On network television, if a show doesn’t find its audience quickly, the show is shit-canned. What’s great about off-network cable television, however, is that the networks have enough faith in their shows to believe — thanks to DVD, Netflix, and iTunes — that quality programming will eventually find an audience. Look at “The Wire”: Hardly anyone watched that during its initial run, but I don’t know of very many intelligent television viewers who haven’t seen it by now. Likewise, both “Breaking Bad,” and “Mad Men,” were slow to find an audience, but they both seemed to make huge ratings increases between their second and third years, and those audiences continue to grow, as more and more viewers catch up to it on DVD.
I feel fairly confident that “Sons of Anarchy” is another one of those shows that has benefited from the long delay between seasons, as I’m certain that the show has found a much larger audience during its hiatus. It’s gained myself, for one. There’s been a lot of buzz, and a lot of anticipation for season three, thanks in some part to a devastating cliffhanger finale that ended with Jax’s son, Abel, being kidnapped, Gemma on the lam, and poor Half Sack dead, which more or less negated the other loose ends that were tied up when SAMCRO dealt with their white supremacy problem.
The season three premiere started out slowly: Jax was comatose from the grief of losing his son, and only when SAMCRA got a small lead on Cameron could he shake out of it, only to attempt to dump Tara, reasoning that he was no good for her. A season ago, Tara might have taken the opportunity; she might have cut loose. But now she’s mini-Gemma. She’s part of the family, and the grief that she felt as the kidnapping of Abel and the stabbing of Half Sack inhered her into that family. That was her grief, too, and through it, she more than earned her spot. “We don’t know who we are until we’re connected to someone else,” Tara tells Jax, and it’s that connection she’s made with Jax and SAMCRO that’s helped to define her, and it’s Jax’s connection to his own son that will likely define his role as heir apparent.
Speaking of that, if the season progresses as it looks to be progressing, and if the kidnapping of Abel has reconciled Clay and Jax, at least for the moment, I am going to miss that relationship dynamic. The political maneuvering of the two, and their attempts to undermine each other, were the highlights of last season. In the opening episode, aside from the fact that Gemma doesn’t know about Abel’s kidnapping, there are not yet any huge secrets weighing on the principal cast members, and it was the heaviness of those burdens that propelled much of last season’s narrative.
Speaking of Gemma: She’s not someone you can keep in hiding. After her amazing, Emmy-snubbing television tour de force last year as a rape survivor, I wasn’t sure how Kurt Sutter was going to be able to capitalize again. He’s definitely put her in a situation — now shacked up with her Alzheimer’s shell of a father (the brilliant Hal Holbrook) — that will take advantage of her actressin’ talents, but I’m not sure I’m thrilled with the way that subplot plays into the main narrative. I like it when Gemma plays a central role in SAMCRO as the hard-asses matriarchal mediator; I don’t like her outside of the main action.
Much of last night’s episode was spent setting up the new dynamic, basically staging the characters for the season to come. It wasn’t until the last few minutes that Sutter pulled out the big motherfucking guns and set up the major event, the fallout of which will likely drive this season’s narrative. Cameron has indeed taken Abel to Belfast, which means that “SoA” will be spending some time in Ireland this season (as Sutter promised during the hiatus). The drive-by at Half Sack’s funeral, though: There’s only so many ways you can say holy shit. I tested every variation last night. I’m sad to see the demise of Deputy Chief David Hale — he was an asshole, but he was well intentioned, and I appreciated the moral compass he brought to the Charming police department. What it means for his brother’s mayoral run, I have no idea. It probably does mean that Chief Wayne Unser takes back the sheriff’s role, and maybe in a season where there are already enough villains — Cameron, the drive-by shooters, and Agent June Stahl (Ally Walker, whose plastic surgery has gotten way out of hand) — maybe it’s good that SAMCRO has an strong ally in the Charming police.
More importantly, after spending much of the episode comatose, gritting his teeth, staring blankly, and sullen, the reaction that the shooting provoked in Jax was not only welcome but necessary. It forced him into action and established him, once again, as a real force in SAMCRO. But Jesus Christ: I haven’t seen a pavement stomping that brutal since American History X. I had to briefly look away.
All in all, the premiere developed into a powerful season opener, creating a new enemy, setting the stage for delving into the Irish mythology of SAMCRO and a season-long arc in which Abel is tracked down. It also broke Jax out of his shell, and — for better or worse — sidelined Gemma with a Lifetime movie subplot that will likely be handled well by the sure-handed Kurt Sutter. I’m certainly looking forward to next week’s ep, although I do hope that in the episodes to come, the tension on the inside of SAMCRO is as fierce as those outside forces because “Sons of Anarchy” is best when it has to fight the war on two fronts: Internal and external. And, because he’s my favorite character, I hope they find a compelling side story for Opie.