12/10/2011 02:20 pm ET | Updated Dec 10, 2011

'Sons of Anarchy' Season 4 Finale Review: Bikers Hit A Big Speed Bump

I've been saying for weeks now that the Season 4 finale of "Sons of Anarchy" would be a pivotal episode of the show. It was clear that the way that the current series of events resolved would influence the show for some time to come, and give us a big clue as to what creative directions the show would follow and what kind of risks it would be willing to embrace.

You can find the audio version of my reaction to the finale in this week's "SOA" Talking TV podcast, which is live now. Or you can read on for my thoughts on how things worked out for Jax, Clay, Gemma, Tara and the rest of these Charming men.

The word that best describes the "Sons of Anarchy" finale is disappointing. Yes, the final scene was evocative, but almost everything that went before it was deeply, deeply frustrating, for me, anyway. What a letdown.

I get that "Sons of Anarchy" is partly pop melodrama, and I enjoy that aspect of the show at times. I get that it sometimes goes over the top and does things that stretch its credibility to the breaking point and beyond. I often enjoy its subversive streak and its bizarre humor, and though I've grown tired of many of its contrivances, I've gotten used to frequently putting up with thin motivations and thinner justifications.

But for the entire season to be undone by the CIA with a wave of its magic wand within the first few minutes of the finale was enormously deflating. This was a deus ex machina that could not have been more convenient. How am I supposed stay deeply invested in a show that spends three months telling me that certain things are very important, and then nobody faces any serious consequences for those allegedly important actions and decisions?

If every event can be walked back or undone (Clay being shot, Juice committing suicide, Otto betraying the club, the club facing a RICO threat, Clay attempting to kill Tara), then nothing has much weight any more, does it? Anything that can be reset that easily just feels less important, less real.

In the end, nobody died. Nobody paid for things they had done in any significant ways by the end of the hour. The club was just handed a get-out-of-jail card for a whole host of misdeeds and problems and that was that.

Part of what's satisfying about a good story is the catharsis that comes at the end. When that catharsis feels earned by the characters and the story, when the resolution, however painful, feels right, the end of the story (or season) satisfies our primal urge for not just catharsis but for justice. And if we care about characters, we want them to get justice.

This is a world in which a man's word is supposed to matter, in which brutality is repaid in kind. Yet at the end of the season, Clay was not dead. He wasn't even out of the club. He'd just gotten... a demotion.

Yes, Tara has more of a hold on Jax than ever, but another schemer, Gemma, also got pretty much what she wanted. For her, too, there are no common-sense consequences for what she's done. And, for the love of God, those damn letters are still in play; of course she saw Jax stash them a few feet away from her office. Now she has yet more reason to scheme and maneuver with those unsatisfying MacGuffins in her manicured claws.

So we've ended up with a situation where Jax and Clay will sit at the same table, despite the fact that Clay killed Jax's old man, shot his best friend's father, killed his best friend's wife and tried to kill his old lady. Put simply, that doesn't make much sense to me. Again, what are the common-sense, real-world consequences of everything Clay did? He had to give up the gavel, but that's pretty much it. Once he's recovered from the gunshot wounds, his life will be just fine and there's no doubt he'll be back to his old ways.

That's unsatisfying, and it's also unsatisfying that the hero of the tale is essentially a puppet of the Irish, the cartel and the CIA at this point. Again, Charlie Hunnam's performance and the show itself has made me care about Jax. Seeing him manipulated on to the throne, however, diminishes his power and agency.

I didn't much like the Season 3 'SOA' finale, but at least in that episode, Jax outsmarted everyone and cleverly planned what went down. What melts my brain is that so much of Jax's fate in 'To Be, Act 2' hinged on the decision of one Irish guy who simply doesn't like Jax much. That's why Jax had to take the gavel and Clay gets to sit at the table. So much of this came down to Galen's whim, essentially, and that doesn't strike me as tragic; that almost makes Jax a hapless bystander in his own life.

