Sons of Anarchy, Season 7, Episode 13, “Papa’s Goods”
Directed by Kurt Sutter
Written by Kurt Sutter
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm (ET) on FX
Some of the strongest and most wrenching material in Sons of Anarchy’s history came in the early seasons when Jax was actively, and believably, attempting to reroute the aims of the club towards a direction that matched his father’s vision. From Jax sitting on the roof of the club reading the elder Teller’s parting manuscript to his frequent visits to the cemetery to gain strength at the foot of his father and brother’s tombstones, the importance of the club’s overarching goals not only supplied some of the series’ best story arcs, but the best work from Charlie Hunnam as well. The pre-credits sequence of this week’s finale, the end of a show that has long overstayed its welcome, mirrors those potent early scenes in interesting ways, allowing Jax to once again revisit his earlier choices as the audience follows along. The burning of his father’s papers isn’t overwrought enough to pull the audience out of the moment, and his gentle placement of his rings on Opie and Tara’s graves is true to character and a genuinely tear-worthy moment. In advance of an assumed mayhem vote by the club, Jax’s goodbyes to the symbols of the ones he loved is an important piece of his final journey and the show nails it.
His conversation with Chibs about the vote follows in the spirit of those opening visuals, a heartbreaking conversation built on the foundation of the best father-son dynamic (or, for that matter, man-to-man dynamic period) in Charming. Chibs is the one person that will not try to talk Jax out of his decision once he understands what is happening, but who will be understandably distraught about losing his surrogate son. Tommy Flanagan does not disappoint on that roof, letting his face say everything as words all but fail him. It is, in short, a beautiful goodbye to the last loving relationship on the show. The show’s decision to then stage a minor massacre on that same roof lessens some of the effect and is more than indicative of Sons’ constant need to undercut major emotional set pieces with vengeful bloodletting.
Yet just as the episode dangles on the precipice of nonsense and mayhem, it pulls itself back to a level of restraint and resonance well suited for a finale attempting this heft. Chibs passing along Jax’s wishes to Tig, and the latter’s reaction, is only possible in the first place because of the rapport between the two and their natural acknowledgement of the other’s emotional state at this tough time. Jax telling Nero the truth about Gemma has a tragic sadness to it which Hunnam and Jimmy Smits pull off incredibly well. They both loved her deeply, albeit in entirely different ways, and will mourn her accordingly. Jax’s trust in Nero to do right by Wendy and his sons in the future proves just how far the trust their relationship has come since the early days of business dealings and territorial planning. The club’s unanimous vote for Jax to meet mayhem isn’t backed by some arbitrary rock cover but is left to stew in the silence of their decision, each man’s face a different sort of anguished. The slow pan across the table lasts long enough to be equal parts uncomfortable and meaningful, an appropriate follow-up to the tracking shot around the table. Jax shooting up Scoops and the court house steps, carving the President badge off his cut and handing it to Chibs just before the club covers for him one more time, and climbing onto his bike for a final time framed by an American flag waving in the California breeze all bring the same emotions to the forefront. All of these scenes have the same thing in common, namely that they are allowed to wallow in their own sadness without the intrusion of a backing track forcing the audience’s head into a single interpretation or feeling about what is happening on screen.
In the end, it is a more powerful outcome if Jax is killed by his club comrades, forcing them to fully confront what they voted to do just as Jax did to Clay before him. But the choice for Jax to end things on the highway is fine if a little too neat. The final visit to his father’s memorial rock in order to get some farewell thoughts off his chest is a nice piece of foreshadowing while still standing alone as a moment where the son finally understands the father he never got the chance to know. Forgiving the final montage for being overly long and repetitive after the first few minutes (a familiar experience), there is some well-done camera work and outstanding visuals to go along with Jax’s highway sojourn. Chibs sitting all alone at the head of the table, contemplating the events of the day, particularly comes to mind. It is a simple shot indicative of much more.
The actual way Jax ends up dying, driving head on into a tractor trailer in a parallel to his father’s death, would work on very few levels if not for Hunnam’s look of satisfaction (even a hint of outright joy) just before he makes the decision to veer into the opposite lane, which sells the moment completely. The series was always meant to go out with Jax dying at the end, it is a Hamlet adaptation of course, and it isn’t like Kurt Sutter using semi-disturbing religious imagery in the final shot is a surprise, so it is an excusable visual choice. In the end, the finale doesn’t attain the same heights as the show in the glory days, but after all the twists, turns, and pointless stories over the years, Sons of Anarchy wraps up with an episode that is as much fan service as it is a genuinely moving few hours of television. The level of difficulty it takes to wrap up a show past its prime with such a satisfying finale should be applauded, even if most viewers stopped enjoying the ride years ago.