Monday, December 13, 2010

On Season Three of Sons of Anarchy and Season One of Boardwalk Empire

Sons of Anarchy and Boardwalk Empire were two of the most highly anticipated series of the past television season.  The outstanding second season of Sons set the bar prohibitively high for its future, but the exciting cliffhanger that it ended on demonstrated that creator Kurt Sutter wasn't going to let the show rest on its laurels, and also seemed to promise fans that this year would further develop the show's underlying mythology.   Though Boardwalk Empire debuted this year, in many ways it had as much to live up to as Sons of Anarchy.  Boardwalk's pedigree – Terence Winter (one of the head writers of The Sopranos) + Martin Scorsese + Steve Buscemi – and the fact that HBO was reportedly willing to invest upwards of $65 million for its first season alone set expectations that the series would be better than virtually anything else on TV.  Neither the first season of Boardwalk nor the third season of Sons entirely managed to live up to fans' sky high expectations.  Both seasons were nearly as frustrating as they were fascinating.  But most of the flaws of either show were the result of a surplus of ambition rather than a lack of imagination, and each show laid interesting groundwork for next year's seasons.

Season two of Sons of Anarchy ended on an exclamation point, with Jax (Charlie Hunnam) distraught over the kidnapping of his baby by one of SAMCRO's IRA contacts, and Gemma (Katey Sagal) on the lam after being framed for a double-homicide.  Ending a season by severely upsetting the status quo is bold.  But the very plot points that made the conclusion of season two so thrilling also backed Sutter and his writing staff into a corner for season three.  Jax's baby Abel has never really functioned as anything other than a thematic symbol or a plot point, since the fast pace of Sons has never allowed for many scenes of Jax-as-a-dad.  It's harder to get invested in the quest to get Abel back than it would be if someone like Jax's girlfriend Tara (Maggie Siff) had been kidnapped instead, since she is a full-fledged character who fans are invested in.  By placing something as dramatic as a missing baby in the center of season three's plot, Sutter and his writing staff created a ticking time bomb that the audience constantly wants to see defused or see explode.  Anything not involving SAMCRO's efforts to get Jax's baby back is doomed to seem like a waste of time.  And since the complications involved in travelling overseas to retrieve Abel from the IRA require SAMCRO to function as a coherent unit working toward a common goal, the show has to sacrifice to a large degree its most compelling element – the complications in the personal relationships between SAMCRO's members.  The individual members of SAMCRO are bound to get short shrift in a season where they are all working toward Jax's goals.

In the early goings of season three, Sutter and his writing staff managed to sidestep most of the inherent flaws of the kidnapping storyline by deftly writing their way out of the corner they'd put themselves in with the Gemma-on-the-run plot.  The show couldn't separate SAMCRO from its matriarch for an entire season, because Gemma has been at the center of most of the show's major storylines, and because the interactions between Sagal and the other actors tend to provide Sons' most emotionally resonant moments.  So the writers very wisely gave Gemma a brief story arc to start the season that fulfilled the plot demands created by the end of her season two storyline while also giving thematic weight to a season (and a series) that is at its heart all about families.  When we first meet up with Gemma in season three, she is at a motel being guarded by Tig (Kim Coates).  Gemma's husband Clay (Ron Perlman) is attempting to keep her in the dark about the Abel situation, in the hopes that they can settle the kidnapping situation before she comes home.  (The third season picks up just days after the end of season two, before SAMCRO is aware that Abel is in Ireland).  After learning about her mother's passing, Gemma reunites with her estranged ex-priest father (Hal Holbrook), who is in the grips of dementia.  This four-episode arc was emotionally powerful enough (and well-acted enough by Sagal and Holbrook) to not seem like an unnecessary distraction from the Abel plot.  It also allowed for all sorts of inspired zaniness, including a hilariously deadpan cameo by Stephen King, that stood in tonally effective contrast to the brooding search-for-Abel story.  After Gemma loses her father to Alzheimer's, she becomes more firmly committed to holding onto the family that she does have - which makes it all the more devastating when she returns to Charming and finds out the truth about her grandson.

