Sons of Anarchy, Season 6: Episode 3 – “Poenitentia”
Written by Charles Murray and Kurt Sutter
Directed by Guy Ferland
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm ET on FX
A couple of seasons ago, Sons of Anarchy closed an episode with Juice jumping from a tree with a chain noose around his neck. As the SoA logo entered the screen, the sound of the tree branch snapping could be heard, removing the cliffhanger of Juice’s fate. When the curtain shuts on “Poenitentia,” we don’t actually see Tig get killed by Pope’s men. “Poenitentia” feels like a major death episode as it plays, echoing Opie’s prison death through Clay’s scenes (Opie’s death was in the third episode from last season). Then when Jax all but says farewell to Tig as he sends him to where Pope’s men can get him, that sinking feeling is pretty much overwhelming. Sons of Anarchy is very conservative when it comes to its main cast and keeping them intact, but Tig’s been on the chopping block for a while, so it would have made sense for this to be final outing. What ends up happening is a cliffhanger more in the style of True Blood, where nothing actually happens and we begin to wonder if Tig won’t somehow find a way to survive through his predicament. It’s the kind of narrative out that Sons of Anarchy is usually above pulling – we are almost never spared the horror of the stuff that goes on in Charming – and it feels almost cheap when it’s put in a montage of scenes that already emotionally draining.
That might be the only thing that slightly taints the experience of “Poenitentia,” which has a classic Sons of Anarchy vibe running throughout. After a couple of bumbling episodes, the arcs for this season are on full display, and previous mysteries – What is Clay going to do? How does Bobby fit into this season? Just who is Lee Toric? – are mostly addressed. In the case of Toric, we’re given a pretty brutal opening sequence even by SoA standards in which he backs himself into a corner and murders the escort he hired at the end of last week’s episode. Maybe Donal Logue isn’t being used to the best of his abilities, but it’s at least interesting watching Toric operate. His previous training shines through as he thinks his way out of the murder while simultaneously going after Nero.
And even if Donal Logue is wasted, “Poenitentia” is another huge reminder of how excellent this cast is overall. CCH Pounder, Peter Weller and Kim Dickens are all already turning in great performances in the few scenes they’re given, and the excellent Drea de Matteo reprises her role as Wendy in an episode where she actually gets to do something other than be a nuisance to everyone. It would be helpful to know how big a role certain characters are going to play in the season (Jimmy Smits is absent from the regular cast list in the title sequence still, which is confusing), but the fact that Wendy is trying to force her way back into Jax’s life with the kind of cleverness she needs to win some unearned sympathy hopefully means she’ll be sticking around for a while.
There’s a more subtle thing going on in “Poenitentia” that is probably intentional regarding how the credits appear on the screen. With Sons of Anarchy, you can notice some pauses between names of actors or producers or whoever is being credited before the director. When Guy Ferland’s name finally shows up, the episode goes straight to the scene in which Jax visits Clay at the prison. The timing is too perfect for it to be anything but purposeful, so it’s interesting to think about why Sutter and co. wanted to draw attention to this sequence. It mirrors last week’s scene in which Gemma visits Clay, which was one of that episode’s most powerful moments. But sticking the Jax/Clay scene near the beginning of this episode – reminder: even though Clay has been stripped of nearly all his power, he’s still the opposing force to Jax in this series – makes that stand-off feel less powerful than it would have been stamped nearer the end of the running time. That, perhaps, is why “Poenitentia” feels more like a major death episode than just looking at what happens with Tig. Clay, of course, doesn’t end up biting the bullet, but for a moment or two, Sons of Anarchy does a great job of making the audience think that Clay might actually die.
And so the wheels of Sons of Anarchy turn and turn. Ever since season two, with Ethan Zobelle, it’s been easier to anticipate each season as a whole – villain, main conflicts, themes. That said, it doesn’t make watching things unfold on this series less fun. “Poenitentia” came on a night full of series premiers (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Goldbergs, Trophy Wife and Lucky 7) and new episodes of returning shows (New Girl, The Mindy Project and the CBS procedural powerhouses). If one were to be insane or bored enough to watch everything that aired last night – and at least one critic was – that person may be surprised to see how well Sons of Anarchy still stacks up against both new and old competition, even if most of that competition isn’t on cable. It’s a testament to that often criticized-skill of finding what works and sticking to it instead of taking risks. Would viewers have really wanted to see Tig or Clay die before the final action of Sons of Anarchy takes place next year? Maybe initially. But I’d wonder if those people would be missing those characters (or at least Clay) in the final season as we bid farewell to everyone else. Conservatism aside, when Sons of Anarchy does its thing – as it does here – it may be one of the structurally safest shows, but it’s also one of the best.
– Sean Colletti