The female black widow is a dangerous creature. The widower — with a wife taken brutally, too soon — is equally venomous, especially in the world of Sons of Anarchy, the Shakespearean, violent motorcycle drama on FX that began its seventh and final season last night. The premiere episode, “Black Widower,” creates a parallel between Gemma, the deadly matriarch, and Jax, the vengeful husband. And the only person Jax will talk to on the outside is his mother. It turns out a boy can love his mother too much.
Opening just ten days after the action of the season-six finale, Jax is in prison carving a swastika in a man and pulling out his teeth so he can have the ear of a white supremacist (Ron Tully, played by Marilyn Manson). Jax is trying to pull the warring factions together as he’s striven to make SAMCRO legit by getting out of guns (and creating a huge mess in the process).
When District Attorney Patterson talks to Jax behind bars, he looks angry and cold. He's silent. She tells him that no one could figure out who would have killed Tara, or why she was killed. Patterson — who delivers some of the strongest, most powerful lines that define the themes of grief and revenge that are woven throughout Sons of Anarchy — tells Jax about her own losses. She opens up about the murder of her son and nephew because she wanted to connect to Jax, who she says “knows the importance of family. And that more violence will only destroy what's left of his." That's a lovely sentiment, but we know it's fallen on deaf ears.
Since Jax couldn't be tied to the murders and there were no parole violations, Patterson tells him they're letting him go, saying that his mother was there to pick him up. Gemma will fix everything, baby. Jax drives them both home, thanking her profusely and holding her hand. "I couldn't do it without you, Mom. I love you." Gemma responds, squeezing his hand, "I love you, too, sweetheart. I'm here. Whatever you need me to do." She looks away, but doesn't look guilty enough. Gemma is a master of brutal deception, convincing herself and those around her that she's in control, driven only by love and loyalty. His needs didn't involve her brutally murdering Tara, but so it goes.
Jax's family — his late wife and his sons, his mother and his dead father and stepfather — is in shambles. He's doing his best to keep his larger family, SAMCRO, together and safe. It seems thus far that one cannot exist without the other, yet people keep dying and killing and losing. Jax is grasping to keep what he can together — driven by revenge, retribution, and love for his club — and he turns to Gemma for love and support. Of course. Now he will enlist her help to try to put the pieces together, since the law hasn't.
There's a moment early in the season premiere where we find ourselves hoping that Jax knows it was Gemma, that he's leading her on and his revenge will be calculated and built slowly. Jax is smart enough to put those pieces together, and surely he's not the only one. However, we quickly realize that this matriarch will not come down easily. And we're not surprised.
The only person who knows Gemma's reality is Juice, a historically unreliable Son. When we first see Juice in season seven, instead of lying naked in an overdosed, vomiting stupor as he was in season six, he is naked and doing push-ups. He may be hiding from the club, but he has proven his loyalty to himself, and to Gemma, and that clearly gives him power, as anxious as he still may be. Hiding out in Wendy's apartment (she lasts nine days in rehab, wanting to come back for the boys), Juice has a revealing conversation with Gemma; he can't understand how she can just have conversations about Tara.
"I'm not a psychopath, Juice," she says defensively. She knows that "what happened with Tara and Eli was awful," but "it happened because we were both protecting the club." Passive voice, defensiveness, justification: Gemma knows the drill. She says her main goal now is to protect Jax and his sons, because she doesn’t want Jax to lose a wife and a mother, or for Abel and Thomas to grow up “never knowing the love of a strong woman." We are unsure about the definition of “strength” of which she speaks. Juice gave her a "truth that works," so she is helping him, thankful for his loyalty.
Gemma doesn't know that Juice killed Davenny, a mother who also wanted to raise her children. Gemma doesn't know why Juice has to hide from the club; she just knows he's helping her. That's all that matters.
Jax wastes no time getting back to business on the streets. There are multiple references — by him and the D.A. — to the brewing war and bloodshed that's sure to come between the "browns and yellows, blacks and whites" (the Mayans and Byz-Lats, Lin Triad, Grim Bastards, One-Niners, and the Aryan Brotherhood are primary players, with SAMCRO playing in between). He meets with the groups and invites him to his homecoming party, and we know he's planning something beyond a peaceful, colorblind kumbaya circle. And while SAMCRO and Grim Bastards are allies, it distinctively seems as if Grim Bastards President T.O. Cross is pulling Jax and SAMCRO into a situation that isn't what it seems. After Cross pleads to Jax to help his shrinking table, his eyes get shifty and he puts on his sunglasses (the tell-tale sign of "I'm plotting something" in television drama).
Wayne — always the conflicted, moral pulling force — senses that something is up when he picks up Wendy, and goes back to investigate and finds Juice. Juice pulls a gun on him, and ties him and gags him. Juice, who is having to keep so many pieces together, is unraveling, a loose cannon. Club members frequently had to scream “Juice!” at him last season to keep him from destroying himself and others, and we feel the need to do the same now.
At Jax's carefully plotted homecoming party, he and Gemma's collaboration is quickly clear. "The Chinese killed Tara," Jax tells the Sons and Grim Bastards, after Gemma weaves a heartbreaking tale about how she saw a particular man was at Tara's house. Her story is convincing. Her truth has been woven and will work in her favor.
As rain falls — a classic transformative moment — Gemma washes dishes in the sink where she'd drowned and repeatedly stabbed Tara. She washes herself clean while her scapegoat sits bound and gagged in a seat, where Jax pledges to dole out the same cruel fate that he'd given to Tara. The cruel dramatic irony is drawn out and painful — tools, kitchen utensils and salt give Jax the revenge he'd so badly wanted. This is a truth that works. For now, at least. It's not a truth that feels good.
“Black Widower” is powerful in a slow-burning way. While the final scene is brutal, the episode as a whole doesn’t pack the emotional punch that we may have been expecting. The final chapters of tragedies that feature antiheroes are always difficult, because we have to attempt to recalibrate our moral compasses and realize what and whom, exactly, we’re rooting for. This season premiere sets us up for the final ride; we may not know exactly where we’re going, but we know it will be painful.
• Wayne is the only one we see visiting Tara’s grave (placing purple orchids, a symbol of admiration and respect, which are often given to mothers). His role will certainly be important this season, as his moral center, his love for Gemma, and his skill for revealing the actual truth could be a powerful and destructive combination.
• When the Sons and Grim Bastards break into the apartment (ostensibly to find the driver of the Impala who killed a Bastard) and find a threesome being filmed, a woman pulls a gun and shoots, hitting a framed picture of
Mary (as commenter JustToSay points out below, "it was a picture of St. Therese of Lisieux also known as The Little Flower and I think it may have been a deliberate choice because of this") and starting a fire fight that leaves the threesome and videographer dead. Members of the clergy, their connection (at the end of the episode, in a shallow grave) to Cross and the rest of the Grim Bastards seems imminent and likely to affect the Sons.
• While the female characters in Sons of Anarchy are consistently strong and complex, when the different groups party at SAMCRO’s new porn studio (“Red Woody, Incorporated”) after being promised “snacks,” it’s clear that misogyny is colorblind.
• Gemma says she should bronze her “clit and make it into a necklace.” I almost liked her for a second.
• In the final torture scene, Chibs glances at a bloody cigarette and puts it out — a little blood (not even on the filter end) was just too much for him before he went back to watching salt be rubbed in open wounds.
• As Sons of Anarchy stays true to its Shakespearean roots, Jax delivers an honest and self-affirming monologue at the head of the table. Season six was punctuated with soliloquies, so it appears as if Jax has come out of his own head to reckon with the outside.
• Great music, as always.