him and his family out to service her own agenda. Does that make her the "awful woman" Margaret claims she is? It's hard for me to judge her too harshly right now given everything she goes through here, but that's a case that can definitely be made.

- Already mentioned the terrific scene with Juice and Roosevelt, but what about the Roosevelt-Potter conversation that takes place earlier? Superb stuff, and it leads quite naturally into that later sequence.

- Speaking of Juice... his storyline isn't a major aspect of this episode, but he did agree to become an informant for Potter. An unexpected but still pretty big development, and one that could have been a focal point of a different episode.

- Finally, there's the sequence between Opie and Jax in which the latter tells Opie that he wants out, and apologizes for not letting him get out during season one. Wonderfully played by Charlie Hunnam and Ryan Hurst, and more than a bit sad since we know neither one of them is going anywhere. 

- The title of this episode is brilliant. "Hands" not only refers to Tara's injury and Gemma's statement about "the hand of the son", it also references the hand of fate bringing Tara to this point and certain characters (most notably Juice) playing out what few cards are left in their hands the best way they can.

Grade: A

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