On Tuesday, Sept. 6, "Sons of Anarchy," FX's high-octane drama about an outlaw motorcycle club, skids in for a fourth season that promises both freedom and peril.
It's a hot day on an undistinguished street in the San Fernando Valley, the site of the Teller-Morrow garage and SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original) clubhouse, the epicenter of the group's activity.
In the show, the club lives a bit farther north in California, in the town of Charming, which used to be nearly its private property. But now there's a new sheriff in town -- literally -- and behind him are a group of lawmen aiming to take SAMCRO down.
Rockmond Dunbar ("Terriers") joins the cast as no-nonsense Sheriff Eli Roosevelt, who takes over from cancer-stricken Charming Police Chief Wayne Unser (Dayton Callie), and Ray McKinnon ("Deadwood") plays an assistant U.S. district attorney with an eye on organized crime, including SAMCRO.
As might be expected, motorcycles are scattered around the Teller-Morrow yard, fenced with chain link topped with barbed wire (probably as much to keep curious show fans out as SAMCRO foes).
But there is also a fenced-in play yard complete with a little roofed house and artificial grass, a reminder that there are children in the SAMCRO world.
In particular, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), son of late club founder John Teller and his wife, Gemma (Katey Sagal), now the wife of current club president Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), has two young sons -- one from a previous relationship and the other with his girlfriend, Dr. Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff).
Clay, Jax and a few other SAMCRO members went to prison at the end of last season, and as this year opens, they're just being released.
"Jax comes out," says Sagal, during a break in her trailer, "with a pretty good sense of where he wants to be and a really strong sense of family. We're really seeing him and Tara bonded deeper."
A gunrunning deal made with Russian mobsters last season has been paying off well. But the arthritis in Clay's hands is now making him think his bike-riding days -- and his days as the club president -- are numbered.
"Clay is in a very precarious situation this year," says Sagal, who's also the wife of show creator and executive producer Kurt Sutter. "He's getting older. These are people that don't have retirement funds; they don't have savings for a rainy day. They live day to day.
"So it's the reality of 'I'm getting older, and I may not be doing this for much longer.' It makes people do certain things. They put themselves in a situation where bigger risks are being taken, and there's disagreement about that, and not everyone is on board with that."
On the couch in his office, which is part of the cluster of buildings that includes the SAMCRO clubhouse and the Teller-Morrow garage, Sutter continues the theme.
"It's really about him coming up with an exit strategy," he says. "The interesting thing is, we've really, from the jump of the show, played the idea that these guys were obviously under the duress of the circumstances, but they were really tapped out financially.
"So it's interesting, this season, to play them flush, and what happens to these guys when they do have some money. I wouldn't say it's so much about greed as it is, when you have it, there's this moment of, 'Oh, I have it,' but it's immediately followed by, 'I'm afraid I'm going to lose it.' That's really what's going on."
The season premiere episode features several of the SAMCRO members out on the highway in their bikes, having a run-in with the law. The director of that hour is Paris Barclay ("The Shield," "NYPD Blue").
His vision for the season is drawn from a world that's more horses than horsepower.
"When we're doing our fights and our shoots and our motorcycle rides," says Barclay in his office, "I just think of those great horse movies, the great Sergio Leone ones. Without copying, I just let that inform us, because I really see it as contemporary Western. There are good guys, and there are bad guys, and they ride around.
"Now we have a new sheriff in town, and he's trying to show that he's the tough guy in town."
But, not all of SAMCRO's problems are external.
"This is going to be club-related," Sutter says, "a decision that's made. Ultimately, it's a majority vote, and the majority wins, and they move forward into this business venture.
"Then it's the ramifications of it when it starts to unravel, and you have some people, it's the 'I told you so,' and you have other people trying to defend it. We have Jax in the middle of all that this season."