"Blood family, hometown, all that s--t moves back a row. Once you're patched, members are your family. This charter is your home." -Juice"Balm," the best episode so far of this exceptional second season of "Sons of Anarchy," comes along at a perfect time. "Mad Men" has just gone on hiatus. "Breaking Bad" won't be back until sometime in 2010. If you don't have DirecTV, "Friday Night Lights" won't be on TV until next summer. So "Sons of Anarchy" is, at the moment, the best drama on television, and an episode like "Balm" makes it clear the title shouldn't just be by default. Pound-for-pound, this series is as engrossing, as funny and as moving as all those others.
And what's incredible about "Balm" is that it manages to be as gripping as it is even though the season's chief villain (Ethan Zobelle) doesn't appear; even though the B-story hangs on a character (Chibs) who's been absent for a while, and a glorified extra for much of the series; and even though the big emotional moment of Gemma's confession plays out subdued, rather than as heated as we all expected it to be.
Or, really, the last part is so brilliant because it's not what we expect. Look, I love this show and all the violence and sheer bad-assery that comes with it. So I'm not ashamed to admit that when Gemma told Clay and Jax about her rape, things got very, very dusty in the Sepinwall living room. The genius of that scene - as written by Dave Erickson and Stevie Long, directed by Paris Barclay (from "In Treatment," but also someone Kurt Sutter worked with several times on "The Shield") and played by Katey Sagal, Ron Perlman, Charlie Hunnam and Maggie Siff - is that it's not about everyone getting upset and flipping over tables and swearing revenge. (Though Jax does pound his fist once before realizing that's not what his mother needs at the moment.) This is Gemma quietly, simply, telling the two men in her life about the worst day of her life - not because she wants them to go out and kill Zobelle and Weston and the others (though she wouldn't mind that), but because letting go of her pride and telling them about the rape is the best, and only, way she knows how to keep both her family and the club (which to Gemma are one and the same) from falling apart.
And it works. After Jax has spent the entire episode preparing to say goodbye to the charter, to his friends, to the life he's built for himself, he rests his hand on Clay's shoulder, and Clay takes it. And Jax takes his SAMCRO tags back on his way out the door. All the rest of it - Donna and Opie and Caracara and power plays - is forgotten, or at least put to the side. This is all that matters: this family, this wife, this mother, this need to protect her, and avenge her in time. Zobelle thought that news of Gemma's rape would have destabilized the club, and maybe if the news had come out when it happened, it would have. But by waiting this long - by making Jax and Clay realize how long she's been holding this in, for them - and telling them this way, at this crisis point, it's had the opposite effect. If anything's going to save SAMCRO from its current civil war, it's going to be this need to rally around Gemma and kick some righteous ass on the men who hurt her.
And Jax feels anger for his mother, and compassion for his stepfather. And Tara feels proud of Gemma for finally opening up and exposing her vulnerability. And Clay feels lost and hurt that his wife has suffered so greatly, and so alone.
(Excuse me. I had to pause the writing of this review to watch that scene again. Incredible. Gets me every time.)
All through this season, Sutter and company have done a good job of giving depth to club members outside the core of Clay, Jax, Tig and Opie, and the expanded running time of "Balm" allowed even more of that than usual. As Jax went on what he thought was his SAMCRO farewell tour, we got to spend time with Piney being bitter (and, based on that shot of him in the final montage, potentially dangerous to himself or others), with Juice in the hospital (not comic relief for once), and especially with Chibs.
It's really remarkable what they pull off with Chibs here. This is a guy who was one of the more minor figures of season one, who was largely on the sidelines of season two before he blew up real good and was shipped off to the hospital, and who still speaks with an accent thick enough that I sometimes need a chainsaw to cut through it... and he's suddenly this incredibly compelling central figure to whatever's going to happen through the rest of this season.
The amount of Chibs backstory they dumped on us in this one via Agent Stahl - that Jimmy O had Chibs kicked out of the IRA, gave him his scars and kept his wife and daughter as trophies - should have felt clumsy and shoe-horned, but it didn't. Credit Tommy Flanagan in his first real showcase of the series, but especially credit Titus Welliver for being so riveting and creepy (and for doing a brogue that was at least respectable) in the role. When he threatened to have his way with Chibs' daughter - "even if she does call me 'Da'" - chills ran down my spine, and made me understand why Chibs would make such a desperate, potentially suicidal move like offering to rat for Stahl.
