At the end of the third season of Sons of Anarchy, I was looking forward to see just what it was that the show's creator Kurt Sutter and his merry band of misfits had it store for future seasons. In the past, the show had done itself well to toss a conflict a character's way and put it on a slow burner to the point where the pressure on them could not hold out any longer, and they were potentially facing the biggest conflict the show had seen to that point. How does it get pulled off?
The show's fourth season kicks off with Jax (Charlie Hunnam, Children of Men), Clay (Ron Perlman, Hellboy II) and several other members of the Sons' Motorcycle Club were being released from prison for weapons charges. This is done much to the delight of Tara (Maggie Siff, Michael Clayton) being and Gemma (Katey Sagal, Married with Children), Jax' and Clay's old ladies, respectively. The old sheriff, Unser (Dayton Callie, Halloween II), had to step aside for favor of Eli (Rockmund Dunbar, Prison Break), who came from Oakland and is familiar with working against gangs. While Eli was the local police presence, a more federally based one was the appearance of Lincoln Potter (Ray McKinnon, The Blind Side). Mr. Potter is an Assistant U.S. Attorney who is keeping an eye on the Sons in the hope that the group is continuing possible arms deals with the Russian mob. The Sons do decide to end their gunrunning, but soon turn their attention to transporting drugs on the behalf of a drug cartel whose main contact is played by Danny Trejo (Machete). Jax starts to realize that not only is this new deal more than the group can handle, but that Clay's actions are starting to hurt the gang.
Without giving away the entire store, allow me to take a step back and look at the fourth season from up on high, now that I've seen it twice, once upon broadcast and again on these Blu-ray discs. I remember being annoyed a bit by the way the third season meandered in Ireland, partly to serve as an exploration of roots/origin story, but to serve as back story to Jax' father (and Gemma's first guy) J.T. The subplot took entirely too long, spent too much time in Ireland and the season was impacted as a result. Well, allow me to say that after seeing how the other shoe dropped by Sutter's design for all of the Irish back story, I can see why he invested the time in doing it. The third season was also juggling a couple of balls in the air that it did not have to do in Season Four, focusing on what we all would anticipate being a confrontation of Clay by Jax about his motivations for the club. Assisting with this was the reintroduction of Piney (William Lucking, Erin Brockovich) to the arc as one who shared J.T.'s misgivings about what Clary was doing and challenged Jax to be more of what his father was. Throwing an interesting wrinkle into this? A slightly more muted struggle between Gemma and Tara for Jax' loyalties. Tara wants to take Jax out of Charming with their children; Gemma wants him to take his rightful place at the head of the club. It is this struggle with the origins of the club in Season Three that sets up what goes on in large swatches of Season Four, and this struggle is the payoff for Season Three. Sutter Ink, please accept my humble apologies.
While this is the main storyline driving the show, there are smaller ones that are almost as enticing and worth exploring further. Using Roosevelt's help, Potter turns the screw on Juice (Theo Rossi, Cloverfield), trying to get him to flip and turn as a state's witness against the club. Potter goes so far as to threaten the release of Juice's mixed race family to the club in order to expel him. Rossi's dilemma is handled very well by the actor, including his reluctance to tell Chibs (Tommy Flanagan, Smokin' Aces) the truth. With everything that occurs in the fourth season, this was one storyline that merited its own attention during the run.
The other actors in the ensemble generally do their part, and the stars of the show continue to show off their wares, with Perlman's metamorphosis through the season being fascinating. It is clever at first, then Clay switches to a near-regret of doing business with the cartels, to one where he is brazenly drunk with power, doing things that no one would have even considered the President of the MC would have even done a year ago. Sagal's performance is good, though her willingness to hide some f-ed up S reminds me to a degree of Season Two. Siff quietly takes a bit more prominent role in the family and has Jax' ear now more than ever in recent memory and her conviction in the face of her mother-in-law's words tends to show this.
While Season Three may have found the Sons of Anarchy crew slightly lost from their mission, they regain their creative footing in fine form in Season Four. There are not as many distractions from the main story that would deter from enjoyment, the season focuses on the past of the MC and looks at the future with those in the present, and does so with solid storytelling and fine execution by its actors. It is safe to say Sutter and gang pull off the season with flying colors and a newfound perspective and role change with the soon-to-be aired fifth season.
The Blu-Ray Discs:
As is the case with Season Three, 13 episodes are spread over three discs and all are presented in 1.78:1 widescreen using the AVC codec, looking as good as their original broadcast airings. Detail is ample through the show, black levels are deep and fairly inky and provide a nice contrast to the image. Colors are reproduced accurately without saturation issues, and flesh tones appear natural. Image detail is strong in the foreground and displays a slight multidimensional look in the background, and there is little in the way of DNR to distract from the experience. Altogether, a nice looking set yet again.
As before/expected, all of the episodes have a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround track to delight the auditory enthusiasts, which starts when the season does, with Joshua James' "Coal War" played in the season's first five minutes, sounding clear as a bell and making great use of the soundstage. In quieter sequences, dialogue is clear and strong, requiring little adjustment. Channel panning and directional effects are present and sound effective over the course of the season. Sons has always been a sonically pleasing show and this is no exception.
It seems like the bonus material is a touch light compared to previous years, but I could easily be mistaken. Disc One has a commentary on "Out" (the season's premiere episode) with Sutter, Hunnam, Perlman and Paris Barclay, the episode's director. Ideas for the music are talked about, and Sutter discusses the casting ideas and some scene-specific challenges. Hunnam talks about the much-debated (maybe) decision to cut his hair, and Barclay discusses his shots in the episodes and points out the 2nd unit work. It is a decent track though not anything groundbreaking by any means. Thirteen deleted scenes (12:34) which are mainly unnecessary clips are the other extra on the disc. It should be noted that there is an iPad app that serves as a 'second screen' feature that can be downloaded and viewed to enhance the experience. Disc Two has seven deleted scenes (7:53) which are more of the same, and two commentaries on the "Hands" episode; one with the episode's director Peter Weller, the other with Sutter, Sagal and Siff. The former is a pragmatic and thoughtful track, though much of it is describing the action that occurs on screen. The latter covers more of the show to that point, and Sutter talks about his approach at the time for the show, and thoughts on the season as a whole. Of the two, this is a little more entertaining and worth the listening.
Disc Three holds the bulk of the extras, starting with a commentary on both parts of "To Be" with Sutter and the "members" of the Sons. It is easily the most jocular track of the bunch, with the gang each doing their version of the opening credits song at the same time, but then Sutter discusses the choices in making the episode two hours long (as opposed to 90 minutes) and how such a decision impacts the production as a whole from a cost perspective. There are also some moments where Season Five plot points are flirted with. Definitely the best track of the bunch. Moving on, four deleted scenes (3:22) do not add much to the experience. A gag reel is next (2:44) which had some yuks to it, while "Farewell Piney" (7:10) features a tribute to the character and actor from the 'surviving' cast and from Sutter. "Fans of Anarchy" (4:47) looks at the show from a fans perspective, as two were invited to an episode screening and subsequent Q&A. "Anarchy at House of Blues" (10:20) is a fundraiser for a friend of the show who tragically passed and the show was designed to support his family.
Sons of Anarchy is like a proverbial motorcycle ride, where you start out feeling great (Seasons One & Two) and while you may experience a slight handling problem (Season Three), the overall result remains a fascinating, enjoyable ride (Season Four). Technically the set is pretty good and supplementally could use a little bit of work, but if there was a place to start the show for those new to it, this season may be that point. Definitely recommended for those who have not seen it.