Friday, December 9, 2011

"Sons of Anarchy" - "To Be, Part Two"

Spoilers for the season finale of Sons of Anarchy after the jump:

“To Be, Part Two” is easily one of the most frustrating hours of television I’ve seen this year, ranking behind only a few choice episodes of The Killing and Falling Skies in that regard. It’s not a terrible episode by any means, but it is hands down one of the weakest ones Sons of Anarchy has ever done, and coming at the conclusion of a pretty strong season makes it all the more disappointing. There’s compelling drama to be found here, yes (thanks mostly to Charlie Hunnam’s stunning performance). But there are also a number of major plot contrivances that are just too huge to overlook, and even worse is the fact that many of them seem designed as stalling mechanisms.

The best example of the frustration I feel right now comes in an early scene. Lincoln Potter is getting ready for the culmination of his season-long investigation: the meet between the IRA and the Galindo cartel. Suddenly, the CIA swoops in, and it’s revealed that Romeo and Luis are working for them. The investigation is shut down just like that, and I for one was left silently gaping at the sheer stupidity of this development. This isn’t a good twist, or a natural turn of events. It’s there solely to get the Sons (apart from Bobby, who’s still in prison at episode’s end) out of this mess, something that is blatantly obvious and quite frankly insults our intelligence.

And how convenient is it that this also serves to both keep Jax from leaving and keep him from killing Clay? Well, that question also answers itself. See, it turns out the Irish don’t trust Jax and will only go through with the deal if Clay’s there to supervise it. And Romeo tells Jax that if it doesn’t, he and the rest of the club will be swept up in the RICO investigation. So now we have two more major season-long storylines being almost completely undermined by this one idiotic “twist”, although thankfully not completely (as we’ll see in just one moment). Unfortunately, that’s still not the end of it.

No, we then have to have Potter reveal just who Hale’s investors were, thus bringing Charming Heights to at least a temporary halt. In truth, I actually thought this was a pretty solid scene, and it’s completely believable that he would do something like this, if only to (as he says) give the “good guys” a victory. But it’s yet another example of series-changing events being delayed or averted, which is pretty much the defining quality of this episode. The same goes for Juice, who’s released and goes back to the club having somehow managed to avoid getting found out as an informant. It kind of makes you wonder what the point of a lot of this was, doesn’t it? Very few things have really changed.

A couple of things have, though, and that brings me to the best thing about this episode: Charlie Hunnam. He is quite simply magnificent throughout “To Be, Part Two”, most notably in the astonishing hospital room sequence with Clay. The pure rage on his face as he presses the knife against Clay’s throat (hard enough to draw blood) is mesmerizing, and what Jax knows is one thing that can’t just be undone. Even in the face of mediocre, frequently ridiculous storytelling, Sons of Anarchy is still capable of blowing us away with a scene like that, which is the main reason this episode still gets a semi-decent grade in spite of its many failings. (Equally powerful is the scene where Jax tells Tara that he has to stay, in which Hunnam portrays a far different set of emotions with an equal amount of brilliance.)

But there’s just not enough good overall, I’m sorry to say. And even some of the best individual moments of the episode have problems. Take the final sequence, which is for the most part quite powerful and sets up some interesting new dynamics and shifts within the group that will likely play a key role next season: most notably the absence of Opie after Jax refused once again to tell him the whole truth (another very good scene, by the way). Then Tara walks in and informs Jax that she’s “not going anywhere”. This would be a fine way to conclude the season.

So what happens next? We get a brief shot of a young Gemma and John Teller. They look remarkably similar to Tara and Jax. Get it? Tara is starting to become like Gemma, and Jax has finally decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. The meaning of the episode is now completely clear. But here’s the thing: I figured that out last week, and I’d wager just about everyone figured it out last week. And the show’s clearly been building to this kind of a development for much of the season. So why it needed to throw in that final image and hit us over the head with the comparison is beyond me.

I realize this is just one scene that lasts maybe five seconds tops. But in addition to being the concluding image of the season, it also nicely sums up "To Be, Part Two's" problems as both an episode of television and as a season finale. This is an hour that is basically devoid of any subtlety or grace in its storytelling. Just about everything it does is completely obvious and mechanical, and that's arguably more of a problem than the absurdity of some of the plot turns. Very few things here really worked, aside from the always stellar acting. It's not without some merit, but Sons of Anarchy is usually so much better than what was on display in this conclusion. There's really not much more to say.

Other Thoughts

- Again, this was still a pretty good season of television overall. Even with this finale I’d rank it as the show’s second best (behind season two). But a lot of the great things it did were basically negated by what happened here, and that cost it a potential A-range grade.
- With that said, if there’s one thing this episode did very well it was leave plenty of room for this story to move forward from here. What happens to Clay now? What’s Potter’s next move? How will this current predicament that SAMCRO finds itself in play out? These and many other questions leave me very much anticipating season five even with my current feelings of annoyance towards the show.

- Finally, I’d like to thank anyone and everyone who read these pieces over the past weeks. I’ve very much enjoyed writing them, and I hope that showed. 

Episode Grade: C+
Season Grade: B+

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