On the commentary for "Balm," the eventful tenth episode of Sons of Anarchy's second season (which debuts on DVD and Blu-ray this week), director Paris Barclay avers:
I think this is why [Sons of Anarchy] is going to end up being a classic television show years from now... It's just like NYPD Blue did, and Hill Street Blues before (in the David Milch universe). You could be doing something else, cop work, detective work—in this case biker club—what have you. If the family works, the show goes on. And [this] family, in its dysfunctional way, works great.The series, masterminded by creator and head writer Kurt Sutter (The Shield) recalls The Sopranos in the way it explores a criminal subculture, Northern California outlaw club SAMCRO, and its ties to its community (the ironically named Charming) and extended family. Though the club has its redeeming qualities, namely its protection of Charming from any corrupting criminal activities (including their own... well, it's their aim at least), as a viewer my allegiance to its characters is complicated by the fact that I often realize I'm cheering for its protagonists during the commission of some heinous crime. The show's dark second season is a portrait of a family imploding. And there is hardly a better ensemble cast to help pull it off.
At the center of SAMCRO's internal power struggle is Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and his stepfather, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), the club's VP and its President, respectively. Echoing Shakespeare's Hamlet, Jax is influenced by his late father's memory to take the club in a new direction, away from the violence Clay revels in (it is implied Clay may have had a hand in the elder Teller's mysterious death). Torn between them is Jax's mom and Clay's "old lady," Gemma (Katey Sagal).
This season, a white supremacist group led by Ethan Zobelle (an unexpectedly perfect Adam Arkin) comes into Charming to set up shop dealing heroin, and eliminate the only obstacle they have in their way, SAMCRO, by "unraveling" the club. The charter still reels from their unintended execution of Donna (Sprague Grayden) last season in a drive-by intended for her husband, stalwart biker Opie (Ryan Hurst), after he was framed as an informant by a ruthless Fed (Ally Walker). As the club, and particularly Jax, reassesses its purpose, Gemma is brutally gangraped by masked men belonging to Zobelle's League of American Nationalists.
Sagal is one of the best reasons to watch the show, molding a biker matriarch who may be the strongest of SAMCRO's extended family into a lioness equal parts savage and sweet. She is the queen to all of the club's errant knights, nurturer and emotional guardian to them in strong spirit if not in clearly defined action. Like a worm burrowing through a rotten core, her desire to protect the fractious SAMCRO from the potentially devastating effects her attack could have on them swiftly turns into a millstone, dragging her and the rapidly fragmenting bike charter down further into a morass of doubt and recrimination.
Hunnam and Perlman are well matched as the heir apparent and his reactive king. Jax strives to legitimize the club, albeit in questionable endeavors such as a porn business they acquire. Clay falls back on side businesses he's already established, like a dangerous association running guns for the IRA to rival gangs outside of Charming. Ultimately, each pay a heavy price for standing alone. Hunnam really sells the barely contained frustration of a Jax who is biding his time before he pounces on Clay to bring him down. Perlman—who in a roundtable interview included in the set of discs reveals he is deathly afraid of motorcycles—plays Clay as an animal backed into a corner—old, deteriorating fast, but at his most dangerous.
Where this all ends up is a tense cliffhanger which fortunately gets some resolution next week, when season 3 of Sons of Anarchy premieres on FX. Until then, this immensely watchable set of 13 episodes is a great way to catch up and serves as a reminder that even underrated cult shows can be reservoirs for classic Shakespearean drama.