The storyline with Gemma and her father was smart and purposeful, and provided a logical yet unpredictable way to reunite the show's major characters.  Unfortunately, the middle part of the season wasn't plotted nearly as clearly or logically.  Too often the third season of Sons was complicated but not sophisticated.  The show has never had time to flesh out all of the regular SAMCRO characters, and this season was already going to need to introduce an entirely new cast of characters with its Ireland storyline.  Was this really the most logical time to also introduce several new gangs, three new SAMCRO "prospects," a bounty hunter, a lawyer, and another DEA agent, while also greatly expanding the roles of several minor recurring characters?  The season managed a few grace notes amid the chaos – neo-Nazi Darby (Mitch Pileggi) realizing that he's getting too old to hold on to pointless hatred, Tig and Kozik (Kenneth Johnson) gradually revealing the source of their long-running animosity, Otto (Sutter) calmly resigning himself to life on Death Row.  But, frankly, a lot of season three was a mess, the result of the writers trying to cram too much plot into thirteen episodes. 

The lack of focus really hurt the Ireland storyline, which is a huge problem since the season was essentially built around it.  There was certainly a lot of potential in SAMCRO heading to Ireland.  Presumably Sutter meant to expand the show's mythology by exposing Jax to characters who could tell him more about the circumstances surrounding his father's death, and by detailing the history of the club and its connection to the IRA.  But this storyline was bungled to the point that fans could be forgiven for feeling like they came out of season three knowing less about Sons' mythology than they did before SAMCRO went to Ireland.  It was fine for figures like Father Ashby (James Cosmo) and Jimmy O'Phelan (Titus Welliver) to be somewhat opaque before SAMCRO got out of California.  But nearly all of the information we wound up learning about these characters later in the season was maddeningly vague, confusing, and, at times, contradictory.  Considering that the Irish characters' motivations and relationships to each other essentially drove the most important narrative arc of the season, it would've been nice to have some sort of understanding of what those motivations and relationships were.  Instead, the Abel storyline was filled with as many shifting allegiances and inconsequential plot twists as The X-Files' alien conspiracy.  The Ireland trip did come to a surprisingly strong conclusion in the episode "Bainne," which found Jax contemplating leaving Abel with the straight-laced adoptive couple who wouldn't expose him to the dangers that Jax's lifestyle inevitably would.  It's nice that the Ireland storyline wound up refocusing Sons by bringing it back to its original theme – Jax's struggle to reconcile his sense of morality and his desire for peace with his violent way of life.  But I would've preferred if the show had taken a less sloppy route to get there.

Considering how frustrating the Ireland arc was, it was a pleasant surprise to find Sons returning to California for the last two episodes of the season.  These episodes not only wrapped up a number of the season's many plot threads, but also provided some interesting hints about the direction that next year's season will bring.  The big plot twist involving the way that Jax had manipulated Agent Stahl (Ally Walker) was a bit of a cheat; there were so many factors that had to go just right for his plan to have possibly worked out as well as it seems to have, and it doesn't seem like there would've been time for Jax to even explain his plan to the rest of SAMCRO, let alone execute it.  But Sons look at gang life has always been more The Warriors than The Wire, so I don't mind it when the writers value sheer entertainment value over verisimilitude.  Also, the twist allowed for a pair of satisfying conclusions to two of the show's longer running storylines.  Opie (Ryan Hurst) finally got his revenge on Stahl for her role in his wife's murder, while Chibs (Tommy Flanagan) was finally put in a position to eliminate the normally untouchable O'Phelan.   Aside from supplying surprising resolutions to two of the show's most important arcs – and providing some powerful material for supporting players who were too often pushed to the sidelines in Sons' third season – these scenes allowed the show to clear the decks for the fourth season. 

It looks like year four will pick up a year or two after the events of season three (the first three seasons take place over a span of a little more than a year), with most of the members of SAMCRO emerging from prison to a very different Charming.  Jacob Hale (Jeff Kober), who has already expressed hostility toward SAMCRO, will most likely be the mayor.  Unser (Dayton Callie) will no longer be the chief of police (and may have finally succumbed to his cancer), so the gang will no longer have an inside man to get them out of legal scrapes.  And the sinister Russian mobsters introduced at the end of season three could conceivably take over a good deal of SAMCRO's business, perhaps destroying the already fragile truce between the Sons and the Mayans.  In any case, it sounds like the fourth season will largely find SAMCRO out of favor with the town that they have been accustomed to running.  A potential stumbling block of this prospective storyline is that Sons has never given a clear picture of what life for the average citizen of Charming is like.  Even Tara's nosy boss (McNally Sagal) has been revealed to be a former gang groupie, so there aren't any established characters on the show that have no connection to the club.  Still, the direction that the show seems to be headed in has the potential to get into the morality of what SAMCRO does on a much deeper level than the show has had time for up to this point.  Even after a highly uneven third season, I can't wait to see where Sons of Anarchy goes next.

