So I just plowed through Season 3 of Sons of Anarchy, paying $1.99 a pop to watch 'em on my iPad, rather than wait for the DVDs, or reruns on FX, to come out later this summer. It was worth it.
Season 3 has gotten somewhat of a bad rap in some quarters, both for the slower pace (vs the near-nonstop action of the first two seasons), as well as the extended foray over to Belfast, was a decidedly different turn for the show, with all sorts of new characters and subplots, which, for some, detracted from the "main story." Not for me, though. For me, it only deepened the main story--that being the coming of age of Jax Teller and what he is going to do with his father's legacy.
[THERE WILL BE BIGTIME SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT. STOP NOW IF YOU HAVEN"T SEEN SEASON 3 YET.]
The key to the theme of this season lies in the names of the opening and finale episodes: "SO" and "NS," respectively. Series creator/writer Kurt Sutter loves his symmetry and cleverly constructed narrative architecture in his show. These two episode names, of course, form the word "sons," which not only are shown physically in the 2 rings that Jax leaves behind on his father's gravestone, but also represent what this entire season was about: Jax searching for his son, and Jax searching for his role as a son. (And the moment that Jax ponders letting his son go was the most devastating scene, emotionally, of the entire season, and maybe even of the series as a whole.)
Even back in Season 1 we knew that the Sons of Anarchy's primary revenue stream came from selling IRA guns, so Ireland has always loomed in the background as central to the show's mythology. What we learned this season was that it goes way beyond the simple gun-running. Jax's father, John Teller, has an entirely different, and somewhat secret, life over in Ireland, complete with a mistress and another child. Until this point in the show, Jax has looked up to his father, and wrestled with his father's belated wishes, expressed in his memoir, to have Jax take the club in a "better direction," away from the violence and outlawism represented by Clay and Gemma.
The tension between Jax and Clay, of course, has been the central conflict of the entire series, and, for all those who know their Hamlet, upon which Sons of Anarchy is explictly based, we know this isn't going to go well. But this discovery, by Jax, that his father, too, was less than a saint, coupled with the present day threats to the club (the white supremacists of Season 2, and his kidnapped son in Season 3), help lead Jax back into the fold with Clay--thus depriving some viewers of what satisfied them most: Jax vs Clay. But the season finale's brilliant final minutes makes it clear that this conflict has merely just been postponed, and, in fact, is only going to get worse.
The final scene is a juxtoposition of the show's two main female characters each reading a letter, and the two letters perfectly, brilliantly make clear just how ironic and tragic Jax's resolution with Clay is. The first is from Jax to his mother, making it clear that he has renounced his father now and is totally with Clay and the club. The "betrayal" she was worried about, that we were worried about, turned out to be a fakeout for a good portion of the season. But if there was any doubt that we, the viewers, were supposed to consider this a good thing, we had Jax's letter juxtaposed with his father's old letter to Maureen in Ireland, now discovered by Tara, in which he reveals his fear that (hello, Hamlet!) that he was going to be killed by Gemma and Clay. So Kurt Sutter, evil bastard that he is, picks the exact moment that Jax has finally given up his father's path towards the "good" to reveal what we knew all along but were waiting to have explicitly revealed: that his father had been murdered by his mother and step-dad. And because Tara now knows, that means it's only a matter of time before Jax finds out, with a path of destruction to follow.
But, ya know, this is also a pulpy action show about a motorcycle gang. One in which we expect (and enjoy) large chunks of violence and badassery (Clay's "I don't recognize your bullshit MC" was my favorite line of the season), and while this season *did* have plenty of that, I can see, if you were watching it one week at a time, rather than in a marathon like I did, how this season's slower pace might have been frustrating. Sutter is always looking at the big picture, setting things up in long arcs with big payoffs. He spins a million plates at once over a variety of characters and story arcs, some of them crossing multiple seasons, and in this season more than the first two he let some individual episodes contain more exposition than action. But, holy crap, the action, when it finally came, was awesome, as two of the show's biggest villains--Stahl and Jimmy O-- finally get their due in the most satisfying possible way. I don't know about you, but I almost let out a vocal cheer when Chibs finally gets his revenge, as brutal as it was. And, hey, after we had to watch Ethan Zoebelle slip away scot-free last season, this was amazingly satisfying.
Of course, a lot of this stuff doesn't really hold up to close scrutiny. Once you really start thinking about Jax's and the club's "The Sting"-like triple cross of Stahl, it kind of falls apart, in how they could possibly have known it would all play out the way it did. Gemma's escape from the hospital seemed totally unrealistic, as did the fact that killing of Stahl and Jimmy wouldn't have raised 1000 red flags that would have backfired on the lot of them, including Unser.
But, hey, it's a pulpy action show about a motorcycle gang. And I love it. I love Kurt Sutter's ambition, the way he digs deep with the characters, the way he so brilliantly orchestrates his plots, while simultaneously reveling in the pulp and violence. It's a highbrow show in a lowbrow form, or maybe a lowbrow show with highbrow ambition. (Or, if you're not a fan, it may be a middlebrow show that thinks it's more clever than it is---but I wouldn't agree with you.)
In any event, I loved Season 3, and recommend, if you watched it at the time and were disappointed, that you watch it again when you can binge on multiple episodes at once. Because I think the story will seem much more tighter and focused and suspenseful if you do. And if you've actually read this far, and are as big a fan as I am, than I know you will at least agree that Season 4 can't start soon enough.