Perhaps to offer some comic relief, Sons of Anarchy’s “Playing With Monsters” opens with Red Woody Productions' inaugural shoot. Lyla sits in the director’s chair as the scene unfolds: It’s a science-fiction porn fantasy, with Skankenstein coming to life as electricity is shot through nipple clamps, bringing her into the embrace of her creator. Lyla proudly cuts the scene, and says, “Congratulations, boys,” as Red Woody Productions' (dare I say seemingly high-quality production value) porn business takes off.
We can’t forget, though, the story that this titillating plot parodies: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which a demented doctor creates life — a monster — that leads to vengeful destruction. Shelley subtitled her novel “The Modern Prometheus,” nodding to the Greek myth in which the Titan Prometheus helped create humans, tricked Zeus, gave humans fire, and was then punished by Zeus (an eagle slowly eating a liver: a torture so far unseen in Sons of Anarchy). At the core of Sons of Anarchy, and certainly “Playing With Monsters,” is this idea that the players are all monsters of others’ creation — and their own. In the final act, we are watching those monsters truly come alive, rebelling against law and nature to unravel it all.
After the celebratory round of applause (and Tig giggles) for Skankenstein, we cut to Juice and Unser — who together and separately still hold so much power — negotiating favors. Juice tells Unser what he knows about Tara’s murder (of course, that it was the Chinese), and Unser takes Juice to meet with Chibs so he can beg to be let back in the club. Neither deal is fruitful immediately, but they will need to be at some point. “Playing With Monsters” isn’t a shocking episode and doesn’t demand as much of our emotional participation as some episodes do. Instead, this third installment of the final season helps us understand how the pieces are falling together (to most certainly fall apart).
When Unser tells Sheriff Jarry about his intel on Tara’s murder — telling her to check out the Chinese — he refuses to give up Juice. “If I wanna keep him talking, it’s gotta be off the record. For now. No disrespect, ma’am.” Just last week, he was telling her that Juice was basically an ignorant man-child, so this sharing of “intel” could be (should be) part of a larger plan. We hope, at least. Certainly Juice — hanging on by a thread of his cut that he refuses to take off — hasn’t suddenly gained Unser’s trust.
In turn, Unser gets Chibs to a cop diner and surprises him with Juice, who is again cleverly disguised in a black hoodie and black hat. Sure, the APB that Jarry has threatened to put out on Juice hasn’t come to fruition (and probably won’t), but isn’t Charming small enough that the “dozen” cops in the diner whom Unser warns Chibs about would recognize someone who’s yet to be questioned about a double murder, especially since one of the victims was the sheriff?
Chibs won’t help Juice and coldly tells him that his advice is to take that gun and kill himself. Juice — looking more and more unhinged as time passes — leaves the diner. Chibs later tells Jax that Unser knows that the club wants Juice dead, but he doesn’t know why. By the end of the episode, Unser and Wendy are checking Juice into a hotel, but we have zero confidence that he’s going to stay away. This dance between Juice and Unser and the club could get tiresome if we’re not given more climactic tension. However, the introduction this episode to Chibs’ flirtation with Sheriff Jarry — hair down, street clothes on, she strokes his cheek and they seem drawn to one another, even as he’s delivering her money and agreeing on terms (they both expect a “heads up” when something is coming). Chibs tells her that Juice doesn’t have any intel and that they are good with the Chinese. Chibs delivers the opposite message that Unser did; the sheriff is now on the Sons’ payroll, and Unser is on hers. “Ride safe,” she tells him as they part.
Jax and company are continuing to set up and destroy their allies/rivals (depending on whom they’re talking to). Marks warns Jax early in the episode that “this doesn’t work if we don’t trust each other. Trust can’t work in the same place as secrets and lies.” As if on cue, Jax continues to lie, turning the fault of the Chinese gun ambush on the “local Peckerwoods” the Sons had hired, who were stupid and started talking about the smack they’d gotten. “Very convenient,” Marks says. “Dead alibi.”
