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'Sons of Anarchy' season premiere review: A down 'n' dirty season gets up 'n' running

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Talk about a comeback: Just as the SAMCRO boys get out of prison after 14 months, mount their hogs, and rumble home in the season 4 premiere of Sons of Anarchy, so does the series itself return, triumphantly, to its roots. After a third season spent making wobbly journeys back and forth to Ireland in an attenuated subplot that slackened the pace, SOA is back in its hometown of Charming, California, where there’s a whole world of trouble.

There’s a new sheriff in town, and he’s not the old softy Wayne Unser was. Eli Roosevelt (Prison Break’s Rockmond Dunbar) is a hard-nosed cop who wants to clamp down on the motorcycle gang. This doesn’t sit well with leaders Clay (Ron Perlman) and Jax (Charlie Hunnam), especially since they’re also being squeezed by Charming’s land-grabbing mayor, Jacob Hale (Jeff Kober),  and a recently arrived undercover assistant district attorney, Lincoln Potter (Ray McKinnon). It’s a good thing Clay and Jax have a new ally within the Mexican cartel: Romeo Parada, played with craggy authority by Danny Trejo.

For me, SOA has always flirted with absurdity. I never entirely bought the idea of a gun-running, murderous gang as sympathetic heroes, and the series’ presentation of its female characters – strong women led by Katey Sagal’s Gemma and Maggie Siff’s Tara – is at odds with decades of reporting about real-life cycle clubs’ casual sexism and worse. But one mark of a good narrative is that it lifts you past your reservations through the power of its pacing, detail, and engagement with character; that’s what ultimately hooked me on SOA.

Having seen beyond tonight’s premiere, I can guarantee you that this new season is a real rip-snorter. We’re back to basics: the club versus the Man (Sheriff Roosevelt is no pushover); the club caught between other criminal factions (the Mexicans and the Russians, both seeking guns, are powerful forces); the club colliding with its own history. Jax is ever closer to embracing the philosophy of his dead father that the SOA ought to be more peaceable or it will have lost its reason for being.

Indeed, this is one of the most interesting, and least commented-upon, fundaments of the series producer-writer Kurt Sutter created. Yes, it’s been frequently noted that SOA‘s family dynamic bears a not-at-all absurd comparison to the plot of Hamlet. But more intriguing is the idea that Jax’s father was a product of the ’60s counterculture and based much of the SAMCRO philosophy on live-and-let-live, communal, mind- and idea-expanding concepts. (It’s not by accident that motorcycle clubs and hippies used some common language — Gemma as Clay’s “old lady” is a tie-dyed usage for sure.)

There’s all the slamming violence you might want in your gas-fumed escapism, mingled with real-world difficulties. Clay’s crippling arthritis has left him bemoaning his lifestyle (“no savings, no medical”) and thus willing to make some risky scores. Contrast this with Jax’s desire to chill out and settle down, and you’ve got some major internal struggles brewing. The external challenges are just as potent. The new sheriff swinging a Walking Tall baseball bat is evidence of that. Or how the RICO law — the last resort of desperate law enforcement — arises. Weddings, engagements, fistfights. Yep, it certainly looks like a good, down ‘n’ dirty season.

Twitter: @kentucker

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