FX cemented its reputation as the “Holy crap, was that really necessary?” network last night during Sons of Anarchy’s fifth season finale, when ex-Sons member Otto, an incarcerated killer who’d murdered an infirmary nurse last week, bit off his own tongue, spit the bloody hunk out on an interrogation room table, and giggled maniacally. “Wow, Otto,” said the murdered nurse’s brother, Lee Toric (Donal Logue), watching through a two-way mirror. “Way to commit!”
You can tell a lot about a filmmaker based on what kind of cameo he gives himself; Otto, played by Sons of Anarchy creator and head writer Kurt Sutter, is a demonic imp, on par with the nostril-slitting creep played by Roman Polanski in Chinatown. Toric’s peanut gallery comment sums up my own attitude toward Sons of Anarchy, season five — the whole run of it, really. I don’t like every episode or every scene, and there are times when I wish it were a deeper, subtler, or more ambitious, but man, is it committed to Sutter’s bleak, whacked-out vision.
That vision became starkly clear in season five, which doubled down on the show’s macho soap opera aura. The nexus of plots and sub-plots, double-crosses and triple crosses played like Biker Days of Our Lives. The action occurred mostly in and near the nonexistent Charming, California — more so than in any season since two, if memory serves. The master plot that powered the seasons one through four (Hamlet with motorycles, as per Sutter’s preferred description) mutated into a look at the way familial and organizational patterns replicate themselves over time.
Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the club’s new boss, pitted the Irish against the Mexicans while engaging in a tricky dance with black gangster Damon Pope (the excellent Harold Perrineau). By the end, he’d offed Pope, but only after drawing Pope’s organization into a housing development deal that guaranteed auto maintenance contracts to SAMCRO and subsidized housing for the family of the dearly departed Opie (Ryan Hurst), who was slain in a prison fight. Clay (the club’s former boss, played by Ron Perlman) complimented Jax, saying he’d underestimated his leadership ability, and even though Clay is chronically dishonest, you could tell by his eyes that he meant it. Jax’s temper tantrums and sadistic improvisations confirmed that, while he’d love to be a beloved leader like his father, he’s at risk of becoming another Clay. Jax’s wife Tara (Maggie Siff) became the new incarnation of Gemma (Katey Sagal); the battle over access to the Teller brood powered most of their scenes together, including that climactic fight that ended with Gemma sucker-punching Tara in the gut, then purring on her way out of the room, “I hope you’re not pregnant.” The corrupt Clay — wracked by arthritis and respiratory problems, and marked as a selfish, untrustworthy leader — got pushed to the sidelines, became the new version of Piney (the impotent elder statesman Clay murdered last season), and hatched a doomed scheme to regain power.
The name of the show’s town always had a sinister undertone, but it emerged into daylight throughout seasons four and five, as Jax, Tara, and other characters kept laying paths out of Charming, then either finding the roads blocked or deciding not to take them. The adjective “charming” suggests sweet or lovable qualities, and a “charm” wards off evil; but “charm” can also be verb, as in “to affect by or as if by magic." So many of these characters keep insisting they want out, but Charming keeps pulling them back in. The town equals SAMCRO, and SAMCRO is a family whose allure is more compelling than most of the characters’ blood ties. So much crucial emotional action occurred in the same handful of settings — the SAMCRO clubhouse, the homes of club members and associates, and a couple of new places, such as the high-end brothel run by Nero (Jimmy Smits), the new lover of Katy Sagal’s Gemma — that the show felt even more geographically contained than usual. Many of its key events felt more figurative than literal, a couple of steps up from filmed theater, and were conveyed in theatrical fashion, by having the relevant parties enter a room, sit down, and talk for a bit.
This is one of those shows to which the word “plausibility” barely applies. In every episode there are at least four or five things that just wouldn’t happen in “real life.” Charming itself is unabashedly a TV setting, no more “real” than Gilligan’s Island, Mayberry, or Greendale Community College. It probably sees more murders in any given month than the real Ciudad Juarez does in a year, and except for the local police department and a few visiting feds, law enforcement seems barely to have noticed. Media coverage of the violence is nonexistent. It’s like a town in an old TV western, and considering Sutter’s love of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, that vibe is surely deliberate. (The use of the White Buffalo’s “The Whistler” during the scene where Clay’s SAMCRO tattoos get covered was very Ennio Morricone.)