However, Jax — with Charlie’s help — manages to set up some rogue One-Niners (ending with a bloodbath in the Mayans’ gun warehouse) and pull together Marks’s allies to focus their energies on the rogue members and on Lin. By the end of the episode, the Mayans — including Nero — are shooting Niners, and Tig and Happy drive a van full of Grim Bastards who violently attack one of Lin’s spas.
When Charlie gives Jax the Mayan warehouse info, he expresses trepidation. “You can trust me,” Jax says. “That’s what Custer said to his troops,” Charlie replies. “I’ll be here, waiting for the Indians.” This allusion could certainly be foreshadowing the fate of the Sons, with Jax as the proud, confident leader going into a battle for which he’s unequipped.
“Any time you feel a need to slow this down, we would understand,” Bobby tells Jax when they’re alone. “I’m okay,” Jax responds. He looks down, unconvincingly. A few scenes later, however, he’s full speed ahead, kicking the shit out of Sandy’s abusive father (a prostitute at Diosa, she is faced with his greed and he has a violent confrontation with Gemma and Nero, and he threatens to press charges against Diosa). Gemma brings him a cake as an apology, and leaves the door open for Jax to come in and unleash his vengeful fury. Gemma watches for a minute, and then turns away, arms crossed against her chest. Opening the door to Jax’s rage appears to be Gemma’s M.O. this season — or perhaps for his whole life.
“Does my daddy do bad things?” Abel asks Gemma after witnessing the altercation with Sandy’s father. Gemma replies, “No. Why would you think that? Your daddy is a good man.” And we know she means it.
The Frankenstein allegory easily references Jax as both doctor and monster, creator and creation, the central protagonist in a story of monstrous violence and misplaced revenge. However, we can instead see Gemma as Victoria Frankenstein and Jax — or perhaps SAMCRO as a whole — as the creature that she has envisioned and is attempting to chase after. She birthed Jax, and she — by plotting with Clay — gave birth to the modern SAMCRO, one that has at its most noble center prostitution and pornography, but also planted kilos of heroin, massacres, lies, and thoughtless revenge. It stands to reason, then, that the real Frankenstein may very well die at the hands — literally or figuratively — of her own creation.
• Only one body was reported found at the “Peckerwood” apartment. Bobby says that family or friends could have found out and moved one. Later, he calls Jury to ask for intel because they’ve been getting some “blowback” about the guys who helped with the Chinese. Jury makes a fist around the dog tags and says that he’s sorry, and that “I knew the one guy a little bit … name was Gib.” He tenses up and says, “Take care, Bobby. Give my best to Jax,” before laying the dog tags down next to the gun he knows. It’s easy to imagine Jury taking down Jax before Unser can finish his ostensible dance with the law.
• On a related note, the use of the words brother and son stand out during this episode, even more than normal. This focus on family — both biological and manufactured — has always been central in Sons of Anarchy. However, the Civil War–style brother-against-brother final act will lead to continued betrayal and death. Jax says to Marks, “We’re in this together now, brother.” But they’re not at all.
• Brooke and Ratboy are sleeping together, and Brooke tells Wendy that she loves him. This brief conversation ends in Wendy acknowledging that she still loves Jax, but knows they can’t be together.
• Early in the episode, Gemma offers her birds at Diosa to Sandy (explaining that her birds at home would “shred” these birds), since Nero’s moving out. Later, she speaks to the birds as if they’re Tara: “When I think back to how this all started, I wonder what woulda happened if you hadn't come back. If Wendy hadn't been such a mess. But then I look at them [Abel and Thomas] and I realize it all happened the way it was supposed to happen. Everything.” Gemma is unraveling and searching for justification, and finding it in every corner. Images of birds in cages have typically symbolized women in domestic captivity. Gemma has built the house she’s held captive in. Will she die or be unbound?