Judge Erich Asperschlager doesn't wear ink, but he does carry mechanical pencils.
Our reviews of Sons Of Anarchy: Season One (published August 31st, 2009), Sons Of Anarchy: Season Two (Blu-ray) (published September 9th, 2010), Sons Of Anarchy: Season Three (published September 15th, 2011), and Sons Of Anarchy: Season Three (Blu-ray) (published September 8th, 2011) are also available.
In the expanding landscape of TV shows with villainous heroes, Sons of Anarchy stands alone. Where Breaking Bad has a lone science teacher-turned meth dealer, Sons has a clubhouse packed with hard-riding, gun-toting bikers who live outside the law. Over three years, series creator Kurt Sutter has given fans a reason to care for characters who do terrible things, and Season Four is no different. After a third season that was divided between California and Belfast, Season Four finds the club back together but at odds, with old secrets and new business threatening to tear everything apart.
Facts of the Case
[Note: This review includes some spoilers from the first three seasons and minor plot points for Season Four.]
After two near-flawless seasons, Sons of Anarchy's third year was uneven, bogged down with side plots that went nowhere and a sluggish first half. The season picked up near the end, building to an insane finale that turned the tables on Jax's supposed deal with the Feds and brought Agent Stahl's storyline to a satisfying and bloody end. Even though the credits rolled with the Sons on their way to jail, they were going in as victors.
Season Four picks up 14 months later with the Sons' prison release. Although the time jump interrupts the momentum gained by the previous finale, the storyline carries on with the major plot developments begun at the end of Season Three. SAMCRO is emboldened by narrowly escaping serious jail time, and having scored a lucrative deal with the "Irish Kings." Clay sees the IRA deal as an opportunity to solidify his and Gemma's financial future before arthritis forces him to step down as president. Jax, unbeknownst to the club members, sees it as one last deal before he can afford to leave Charming forever with his boys and his old lady.
The season's biggest secret belongs to Tara, who found the Belfast love letters Maureen Ashby hid in Jax's bag at the end of Season Three—letters that tell a dangerous truth about John Teller's last days. In a season filled with secrets and threats, these letters play a huge role. The drama that follows their discovery is a welcome return to the first two seasons' focus on JT, Jax, and the future of the club.
In addition to threats from within, SAMCRO is facing the scrutiny of a secret RICO investigation headed by Assistant US Attorney Lincoln Potter, played by Deadwood's Ray McKinnon. Bringing new characters into an established show can be dangerous, but McKinnon is one of the best things about a great season. Potter's oddball investigative approach is a welcome change after three years of the nasty Stahl. Unlike her, he pushes the envelope without crossing the line. The RICO storyline might elevate previous season threats more than introduce something new, but it delivers solid tension, especially as the season comes to a close.
Also new this season are Rockmund Dunbar as Lieutenant Eli Roosevelt, the new sheriff in town, and Danny Trejo as Romeo Parada, leader of the Galindo drug cartel. Dunbar brings plenty of swagger to his role as the anti-Unser, playing a good cop who learns how tough it is to navigate Charming politics. Trejo is as cool as always, playing to his strengths as a heavy trapping the Sons under his meaty thumbs.
As good as the newcomers are, the best thing about Sons of Anarchy is its killer ensemble cast—all of whom come back together after spending much of the third season apart. Supporting characters like Tig (Kim Coates), Chibs (Tommy Flanagan), Bobby (Mark Boone Junior), Opie (Ryan Hurst), and Otto (played by Kurt Sutter) all have strong scenes which add to the central story, while "Juice" (Theo Rossi) and Piney (William Lucking) are elevated to two of the bigger side plots—neither of which I'll spoil here.
The bulk of this season, though, is focused on the characters who have always been at the center of the show. Charlie Hunnam's Jax gets better every year, as he finds more reason to feel conflicted about Clay's (Ron Perlman) leadership. The infighting of Season Two is nothing compared to their battle this season. Tara (Maggie Siff), now fully a part of the club, is engaged in her own secret struggle to get her family out of Charming. Her plan is derailed by the discovery of JT's letters, which dredge up a past that Gemma (Katey Sagal), Clay (Ron Perlman), and Unser (Dayton Callie) would rather forget.
For all its gritty power, Sons of Anarchy is no stranger to dramatic shortcuts. Although Season Four builds its conflict honestly and organically, the last few episodes have a tough time tying up all the loose ends. The RICO investigation in particular is such a massive obstacle there's no easy way for the Sons to escape without the help of a jarring late-season twist. Some plot lines are introduced then largely ignored, like now-Mayor Jacob Hale's (Jeff Kober) Charming Heights land deal, or Opie and Lyla's (Winter Ave Zoli) marriage. Other plots feel shoehorned in to plant seeds and introduce characters for later seasons. Even so, Season Four's low points never sink as low as those in Season Three.
After watching previous seasons via HD streams and on DVD, this is my first time watching Sons of Anarchy on Blu-ray. This might be the best hi-def TV set I've ever reviewed. I'm used to big-budget movies blowing me away, but small screen ventures tend to underwhelm. Not here. Every crease in every leather jacket and leathery face, every stitch, and every bit of stubble in this 1080p 1:78:1 transfer is razor sharp, with rich blacks and natural colors. The Teller-Morrow garage might not have the richest palette, but it's all faithfully reproduced in this native HD picture, without any evidence of digital tinkering. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is predictably front-heavy, but with good use of directional effects, especially when it comes to motorcycles and bullets—and there are plenty of both. Music, dialogue, and action sequences are all crisp, balanced, and powerful.
Season Four's bonus features are spread across all three discs. There are five audio commentaries (one for the premiere, two for "Hands," and one for each of the two part season finale); about 24 minutes of deleted scenes; a gag reel; SOA mobile app integration for properly networked Blu-ray players; and three featurettes. If you want to avoid spoilers, don't read the list of extras on the back of the box because, while "Farewell [name omitted in this review]" (7:10) is a fitting tribute to a character who dies this year, it also ruins a shocking moment. "Fans of Anarchy" (4:47) is about two fan contest winners who were invited by Sutter to come out, watch an episode, and meet the cast. "Anarchy at the House of Blues" (10:20) focuses on a benefit show for the family of a friend who died suddenly without health insurance.
The bonus features are all worth watching and listening to, but the best thing about this set is something called "Season Mode," which will remember where you left off and go right to the episode when you put in the disc, without having to sit through trailers, warnings, and menus. Watching the set in Season Mode will also automatically play the surprisingly easy to miss extended versions of the episodes "Dorylus," "Brick," "Family Recipe," and "Kiss." If that feature isn't special, I don't know what is.
After a middling third year, Sons of Anarchy: Season Four proves that Sutter and company still have plenty left in the creative tank. The show is best when it focuses on Jax, Clay, and the future of the club—and this season brings that conflict to a head, paying off the first three years and taking the series into uncharted territory for Season Five. Jax might want to leave Charming, but I sure don't.
Let's ride. Not Guilty!
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