The new season of Sons of Anarchy demonstrates the perils involved when you take characters the audience has invested in deeply and start separating them from one another. Last season, the motorcycle-club saga built a compelling subplot involving the rape, recovery, and revenge of Katey Sagal's Gemma. Gemma's strong marriage to Ron Perlman's Clay, as well as the affection she feels toward her son, Charlie Hunnam's Jax, has long been SOA's most convincing repudiation of the pop culture cliché that motorcycle gangs treat women like dirt. By the end of that season, however, Gemma was in the wind, on the lam from a murder-rap frame-up. She didn't even know the crucial fact that Jax's baby son, Abel, had been kidnapped.
That kidnapping is now the primary motivation of the new season. Almost the entire SAMCRO crew has been marshaled to help Jax locate the child, whose suspected whereabouts include Ireland. It's implied that Jax will go anywhere even unto that boggy isle where a motorcycle might find scant solid ground to get ''my kid back.'' In the early episodes, this feeling of scatteration and displacement slackens the tension that made last season so exciting (that, and the departure of Adam Arkin as a wonderful bad guy).
Even in exile, however, there are some fine moments. Gemma reunites with her father, played by Hal Holbrook. Stricken with an early stage of dementia, Gemma's dad is both poignant and a handful, a difficult, complicated man you can see where she gets her stubborn, independent streak, and Sagal and Holbrook play their scenes together beautifully.
Left mostly in the dust in the episodes I've seen so far is Clay, which is an example of the separation I was talking about. Big Love hit a rough patch last season by spreading too many plots too thinly, pushing some characters to the background. Similarly, SOA now finds itself in the position of having to make an extra effort to be sure all its stars remain prominent. I mean, it's pretty likely that show creator Kurt Sutter doesn't want fans to get distracted, wondering why one of their favorites is receding from their view.
This is a challenge I hope Sons of Anarchy will meet and defeat as its season progresses. Certainly, the show is still exciting and thoughtful in the way that it disassembles many pat notions we may have of tribe loyalty, family bonds, and the treachery of the business world. Plus, Stephen King makes a nicely chilling cameo in an upcoming episode that I won't spoil by describing further. Let me just say he's as scary as any SAMCRO biker, and that's scary indeed. B