But justifications that make sense don't appear to be an ongoing concern when it comes to "Sons of Anarchy." We're just supposed to roll with rationales we get, however far-fetched, and be okay with it when stakes we were told are high are suddenly whisked away and undone at the eleventh (well, fourteenth) hour. Well, I'm not OK with it. This just took the show's penchant for contrivances to a ridiculous extreme.

There are still reasons to watch the show, I get that. Parts of this season worked, especially anything to do with Potter and Roosevelt and certain scenes between key cast members such as Tara, Gemma, Jax, Clay, Opie and Piney. Those performers and the emotional reality the show is able to create are really compelling at times.

But, based on this finale, my expectations for the show are much, much lower going forward. In terms of its overall ambitions, "Sons of Anarchy" has shown its hand. Can't we all predict what future seasons will be like by now? Big stakes will be constructed, in laborious and sometimes contrived ways. Distractions, some interesting, some not, will eat up time here and there. Throughout the course of the season, the show will pull out all the stops to convince us the characters' problems and choices matter.

Then, at the end of the season, those stakes will more or less go away, and the club will still be there in Charming, more or less intact and ready to ride another day. The machinations among Gemma, Clay, Jax and Tara -- already well-trodden ground -- will keep on churning. And so on and so on and so on.

I checked out of 'Dexter' when it became clear that, no matter how great Michael C. Hall's performance was, the rest of the show simply wouldn't be satisfying to me because it was going to revisit the same territory again and again. Dexter Morgan would always wriggle out of whatever trap the show set for him. It's hard to get on board with the idea that Dexter might get caught if he never is and the same dynamics keep playing out season after season.

In this hour, which hurriedly undid so much of what came before it, "Sons of Anarchy" has shown that's essentially unwilling to change its central formula. After its second season, I thought there was a chance it might become the next "Breaking Bad," but its penchant for awkwardly introduced obstacles and its unwillingness to evolve central components of the show mean that won't happen.

If you still get a lot of pleasure out of those central components, that's great. No matter what, I still think the cast is phenomenal. Charlie Hunnam was tremendous in this hour, but, despite his great work in the hospital scene, I can't quite buy that Clay will get away with everything he's done.

It bothered me more that, in his scene with Tara at their home, Jax said he couldn't let the club die. If he'd said he didn't want fellow club members to go to jail, I would have bought that. But I can't see any real reasons for him to have loyalty to SAMCRO anymore, and the show just spent months showing us why he shouldn't. The Jax that wants to get his boys away from the poison of the club is someone I'm really interested in. The Jax who was manipulated on to the throne and still, on some level, believes in the club? I'm just not that invested in him.

(Speaking of loyalty, I was glad Opie didn't show up to the meeting at the end of the episode. That would have been completely unbelievable, given all he's been through. Yet, given that the show seems unwilling to change up the cast in significant ways, I'm betting Opie somehow returns to the fold next year.)

All in all, I was willing to accept certain contrivances this season, if the show repaid us with a game-changing finale. This was not a game-changer. It was a formula-embracer.

That formula -- in which history repeats itself again and again -- may be enough for you. Even with my expectations severely reduced, I'll have to see if it'll be enough for me going forward.

That last image of Jax and Tara turning into Gemma and John was dramatic, but it also speaks to the repetitiveness that's already on display in this show. Don't we already know how that story turned out?

A few final notes:

  • I enjoyed our last looks at Lincoln Potter, the "odd dude." His final scene with Roosevelt was perfectly acted.
  • I don't expect Ray McKinnon to return as Potter, but with any luck, Rockmond Dunbar will back as Eli Roosevelt. He's been a great addition to the cast (but, as is the case with much of the supporting cast, I wish we'd seen more of him).
  • After how many months, those rings were still on John Teller's grave? Really?
  • Great Opie scene, and in general, I felt like Opie was speaking for me in this episode. I understand why he thinks more secrets and more unconditional trust aren't a good idea.
  • I realize that my opinion of "Sons of Anarchy" is just one of many. If you've come by and perused what I've written this season, I thank you deeply for that. It's been quite a ride, and your time, attention and comments are much appreciated. Ride on in safety and peace.
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