I'm never really sure if the neverending cycle of revenge and retaliation on "Sons of Anarchy" is a legitimate thematic concern the show wants to explore, or just another example of its repetitive storytelling.
Assuming the goal is the former, "To Thine Own Self" is a strong -- at times even rich -- piece of work. Here's an episode that tackles the darkside of retaliation in two interesting ways only marginally related to the core cast, and one that gets to the very heart of the show's long term arc.
First, we're introduced to guest star Donal Logue as a mystery man who really, really hates Otto. Not only does this man promise to make Otto's life miserable, he also has his sights set on Tara. We don't know a lot about Logue's character just yet, but we can assume that he's somehow connected to Nurse Toric. Especially since Karina Logue, who played Toric, is Donal's real life sister. Maybe that's one of Kurt Sutter's little casting jokes (like giving Jimmy Smits' girlfriend Wanda de Jesus the role of Nero's "whore Friday" Carla), or maybe it's a bit of misdirection. But my guess is that Otto's nurse murder wasn't the end of the line he thought it would be. Instead, it cracked open a new doorway to hell.
Remember when Tig casually dismissed the murder of solitary guard Sergeant Macky's wife as "collateral damage" in the retaliation for Opie's death? Well, what can Jax say to a man who might be looking for the same kind of justice for Nurse Toric that Jax wanted for Opie? The guard's wife had nothing to do with Opie's death. Whether she likes it or not, Tara had something to do with Toric's death. Playing strictly by the rules of SAMCRO, Tara is as guilty as Otto, and I'm curious to see if Logue's character will be a vehicle to make that demented point.
Second, in my favorite subplot of the episode, Nero found himself dragged down to SAMCRO's level when he mistakenly believed some of his crew was involved in Jax's surprise kidnapping. It turned out the kidnapping was just a ruse by Romeo and Torres to get some face time with Jax (what's with these guys and dragging people away in vans?), but it lit a fire under Nero. He'd bonded with Jax and he's in love with Jax's mom, so he reverted to old school tactics to get info from his crew: busting into an apartment with a shotgun blazing, and killing two guys.
On a purely visceral level, it was a thrill to see Smits' badass side come out. But Smits really proved his value when Nero finds out that Jax is just fine and no one in his crew was ever involved. Everything that Nero wanted to avoid by partnering with SAMCRO just blew up in his face. He goes completely numb, and Smits is entirely shattering in these scenes. (Given the show's poor track record with Emmys -- some of it egregiously unfair, some of it entirely warranted -- it may be a futile hope, but Smits seriously deserves some attention for his performance this season.)
Finally, we get a glimpse how far Jax will go to achieve his ultimate goal: the complete humiliation and destruction of Clay Morrow. Early in the episode, Tara begs Jax to leave Charming. She has a promising job offer. The RICO case is gone. He's ensured SAMCRO's future. She insists it's their "last chance." And we can tell from the look on Jax's face that he's not ready.
Maybe it's simply loyalty to the club. Maybe it's the buzz he gets from the seemingly weekly shootouts and car chases (this week's executed with a particularly acute sense of adrenaline rush by director Paris Barclay). But there's no question about his primary motivation: He hasn't got Clay yet.
Jax leans hard on both Gemma and Juice to get him the evidence he needs to turn the club completely against Clay, and they almost come through. Juice found Clay's secret stash of papers that would prove his connection to the Nomads, but the unfortunate timing of Jax's kidnapping just barely saved Clay's behind. Gemma was making progress too, but her obvious lingering feelings for Nero have surely tipped Clay off, even if wanted to believe her unconvincing attempts at playing the dutiful spouse.
When Jax discovers Clay is on to him, he explodes in a mixture of vengeful fury and childish temper tantrum. While it's easy enough to understand Jax's motivation (Clay killed his father, killed Piney and nearly got Tara killed), there's still something so deeply self-serving about his manipulation of everyone around him that anyone with their eyes wired to their brain is going to question Jax's suitability as a leader.
That anyone turns out to be Bobby, who heads straight to Clay's house to warn his old buddy that Jax is out of control.
Barring any last minute scheduling changes, we've only got two episodes left this season. If Harold Perrineau, Jimmy Smits and Donal Logue aren't coming back next season (and I have no idea whether or not they are), there are now three major storylines that need to be wrapped up. But, as always, the season is really coming down to Jax versus Clay.
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