Saturday, October 27, 2012

I am one of those whiny people who won't be watching SOA any more.

Full disclosure: I have a thing for Ryan Hurst.  Come the fuck on--he's sarcastic, he's insanely talented, his wife is smokin' hot, he's the size of a pregnant moose...

Just look at this shit.  Again: come the fuck on.
So I am 100% sure that my reaction has to do with the loss of Epic Beard Viewing, just as I am 100% sure I am still right about everything I say re: SOA suckage.  Because this is Internet Country, and fuck what ya heard, there are no rules and every bitch with two thumbs is an expert.  Apparently.

Moving on.

Sons of Anarchy follows the same path, in terms of quality, as most American television: the first season is fucking righteous, and then the story deteriorates.  This is kind of natural, I think, considering the insanely high expectation we American audiences have when it comes to the length of a series.  My impression is that the rest of the world respects a cap on stories, and they're treated more like a novel or mini-series.  In America shows drag on for five or six years while usually dying a gnarly death around the end of Season 2 (arguably true for Breaking Bad, Lost, and definitely true for Chuck, Medium, CSI, Boardwalk Empire, Dexter, go ahead, CYOA), with a chosen few sprinting along until the end of Season 5, assuming they've got a hell of a showrunner with a very specific vision in mind (Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (ish), The X Files, The Wire).  I think 5 is the absolute limit before a show dies an unnatural death  and reanimates as a disfigured zombirrific version of itself (Supernatural 6/7, The X Files ever after).  Sometimes that showrunner with a vision does everything just right, knowing that their beautiful baby is better off in the grave after 5 rare, perfect seasons, rather than listlessly roving the airwaves, devouring the brains of puzzled fans (prototype: The Wire).

Originally, Sutter was one of these brilliant showrunners.  He says he works his plots out in advance and connections/comparisons to Hamlet are often thrown at SOA (Hamlet, you might remember, ends).  Unfortunately, that is done.  Season 1 was awesome, Season 2 even better; we were headed towards that 5 Season sweet spot, giving SOA a place in history as a Show That Didn't Blow It.  Instead, we went to Ireland  (oh. em. gee.), and Season 4 was a replay of Season 2 (and therefore, Season 4 will be referred to here on out as Season 2.2).  In terms of quality and story development that leaves us with Season 1--fucking righteous--and Seasons 2 & 2.2, then dumps us out at the doorstep of Season 5.

To clarify, Season 2.2 achieved several things:
  • It killed a major character, in a believable, plot driven way, and a less pivotal one in a less pivotal way (Piney and Kozik)
  • It sparked and developed a crisis of faith for Opie, which deepened the most dynamic character in the series (which is a problem, from the perspective of a writer, and kind of the point of this blog post)
  • It gave Jax an opportunity to change the direction of his choices and priorities, through either choosing collusion with Clay or striking out on his own
  • It focused on government corruption as the seed of evil, masked as progress
  • The women in the series (Gemma and Tara) fought about who got to be Bottom Bitch
  • Clay was greedy
  • Tig killed The Wrong Girl.
The problem is that Season 2, debuting two years earlier, achieved the following things:
  • It killed a major character, in a believable, plot driven way, and a fairly pivotal one in a less important way ( Donna, basically, and Half-Sack)
  • It sparked and developed a crisis of faith for Opie, which deepened the most dynamic character in the series (this was already true, so by Season 2.2, it was An Issue Worthy of Blogging)
  • It gave Jax an opportunity to change the direction of his choices and either choosing collusion with Clay or striking out on his own
  • It focused on government corruption as the seed of evil, masked as progress
  • The women in the series (Gemma, Agent Stahl and Tara) fought about who got to be Bottom Bitch
  • Clay was greedy AND
  • Tig killed The Wrong Girl.
Seriously.  Think about it for a minute--and then take another minute, if you need to cool down because you think I'm saying Season 2.2 sucked.  I'm not.  It had some of the best episodes, and most importantly, Opie began a real spiral.  You might be nodding your head, but thinking--exactly.  Sutter set that shit up just like that to make Season Five happen, dummy--just look at Season 2!  You said it yourself.  Opie was totally meant to die, his life was shit!  

Well, as Ryan Hurst said: we all die.  In this particular instance, because we are talking about episodic fiction and not real life, there's one serious problem: Opie was the laziest choice.

The real issue is that Opie was a more dynamic character than Jax.  That's it.  The writers created a character arc that was more compelling than the center of the story--Jax vs. Clay.  Jax vs. The Past.  Jax vs. Society.  Jax vs. John Teller.  Jax vs. The Biker Skank Horde.  Whatever.  None of them are as interesting, nuanced, or dramatic as Opie vs. Life.

I don't think it was intentional, and it's certainly not as though Jax is a totally one-dimensional character.  The problem is that Jax never takes a full step forward.  He is constantly paralyzed by his competing loyalties, which is extremely compelling...for one season.  But for four?  Or, god forbid, seven?  No.  This ambivalence is encapsulated in one of the most moving scenes in the entire series, played beautifully by Charlie Hunnam in Fake Ireland (of all things) as he weighs the pros and cons of taking his son back from a well meaning couple.  But the entire bizzaro world storyline of Fake Ireland aside, Jax does the exact same thing every season.  Sometimes literally.  And while the talent of the actors involved can disguise this stuttering arc for a while, there's a reason why Season Four was persona non-gratis when it came to critical acclaim: it was a repeat.

