What happens when you create a brilliant show with an irreplaceable-but-flawed main character, and the show extends beyond the point when the moral arc dictates that the leading man must either die, go to prison or otherwise leave the life?
Answer: You pull rabbit after rabbit out of the narrative hat in order to keep him alive. That’s been the story of Sons of Anarchy’s sixth season, and I’m sad to report that the finale failed to rescue what has become a flailing, unbelievable stretch. Early on in the season, it became clear that club president Jax Teller had sacrificed his moral compass in order to keep the club alive, and that was fine. The lesson was that he had become the man he hated, Clay Morrow (a theme stated explicitly in voiceover in the opening scenes last night, as Jax sat by Opie’s grave and wrote in his journal), and everything that followed should have been denouement.
Ah, but here’s the problem: Sons of Anarchy is meant to last seven seasons, not six. Kurt Sutter and his writers could hint at everything Jax has lost, and they could throw us the occasional bone (Clay finally died, hooray!), but comeuppance wasn’t on the menu. And the problem for the viewers is that we knew that; unlike Game of Thrones, for instance, Sons is a drama with at least one character who can absolutely not be killed or put on the sidelines until the very end. That’s Jax, and we can abide his unlikely survival only as long as his personal journey justifies it, only as long as there’s some suspense about what kind of person he’ll become.
So when those choices were resolved, and Jax took the immoral path, fate needed to catch up. But since fate couldn’t catch up—not until next season—everything that happened this season was telegraphed. Jax would escape, get bailed out, and hatch increasingly preposterous schemes time and again to save himself. His ongoing salvation looked a lot less like the product of an interesting story, and more like a cheap deus ex machina hatched by the unseen forces behind the curtain. And since we knew what to expect and were getting bored, they tried to trick us by heightening everything else to extreme proportions.
It hasn’t worked. From the moment I saw the title of the finale—”A Mother’s Work”—I suspected Gemma Teller (Jax’s mother) would kill Tara (his wife). And when Jax caught up with his wife (who had taken their two sons and tried to escape the violent club life that had nearly killed them all on multiple occasions) and opted not to kill her, I knew the stage was set. Jax made a choice to take responsibility, turning himself into the DA and allowing Tara to leave with the children. But, of course, this couldn’t happen immediately. He needed a couple hours with his boys, and in the meantime Tara wouldn’t be in custody, but guarded by a single cop (Eli Roosevelt). So much space for drama, right?! At that moment, I knew my prediction was right. I didn’t need to see Unser, the man who has turned into a walking, bumbling agent of harm, spill the beans to Gemma. (I guess someone from the club called to tell him about the deal, for some reason? See what I mean about the cheap dei ex machina?) I didn’t need to see Gemma drunkenly and gruesomely stab Tara in the back of the head with a meat fork (Roosevelt left without checking the house), or Juice kill Roosevelt and dispose of the evidence.
I didn’t need to see any of it, because it was all frustratingly predictable. Every twist, and every cliffhanger, led to the same place. Could you say that about the excellent season three finale, when Jax fooled Agent Stahl and saved everyone in the club? Absolutely not. What about last season’s ending, when Jax framed Pope and screwed Clay in a brilliant last-second maneuver? Again, no. The groundwork was intricately laid, and watching it unfurl was great television. Last night was something altogether different. After a landslide of faux-revelations we already knew—Jax has become a monster like Clay, Nero can’t stay out of the action, the Mayans and Chinese are pissed, “vulnerability is a liability” (Gemma), there’s karma in the universe—we saw the latest rabbit-out-of-the-hat, and it was boring. I personally couldn’t feel anything but irritation when Tara died; it was like playing a game against an older, smarter competitor who lets you succeed to the point of victory, but who you know will yank the rug out at the last minute and beat you yet again.
The episode ended with Jax in the kitchen, cradling Tara while Roosevelt lay dead beside them, and it probably looks like he’s guilty. But it’s an easy guess that he’s not going to jail; the last season won’t work with the president behind bars. And the question is, where do we go from here? Season seven, apparently the last of the bunch, will likely take the form of what season six should have been: comeuppance for Jax, and the destruction of the club as all the evil deeds come back to haunt them. And who knows? Maybe it’ll work. But I have my doubts; this was the season when our fascination with Jax reached its end, and when our belief in the forces keeping him alive reached a breaking point. The time for satisfaction has come and gone in a flurry of desperate attempts to craft a workable narrative from an obsolete template; Sons of Anarchy has already lasted a season too long.