Kurt Sutter’s biker drama Sons of Anarchy (FX, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.) is quality TV, but the show doesn’t make it easy to see that. It’s riding a hard and lonely road, pun intended. Its criminal characters — and some of its cops, too — are venal, violent people, and if you’re invested in the series (as I am), the emotional mechanics of TV create a push-pull, attraction-repulsion effect. You let these people into your homes once a week and get used to caring about them and their problems (or at least being fascinated by their illegal shenanigans), and then they do something hideous and inexcusable and compartmentalize it, and you think about turning the damned thing off and never watching again.
But you come back next week because you want to see what happens, and suddenly you’re caring again, rooting for these human monsters because they’re your monsters and wishing harm on all the other monsters that want to take away what they’ve got. I can think of no better illustration of the Sons of Anarchy emotional seesaw than tonight’s fifth season premiere. It climaxes with a murder so sadistic that I could barely watch it, then segues into an argument between two other characters about childcare arrangements, and the two scenes are all of a piece. My sister, my daughter, my sister, my daughter.
The episode is written by Sutter and directed by series co-executive producer Paris Barclay, who teamed up on the excellent fourth-season premiere. This one isn’t nearly as good; in fact for the first two-thirds, it’s pretty clunky, expository stuff: mostly people spitting out plot details designed to bring viewers up to speed on what happened near the end of last season. I’m not entirely clear on all the details myself, thanks to Sutter’s fondness for macramé-dense intertwined subplots and slang- and acronym-ridden dialogue, but here’s the gist: The treacherous Clay (Ron Perlman) is out as the head of SAMCRO and recovering from gunshot wounds, and feeling guilty for murdering "Piney" Winston (William Lucking) — or maybe he’s just faking remorse, because that’s the kind of bastard he is. The rightful heir of the motorcycle club, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), has assumed control during a time of dire crisis. The club’s business arrangement with the Irish is shaky. A gang of African-American criminals headed by ex-drug lord Damon Pope (Harold Perrineau) want revenge for SAMCRO’s killing of Pope’s daughter last season. The gang is still entangled with the Mexican cartel, which was revealed to be at least partially a front for government agents trying to interdict arms smugglers; Danny Trejo returns as Romeo Parada, the organization’s craggy face.
Maybe a dozen other plot threads get untangled, sort of, in the course of an hour. The most intriguing concerns are Jax’s maturation as a leader, his relationship with Clay (who has to be kept around for political and business reasons), and the growing animosity between Clay’s ex-girlfriend Gemma (Katey Sagal) and Jax’s baby mama Tara (Maggie Siff). Both these relationships are about the changing of the guard: Jax is the new Clay, and Tara — who lost her career as a surgeon when her hand was damaged in an assault last season — is on track to become the new Gemma.
When the episode begins, Gemma is in a bit of a doom spiral; the first time we see her, she’s being mounted by a pimp named Nero Padilla (Jimmy Smits), and when she wakes up the next morning she can’t remember how she ended up in his apartment because she was soused at the time. There are two other women sleeping off a carnal stupor at Nero’s place, but Nero tells Gemma he didn’t have sex with them, they were in the room doing each other, and because this is Sons of Anarchy, his explanation is strangely touching: almost chivalrous. “You're surrounded by barely legal pussy,” Gemma says. “What are you doing picking up old broads?” "I like a little more patina on my precious metal,” he replies. I picture Sutter telling Sagal, his real-life wife, “Guess what, honey? You get to turn into a pothead drunk this season and screw Jimmy Smits,” and Sagal clapping her hands and jumping up and down with glee. They’re the John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands of redneck biker grunge.
I know a lot of people who find Sons of Anarchy’s high-low mentality off-putting. There’s nuance in the acting and filmmaking, literary pretension in the plotting (Sutter has said that the story is basically Hamlet on wheels), and motivational complexity in the dialogue, exposition-dumpy as it often is, but because the whole thing is basically a macho soap opera with overtones of westerns and gangster flicks, its subtler qualities can be hard to see.
The exhaustive realities of series TV might be hurting it, too. No matter how studiously the script positions Jax’s ascent as an illustration of the cycles of power and generational change, Sons of Anarchy’s situations still feel repetitive. I worry that the show might never recapture the aesthetic and emotional peak it attained near the end of season two (though I liked season four quite a bit), but it’s still compelling, and there’s nothing else on TV quite like it. It’s grindhouse and art house, and it carries itself as if it doesn’t give a damn what you think of it. And its infuriating push-pull quality is still fascinating. In the final montage, there’s a shot of the gangster Pope buying out an ice cream truck and making dozens of neighborhood kids ecstatically happy. At that point the man is responsible for at least two horrendous murders, but when I saw his grin as he handed out the ice cream, I thought, “I like this guy. He has a good heart.”