Then there's Hurst's Opie.  Again, we should ignore Fake Ireland; again, I'm not saying Charlie Hunnam's Jax is poorly acted, or anything, really, about the acting.  I'm saying the writers blew it.  They kept him around as a foil for Jax's waffling instead of killing him off, as planned, in Season One; for the good of the show, Sutter says, Opie was offed in Season Five as the final tipping point in the little dance Jax has been doing for 5 years.  I say too late.  Watching Opie's humanity slowly drain away as he grieves, seeks revenge, achieves it, and then finds himself emptier was way more compelling than watching Jax waffle.  Truth: Jax was fucking boring, dude.  Opie was depressing, but way more interesting.  Commentary from the show's fans was often about how Opie's life was always getting worse--but you still didn't know what was going to happen.  With Jax?  It's pretty simple: power struggle with mom.  Declare loyalty to insecure Tara.  Power struggle with Clay, eminent disaster faces club, inevitably win through cleverness.  Ladies swoon.  Rinse, repeat.  Yawn.

Arguably, Opie's character became trapped in a predictable arc, too, just because things kept getting worse and worse for him (and therefore, by the end, kind of foreseeable).  But the difference is that the writers changed Opie, even when we could bet on the trajectory of events.  When we first meet the character, he's also doing an awkward shuffle between legitimacy and returning to The Life; he's working to hold down a low-paying job, satisfy his neglected wife, and get to know his children.  He's basically a low-level thug with a nagging legacy. As things are taken from him over the seasons, he descends, eventually losing the morality that his father and John Teller idealized.  In the end, loyalty is the only recognizable characteristic left from that first scene when Jax accosts him in the lumber yard.  It's a hard fall to watch, but given the direction--and theoretical intent--of the series, it's also kind of perfect.  Remarkably well written, Opie remained as dynamic as you or I.

He changed.  He evolved.

Season One vs. Season Five

As things--babies, fake Ireland, whatever--are taken from him, Jax does not change.  He is the same character, no matter the curveballs.  This might be because by Season 2.2 he's already done the same dance three times, but at any rate, he just doesn't have the potential for character development that Opie does without a serious deviation from his established arc.  Unfortunately, because of the writing, Jax is basically static.  

The ever-handsome Jax Teller, Season One, and at Opie's Wake

Sutter artificially adds depth by killing Opie--the better developed character--which allows for a serious deviation from Jax's well established arc.  Its basically retro-fitting the series two seasons too late.   Jax, I felt, just needed that emotional upheaval, that one event that happens in a man’s life that can change the course of his destiny, and I think the death of his best friend was that event.”   Fucking duh.  So having your newborn kidnapped and whisked away to the land of fairies isn't enough?  Becoming a murderer, joining a cartel, mutilating corpses, chillin' in fake Ireland?  Every event in Jax's character arc fits the rinse-repeat pattern mentioned above.  Why is this the chosen event?  As a writer, this strikes me as lazy, and even more problematic in a very particular way; if characters are created by action, it paints a very unflattering portrait of the main character.

But okay.  Now Opie's dead, and here we have it: the pivotal event that finally gets Jax to commit to... something.  The next problem is that without Opie--SOA's most dynamic character, like it or not--we are probably going to travel another very tried and true path, first popularized by Michael Corleone and most recently perfected by Bryan Cranston, aka Walter White.  Sutter's words could apply to either character, and dozens of others, including Opie; Al Pacino has made a career of playing the revenge oriented anti-hero who was once The Good Guy.

So we go from watching a static Jax to watching another replay.  And not even an SOA replay!  A Godfather-Breaking Bad-Pumpkinhead-NameYourFavoriteRevengeFlick-replay.  Or, it is an SOA replay...of Opie's arc.  Ew.

With Opie available as a foil, Jax had options.  The story had several places to go, and Jax's lamentable shuffle probably would just continue, to my dissatisfaction--but hey, that seemed to work for a lot of people.  Opie could have become the greater enemy to the club, he could have apexed the conflict with Clay, he could have kidnapped the baby and taken it to Ireland--whatever.  More likely, he would've continued a moral spiral that cleaved nicely as a foil against Jax's attempts to legitimize himself--the ultimate foil.  That was the point, with Opie--he was dynamic.  He might've done any old thing.  In this version, SOA is courting the critic's preference for dramatic descents in a very cliched way, at the cost of its only innovative creation.  Sutter seems to think this was the best way to guide the tale to its eventual conclusion, and that might even be right--I just think it came two seasons too late, and therefore wasted the more compelling options available with Opie alive, considering the damage already done.

Whatevs, dude.  A porno writer on the internet thinks your show just went down the shitter, FWIW.  That said, I'll always love you, Sutter, kudos to the cast, and kudos to everyone behind Season 2--it was fucking awesome.

sons of anarchy, season five, review, SOA, #SOA, sons of anarchy jumped the shark, RIP Opie

PS: Years later, still vindicated.