None of the above is meant as a slam, by the way. Quite the contrary: Sons of Anarchy’s unreality and containment give it a dreamlike intensity that other crime dramas lack. The situations are ridiculous, but the characters’ motivations usually make sense, and their vivid personalities anchor Sutter’s increasingly baroque plotting, which dredges up plot points from early seasons whenever it feels the need, and expects viewers to keep up. (Were it not for the “previously on” montages, we might not be able to.)
And the show keeps throwing emotional curveballs, mostly through its performers. Sutter and his cowriters are good at creating characters so loathsome that you can’t imagine caring about them, then drawing such raw, messy emotions out of them that you become invested anyway. The cover version of “Sympathy for the Devil” that ended last night’s finale could be the show’s second, stealth theme song. Most of these characters are self-justifying thugs, but hath not a thug eyes, and when pricked, does he not bleed, brother?
I love the shattered expression that Tig (Kim Coates) carried around throughout season five after his daughter’s revenge-murder by Pope; the horror in the eyes of Wendy Case (Drea de Matteo) as Jax injected her with a speedball so that she’d fail a drug test and be barred from getting near her kid again; the intense chemistry and deep affection shared by Gemma and Nero (Smits is never more of a star than when he’s playing a man in love); the moment when Clay tells Juice (Theo Rossi) that he knows he’s half-black, and thus ineligible to belong to SAMCRO, then spills a secret of his own, with an almost fatherly gentleness; moonlighting Justified regular Walton Goggins (formerly of Sutter’s The Shield) strutting through an episode as a transgender escort so assertive that the bikers couldn’t help but be awed by her; Clay crying after his beatdown by Jax; the wrenching memorial for Opie, which ran six minutes and contained just one line of dialogue, Jax’s “I’ll see you later, bro.”
In the season’s most audacious scene, Otto masturbated in a prison infirmary bed while Tara held the back of his head, her wrist perfumed with the scent of Otto’s murdered wife. All of a sudden, Otto, a deranged cartoon who increasingly suggests a Mickey Rourke character marinated in battery acid, became pathetic and all too human, and for a few bizarre minutes, Sons of Anarchy reminded me, incredibly, of Lars von Trier’s psychosexual drama Breaking the Waves. Sutter’s show does this sort of thing often. You think it won’t go there, wherever “there” is, and then it does, with feeling.
Like most TV dramas, Sons of Anarchy is at risk of overstaying its welcome; even some fans might say that it already has. FX renewed the drama for a sixth season, and a seventh seems likely. (Logue’s character, a former U.S. marshal who arrived in town with tons of pills and guns, seems a promising antagonist for Jax next year; I hope he doesn’t fizzle out like season four’s Lincoln Potter.) Is there enough storytelling potential to sustain the show for two more years, though? I’m skeptical. I love the idea of one set of characters deposing another because they don’t approve of their leadership decisions, then becoming just like them; it’s the stuff of tragedy. But so much of the plotting this year seemed merely busy rather than integral to that theme: distraction after distraction after distraction, an endless to-do list for Jax and a narrative quadratic equation that the writers had to solve for “X.” And some of the Big Moments were gratuitous and silly even by Sons standards. (Why did Otto have to murder that nurse and then bite off his own tongue? Couldn’t he have just testified in the RICO case, or not testified? And how is it possible that Tara could be in the clear after illegally sneaking Otto the crucifix that he used as a weapon?)
I’ll keep watching regardless. Sutter’s devotion to his characters (and his actors) powered Sons through rough patches, and even in the most cluttered, exposition-choked episodes, you could sense the cast and crew’s fervor. Several installments ran in 90-minute timeslots, their narratives bursting at the seams with action, emotion, and sick humor. It might seem strange to describe such a vicious show as joyous, but the word fits more often than you might think.