If there is less to talk about with Boardwalk Empire, it isn't because its first season was any less ambitious than Sons of Anarchy's third season, but because it did a better job of balancing its many characters and various plot threads.  Aside from some specifics involving a robbery that took place toward the end of the pilot episode, I never found myself confused about Boardwalk's narrative, despite the fact that the show already has more major regular and recurring characters than most shows do in their second or third years.  Every scene had a clear purpose, leading logically into the next scene while also introducing plot points that would develop and pay off later on in the episode or the season.  Few veteran shows are as rationally or smoothly structured as Boardwalk Empire already is after its first season.

Yet in some ways Boardwalk could benefit from being messier.  The series is set primarily in Atlantic City at the dawn of Prohibition, a rich setting that places the characters at the intersection of politics, crime, and the proto-feminism of the Temperance movement, while also allowing the show to deal with fascinating issues of race, sexuality, and the immigrant experience.  At the center of this world is Nucky Thompson (Buscemi), the treasurer who runs the city by figuring out exactly what everyone around him wants, and then giving them just enough of it to feel that they owe him a debt.  The writers are nearly as calculating as Nucky in slowly doling out storylines for the other characters, including Nucky's reluctant mistress Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), troubled WWI vet Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), and religious fanatic Federal Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon).  In addition, the writers have carefully developed characters that exist outside of Nucky's immediate orbit, such as New York City gambler Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Chicago mobster Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci), and Torrio's henchman Al Capone (Stephen Graham).  Each of these characters has been given a convincing, well-rounded personality, and all of their individual storylines have been compelling and focused.  But for a show set in the Jazz Age, Boardwalk Empire can sometimes feel a little too much like a classical piece.  Other period shows like Deadwood and Mad Men frequently pause to luxuriate in the weirdness of their settings, and those shows worlds are immeasurably richer for including material that is tangential to their main storylines.  It feels strange to criticize Boardwalk Empire for having a well-constructed narrative, but its intense focus on pushing the story forward can sometimes make the show feel a little cold and distant.

The tone of Boardwalk would be less problematic if the story had made more progress, but a lot of this season was about defining the characters and putting them in position for the presumably more dramatic events of the future.  It seems that the main narrative of the show will be Nucky either becoming more corrupt as he becomes more powerful or him gradually losing his grip on the city as it becomes more violent.  Nucky's relationship with all of the major characters is tenuous at best, and most of the characters were frustrated with his reign of power by the end of the first season.  The penultimate episode of the season seemed to be bringing several of these plot strands to a head, but the season finale – tellingly titled "A Return to Normalcy" – found the characters either reverting back to old habits or just beginning to formulate plans to overthrow Nucky.  "A Return to Normalcy" is a fine episode of television by any standard, but it also serves as a reminder that the first season of Boardwalk Empire was essentially a prologue to the real story.

But these are ultimately minor flaws.  Boardwalk Empire hasn't yet overthrown Mad Men or Breaking Bad as the best show currently on television, but there is no reason to believe that it won't get to that point in its presumably more dramatic future.  The sheer scope of the series is unmatched by anything on the air, and no show can boast a more fascinating setting or better production values.  Check out that boardwalk set – a seamless combination of production design and special effects, realistically populated by dozens of extras.  Every member of the ensemble cast is great.  Relatively minor characters like black community leader Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) and tin-faced war vet Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) are as fascinating and feel as lived-in as major players like Nucky and Jimmy.  And when the show finds opportunities to work in really explosive set pieces – Chalky's "bookshelf" monologue, the Torrio crew's slaughter of a rival Chicago gang, Van Alden's baptism/murder – it has a sense of grandeur that outpaces any of today's Hollywood epics.  Maybe all that season one of Boardwalk Empire ultimately amounted to was interesting place setting for a truly masterful series to come – but there is every indication that the series will become one of the major works of art of this decade.

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