And it was the presence of the monstrous Jimmy, and the respectable but no less monstrous Stahl, that made this episode so intense despite Zobelle and his goons being discussed but not seen. SAMCRO at this point has so many enemies or potential enemies - the League, the Mayans, True IRA, Stahl, Hale, the Nords, and, of course, each other - that we can afford to do without a few of them in any given week and things will still feel apocalyptic.
If the show didn't still have Hale as an example of a lawman who's decently and (mostly) not corrupt, I'd worry that Sutter and company were trying to stack the sympathy deck too much in SAMCRO's favor and away from the cops with the depiction of Stahl. It seemed after Donna's death, and after the way she behaved in the season premiere, that she had come to regret the tactics she used against the club, but again and again in "Balm," she resorts to the same old reckless tricks: threatening to have Abel put in foster care, to leave Chibs' family unprotected from Jimmy, to imply Edmond is a rat in the exact same way she treated Opie. If Ally Walker wasn't so good in the part - and particularly at showing how Stahl enjoys performing for her targets like this is all one big play for her - I would absolutely despise her, instead of largely despising her while admiring the actress playing her.
This is a deep, deep hole that SAMCRO is in. But with one selfless, ego-less gesture Gemma may have finally placed momentum on the club's side. And with this terrific episode - and that extraordinary tearjerking scene at the end of it - "Sons of Anarchy" has all the momentum it needs going into the season's final three episodes.
Some other thoughts on "Balm":
• I obviously got to watch this episode on a screener, without commercials, for 55 minutes straight. How did the show play out over a 90-minute timeslot? Did the commercial breaks seem longer and/or more frequent than usual?
• The episode's title refers to the healing effects of Gemma's confession, but is it in any way supposed to tie in with the prison episode, which was called "Gilead," and which together evoke the famous Lanford Wilson play?
• It's still not clear whether Chuck and/or Darby perished in the Caracara fire, in part because some material about it had to be cut for time from last week's episode, according to Kurt Sutter. The matter will be explained in an upcoming episode.
• The song playing during Gemma's confession was "Mary," by Patty Griffin.
• The chronology of this episode was odd. We seem to be only a day or two at most past Jax's decision to go nomad at the end of last week's episode, yet Chibs (who still needed a lot of in-patient rehab) is ready to be released from the hospital? I know these are the kind of contrivances that ensemble dramas with multiple, intertwined character arcs sometimes have to go through, but I still raised an eyebrow when Chibs got out. But the fact that he had just gotten out, and shouldn't have been exerting himself the way he's been, only added to all the tension in his part of the story.
• I was remiss in my review of "Gilead" to note how incredibly arrogant and stupid it was for Jax to more or less tell Stahl that he murdered Kohn. And now it looks like that could bite him if Stahl's other avenues of attack fail.
• Despite all their mounting enemies, SAMCRO does take on one new ally (or, at least, business partner), in the Native American tribe with their own homemade bullets - and their own stock of psychedelic 'shrooms. The latter leads to one of the few light moments of a very dark episode, as Half-Sack and Tig both get blissfully, deliriously high on the stuff, Half-Sack babbling in a mud pit ("It's cwarm! Cwarm! Cwarm!") and Tig looking terrifying as he enjoys a rare moment of peace and contentment. (And, during the final montage, the trip turned bad as Tig began crying and apologizing, presumably for killing Donna.)
• Another benefit of the long run time is that we get a scene that doesn't really move the plot along but tells us a lot about the characters and the world, like Gemma trying to talk Jax away from what he'd read in John's book. We find out that John wrote it shortly after the death of their other son, and Gemma implies that John's death might have been suicide, not an accident. The previews for this episode made it seem like Gemma was suggesting he had been murdered - I guess by Clay. While I still wouldn't be surprised by that revelation down the road - it would complete the Hamlet metaphor, after all - that was one more development than this episode needed.
• Tara began the season trying to open up to Jax, understand his world, and make her peace with being an MC member's old lady. And what has it gotten her? She's suspended from her job at the hospital, and her man doesn't even bother to consult her before making a huge change like going nomad. No good deed...
• Nice to see Opie making an effort to reach out to Jax again, even if it doesn't work, and then to see him finally opening up and letting himself have sex with Lyla (albeit on the floor, not on the bed he shared with Donna). There are going to be problems with this relationship, I'm sure, given Lyla's job and drug habit, but she's helped bring him out of his suicidal spiral.
• I also liked how the table vote scene allowed each club member (the ones who weren't hospitalized or tripping on mushrooms, anyway) to have his own reaction to Jax's attempt to go nomad: Clay resigned but not displeased, Bobby quiet and frustrated, Piney outraged, Opie sad and Chibs disbelieving.
What did everybody else think?