This review contains spoilers.
7.4 Poor Little Lambs
In a show like Sons Of Anarchy, stakes are essential.
This may seem like a blindingly obvious thing to say, but for television dramas that revolve around lots of death, darkness and violence, it often becomes difficult to maintain a feeling of danger to all characters at all times. Stakes rarely get any higher than life and death, and there are only ever so many main characters a series can kill off to prove it isn’t screwing around. Breaking Bad managed to maintain this sense of danger by regularly shifting the stakes just enough to keep it interesting. While there was always a threat to Walt and Jesse, she show deftly varied how much that threat could affect anyone else, or whether that threat was death, imprisonment or exposure. That was good storytelling.
In Sons Of Anarchy, the stakes have remained more or less the same from the start; these are dangerous guys living in a dangerous world and they could all die at any moment. Exposure isn’t a hazard, as the world at large seems fairly comfortable with the fact that the Sons are criminals, and imprisonment never seems to last longer than a few episodes. As such, those are not things we really fret about seeing happen to the characters. Death is the biggest thing that threatens these people, but lately it has not seemed like much of a concern. The reason for this is twofold.
First and foremost, when was the last time an established character that we had gotten to know over a while was killed by an enemy of the Sons? Clay and Tara don’t count; it was pretty obvious that they both had to die, and besides, they were killed by major characters themselves. Nor do Otto or Filthy Phil or the various prospects we lost last season count; there was no emotional investment in those characters at all. The last character whom anybody genuinely liked who was killed by an external adversary was Opie, at the start of season five. This proved how dangerous Damon Pope was and set the stakes for that season.
Fast forward to now, when the Sons are ostensibly surrounded by more external threats than ever before. A grenade goes off in a room full of main characters; nobody dies. Tig gets shot in the stomach; about five minutes pass before the writers remember to mention that it was just buckshot and he’ll be fine. Was that meant to be obvious? Possibly, but it happened so fast it would be easy to miss that there wasn’t just one bullet hole. The point is, it has been so long since I have genuinely believed anyone was in danger during one of their shootouts or raids. If anyone gets shot, it is forgotten about within at most two episodes. These gunfight or car chase scenes are played more than anything as fun action moments scored with practically jaunty music, telling us from the start that we have nothing to worry about. And sure, characters die, and the decimation of Diosa was a pretty shocking development, but do we really care about any of the people we lost this episode?
This brings me to the second problem with the currents stakes in Sons Of Anarchy, and I touched on this last week as well; do we care about anyone anymore? This episode dealt largely with the aftermath of the perverted preacher and his associates who the club accidently killed a few episodes back, but never once is there any sense of guilt at the slaughter of essentially innocent people. The stepson of the preacher mentions that he was not a good man, but retroactive justification is still not good enough when characters we’re meant to like are murdering random strangers, realising their mistakes, and then laughing about the whole thing as if it’s all some big joke.
Part of the problem with all of this is the show’s inconsistent relationship with violence. I mentioned before the ‘fun’ shootouts, and there is nothing wrong with depicting violence in that way, but when they sit side by side with graphic scenes of torture and severe brutality it becomes an uncomfortable dichotomy. Just look at a series like Banshee, which happily embraces its nature as a cartoonish slice of pulp fiction. The violence is extreme, yes, but it is so over the top it’s hard to be disturbed by it. In Sons Of Anarchy I never know whether I am supposed to be condoning or condemning what these characters do; it could certainly be argued that Kurt Sutter wants us to make up our own minds about this, but I suspect the reasoning is not that well thought out. This a series that wants to have its cake and eat it to, to explore dark territory but also be an action packed, fun melodrama.
Elsewhere nothing has changed. Gemma and Nero are trying to keep things from each other and arguing about it, Juice is still alive for some reason, plenty of time is given over to discussing Jax beating up that abusive father last episode in case anybody had forgotten that thrilling plot development, and on it all goes. We know Gemma is losing it and imagining talking to Tara. We know Juice is consumed by guilt. I don’t understand why week after week we get endless scenes reminding us of the status quo instead of any actual development. At this point the war with the Chinese feels like a tacked on complication to distract us from all the plots that aren’t going anywhere.
Tonal inconsistency is the biggest problem with Sons Of Anarchy at the moment; the last fifteen minutes of this episode was propulsive, exciting and left me wanting to see what happens next, but that is a desire that is compromised by the issues that are plaguing this series, issues that don’t look likely to be resolved before the finale. Poor Little Lambs was a step up from last week in terms of stuff actually happening, but there is still too much stagnation and inconsistency to be thrilled with the series’ current direction.
Read Gabriel’s review of the previous episode, Playing With Monsters, here.
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