That old outlaw spirit finally returned to Sons of Anarchy last week, bringing a sense of fun back to the show and lifting the gloomy cloud that’s been hanging over the entire sixth season. And Tuesday’s stellar episode, “Sweet and Vaded,” reminded me of how well Kurt Sutter’s biker drama can excel at balancing tragedy with dark comedy and offbeat pulp. The show’s robust engine is roaring again, and I’m happily sitting in the sidecar.
I’m not ready to say that SOA has returned to form, or that the show is better than it’s ever been, because those things certainly aren’t true. But after watching the two most recent episodes, I’ve decided to stick with the show for the rest of the season, and probably beyond. While that’s not exactly the highest praise Sutter may be looking for from a TV critic, it’s saying a lot for a series that started out as one of the most interesting and promising cable dramas of the post-Sopranos era, but has wavered in quality over the years.
Much of the praise for last night’s great episode has rightly centered on Walton Goggin’s wonderful portrayal of Venus Van Dam, the most charming transgender taxpayer in Charming. The show introduced Venus last season mostly for laughs, but her role this season has been much more substantial and interesting. Even in 2013, it’s hard to find rich and nuanced depictions of transgender people and their struggles on the small screen like the one that played out on SOA Tuesday night. The unflinching portrayal of Venus’s complicated, dark, and pointedly human story will no doubt be remembered by some as groundbreaking TV. The episode peered into the heart of an abused and marginalized “freak on the fringe” and offered a compelling and compassionate picture of her courageous and delightful spirit.
Venus’s story also had a lot to say about the tragic cycle of abuse and the damage it can inflict on a family for generations. While much of this was played as a not-so-subtle parallel to Jax’s fears about his sons growing up in the violent world of SAMCRO, it still felt like a credible message about the horrors of sexual and physical abuse.
“Sweet and Vaded” had its share of darkness, violence, and solemn scenes, but it did a great job of balancing the somber stuff and the fun stuff. The oppressive “out of the frying pan and into the fire” plot cycle that has been weighing down much of the season wasn’t as prevalent here, and that made things feel loose and lively again. Thankfully, it looks like the show is moving away from the tedious IRA-gun running plotline — for the moment, at least — in favor of more interesting personal stories and episodic adventures.
Another thing that’s making SOA much more fun to watch these days is CCH Pounder as DA Tyne Patterson. I love Donal Logue, but Lee Toric was a hot, laughable mess. I’m glad he’s been iced and the role of the club’s main adversary has been passed to Patterson, who poses a much more credible threat to the club than Toric ever did. She’s tough, imposing, and just as determined as Toric, but thankfully I don’t think we’ll ever see her cackling while arranging prison rapes, popping pills like a beefy Michael Alig, or murdering prostitutes. I’m looking forward to more polite but tense standoffs between Patterson and Peter Weller’s scuzzy ex-cop, Barosky.
While the threats keep mounting against the club, the past few episodes have depicted the beleaguered bikers happily reveling in the rowdy outlaw spirit that made the show so much fun to watch in the early seasons. Here’s hoping we get more scenes like the one that opened this week’s installment with the boys celebrating Rat’s promotion, and the one where Tig’s heart skipped a beat when he saw Venus in the ice cream shop.
There are still too many plot threads spinning at once this season — some more ridiculous than others, like Tara’s complicated long con, which landed with the grace of Bobby falling off a bar stool this week — and the level of melodrama on the show rarely registers below eleven. But it’s good to see that SOA can still succeed at offering a rich, fun and exciting look into an infamous American subculture.