EDITOR'S NOTE: The following recap of "Sons of Anarchy" season four, episode 12 contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.
When Charles Dickens was at the peak of his popularity, Americans used to wait on East Coast docks for the latest chapters of his serialized novels to arrive. TV dramas are our version of that. The best have that mix of shamelessness and sophistication that Dickens refined into art — or at the very least, artful melodrama — and the FX biker drama Sons of Anarchy is right up there in the pantheon. Its cliffhanger episode endings are among the most addictive I’ve seen, and last night offered a great example: a three-way standoff between the increasingly evil gang boss Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), his disaffected lieutenant Jax (Charlie Hunnam) and the vengeful Opie (Ryan Hurst), who discovered his dad’s reeking body and was informed that Clay secretly killed him. Everything about the standoff was utterly shameless: the race-to-the-finish-line lead-up; Opie’s tearful speech; Opie leveling his gun at Clay at the precise moment when Jax burst in and screamed at him to drop it; the shot of Clay’s body slamming against a wall; Jax’s horrified close-up. Cut to black, roll credits. Is he dead? Was he wearing a bulletproof vest?
I laughed out loud at this ending. It was primordially manipulative. It reminded me of watching old Captain America serials on local TV as a kid. (Me: “Mom, is Captain America going to get cut in half by the buzz saw?” Mom: “I guess you’ll have to watch next week to find out, but for now I’ll just remind you that the thing is called Captain America.) It also parallels nicely with the adventure tales I’ve been reading to my young son at bedtime — the kinds of books that’ll end chapters with sentences like, “He held his sword in front of him, moving slowly down the long, dark hallway until he pushed open the door and revealed the most horrifying image imaginable.” My boy’s reaction to these Big Reveal is always the same: “Daddy, what happens next? Can we read just one more chapter?”
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A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for Salon.com and the founder of Press Play.