Stepping back into the world of Sons of Anarchy is an affair that is equal parts exhilarating and anxiety-ridden. Even at the series’ best (season two), Sons of Anarchy is a series that has always teetered on a very fine line between achieving absolute greatness and spiraling uncontrollably toward failure. This isn’t the case with most other top-tier dramas. It’s likely that any follower of a show like Mad Men or Breaking Bad has little to no concern of the possibility of a rapid decline in quality. A fan of Sons, on the other hand, must suffer through the same agonizing fear every time a new chapter is presented: I hope they don’t f*** this up. That concern, naturally, comes from a good place. If Sons of Anarchy was just a pulpy, serviceable way to spend an hour, there’d be no reason to worry about its creative decisions. But more often than not, the show’s much more than that – it’s often an incredibly strong drama, albeit one with a foot so firmly planted on the accelerator that it’s hard not to anticipate an eventual loss of control. Of course, that same description could be applied to many of this generation’s defining television works. So what exactly is it that separates SOA from the rest? I think most of it comes down to approach. While Anarchy’s peers present most of their stories’ revelatory moments through understatement, SOA has a tendency to get its point across as loudly and as violently as it can. In turn, when it succeeds, the payoff is unbelievably huge. But as a consequence, its failures have been just as spectacular.
Take last season’s big twist, for instance. The reveal that the Gallindo cartel was under CIA control fit in perfectly with the theme of corruption that serves as one of SOA’s primary overarching narratives. It was a huge turn in a season full of them. It was, for all intents and purposes, big. But here’s the problem: it was too big. It was such a substantial turn that the majority of the drama throughout season four was undercut in the process – resulting in such a massive shift in the fourth season’s goals and messages that it rendered most of what came before entirely inconsequential. This isn’t the first time the show has done this, which leads me to another issue that seems to be influencing and actively harming the show’s narrative success: Sons of Anarchy, as much as it is a story, has also become a franchise. And while I won’t sit here and pretend I know what goes on inside the minds of the powers that be, there’s an undeniable sense that the profitability, success, and desired longevity of the series may very well play a factor in the show’s constant refusal to commit to an act that would upset or alter the status-quo. As much as the show presents itself as a narrative more unhinged, more violent, and more extreme than many of its brethren, at the end of the day, we’ve yet to see any of the primary players meet their demise, suffer permanent consequences from the actions they’ve committed, or transform in any meaningful way. Worse yet, Sutter has yet to present any sort of clue toward his end game. In a show with so much bloodshed, this is a problem that becomes increasingly more difficult to ignore the further we go along in the narrative.
For all of these reasons, “Sovereign” isn’t as thrilling a premiere as last year’s “Out” was. It’s a difficult task to ratchet up any tension when there’s the feeling that all of it could be undercut at any moment, and beside that, the premiere itself felt a little too familiar, too by-the-numbers. We’re introduced to the season’s primary villain, treated to some of those signature character montages, and left with just enough of a cliffhanger to keep us tuned in for next week. But while “Sovereign” does little to suggest that SOA is once again operating at a high level, it does give us just enough to warrant sticking around in the coming weeks. Clay partially admits to his role in Piney’s murder, and Tig, a character that has been on the backburner for quite some time, gets set up as somewhat of a wildcard in the premiere. Will executive producer Kurt Sutter and co. succeed this year, fail, or simply tread water? From where we stand in this season premiere, the answer to that question is anyone’s guess.
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