Second novels are always the hardest ones to write and in the world of cinema, film directors are often judged on whether or not they managed to rise above or ultimately succumbed to the sophomore slump syndrome of inferior follow-ups to smash successes.
And although I may be in the extreme minority here as opposed to other critics who believe that only when SAMCRO is completely aligned, firing on all cylinders like a well oiled Harley do they actually warrant the cult status that FX's Sons of Anarchy has achieved, in my eyes, Kurt Sutter's second installment of SOA is even better than its debut season.
Additionally even though Sutter acknowledges Shakespearean influences like Hamlet and King Lear on his blog, I also recognize the faintest traces of the Bard's Macbeth, Richard III and Julius Caesar flickering just beyond the periphery of bikes, babes, and badasses from time to time.
Yet while Matthew Weiner embraces his literary pretensions in the equally engrossing Mad Men, Sutter carefully removes all evidence of its poetic overtones or roots in iambic pentameter through the filter of Leone, Peckinpah and Kurosawa style gritty urban simplicity.
Needless to say embracing Sons of Anarchy is much harder to do for the straight-laced snobs of the Emmy and Golden Globe voting set who aren't able to recognize the intelligence lurking under the surface of so much skin covered with sleeve tattoos and body art.
Nonetheless, even though there's been this strange divide that says you can't like both shows at the same time regardless of the fact that fans like this reviewer is proof that this is false, the simple truth is that there are just as many psychological, philosophical and existential crises on any given episode of Sons as there are on Men.
In fact, given a different era and opposite coastal setting, it's quite possible that Jon Hamm's Don Draper may have wound up switching identities with one of the men he served with in Vietnam as opposed to World War II, leaving the army to help form the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original chapter instead of going to work on Madison Avenue.
And delving into similar Mad Men existential territory, the first season of Sons of Anarchy carefully developed the mythology of the Hamlet inspired universe centering on new SAMCRO Vice President Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam) whose deceased father speaks to him beyond the grave just like the Danish prince's after Jax finds his dad's memoirs that articulated the dream he had for the motorcycle club.
Armed with new knowledge, Jax begins to question not only the direction the aptly named Sons are heading in now that his stepfather Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman as the show's Claudius) is in charge along with what really matters after his own son Abel is born to his drug addicted ex-wife (Drea de Matteo).
Challenged by secrets and Jax's internal struggles involving the return of his true love Tara (Maggie Siff) and endless club drama as de facto bosses of the Northern California town of Charming in which they live and run, Sutter's first installment culminates in a cruel reminder that innocents can get killed in the crossfire.
After receiving erroneous intel planted by the domineering ATF agent June Stahl (Ally Walker) implicating Jax's best friend Opie (Ryan Hurst) as a rat, Clay quietly dispatches his right hand trigger man Tig (Kim Coates) to take him out. But before the Sons realize they've been duped, Tig fires off a hail of bullets in the back of Opie's truck, not realizing that his wife Donna was the one in the driver's seat.
Unable to explain to the now vengeful Opie exactly why he's suddenly become a widower and single father of two overnight once Jax discovers what's happened, as the second season kicks off, the club threatens to tear itself apart from the inside out as unexpected alliances are formed, confessions are made, and new players ride into town known as the League of American Nationalists.
While the Sons have always worked both sides of the fence by making deals with other gangs and MCs as well as paying off police like the loyal soon-to-be-retired Charming Police Chief Wayne Unser (Wayne Callie), the seemingly untouchable League of American Nationalists take this to a whole different level given their connection to the religious community and more.
Sure enough, we ascertain that they have plenty of tricks up their sleeves including more eventual double crosses on his own men than Clay would ever back.
And even though A.J. Weston (Henry Rollins) appears to be the group’s sinister hate driven Neo-Nazi muscle, from the first time we see Adam Arkin’s ruthless Ethan Zobrelle in the first episode of the second season, we just know that the Sons are up against something for which they’re totally unprepared.
But even our greatest fears would never have imagined that the way the LOAN villains would choose to dismantle Clay’s club would be through his “queen” Gemma embodied on SOA by Sutter’s real life wife Katey Sagal who never ceases to amaze us as a cross between her Hamlet namesake and inspiration Queen Gertrude as well as Lady Macbeth in some of her most diabolical moments.
In the first of many episodes far worthier of an Emmy than the traditional women who get nominated for looking drop dead gorgeous at a crime scene or in OR scrubs on network dramas, Gemma is viciously gang-raped by LOAN members under the guise of sending a message to her husband Clay and son Jax “to stop selling guns to color.”
Knowing that knowledge of the attack will most likely send the men she loves to prison following a murderous rampage, she refuses to give the LOAN the satisfaction of thinking they’ve broken her and “won,” by keeping the event a secret along with the aid of Wayne Unser who found her at the scene of the crime and Jax’s doctor girlfriend Tara whom she calls to treat her both at home and at the hospital where she works.
Trusting his audience enough to present the heartbreakingly brutal sequence in the second season premiere knowing full well that he could lose viewers by doing so in the process, Sutter not only sets the plot in motion for the subsequent twelve episodes but also establishes the theme of unlikely alliances bound by secrets that continually crops up as the Sons roll on.
While this more methodical approach of action augmented by psychological drama may have taken some of the show’s more hardcore fans by surprise, in my eyes, it added a whole new humanistic level to the series by further challenging our views of characters we may have thought we completely understood including Kim Coates’ Tig and Taylor Sheridan’s Deputy Police Chief David Hale that never failed to make every new revelation that much more explosive.
Likewise by adding women to the writer’s room and director’s chair along the way, the series is growing richer and far more unexpected thanks to the colors and timbres brought to it by those in front of and behind the scenes.
However, while admittedly you do see one major character death coming in the season finale given a few slightly melodramatic moments in the preceding episodes and it’s still hard to believe that Clay would’ve removed all of his manpower from the scene of a standoff in the last ten minutes of episode thirteen, the final devastating twist that occurs in Jax’s immediate family makes this Blu-ray release a perfectly timed lead in to the new season.
Including a fascinating roundtable discussion wherein Sutter ensures that the third go-round will answer even more questions about the past of the Sons including shedding new light on the life of Jax’s father and the MC’s connection to the IRA, Sutter’s phenomenally written, continually maturing and surprisingly contemplative series proves that unlike second books and sophomore slumps, sometimes television’s second acts just get better.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.