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Review: 'Sons of Anarchy' piled on the plot in season 5
No magical CIA agents, but is the biker drama still over-complicating things?
“Sons of Anarchy” wrapped up its fifth season last night. Geoff Berkshire has been reviewing episodes all year, and his take on the finale is here. Meanwhile, I have some overall thoughts on the season, coming up just as soon as I’m here for in vitro counseling…
So a few episodes ago on “Sons of Anarchy,” our conflicted biker hero Jax Teller told confidante Bobby Elvis about his latest master plan for getting the Sons out of the various jams the club inevitably winds up in.
Bobby pondered this new information for a moment, then said, “That’s a lot of moves. A lot of lies.”
I would try explaining exactly what that plan of Jax’s entailed, or the one he employed in last night’s season finale, but Bobby Elvis summed up both the plans and the series itself with those two sentences.
On “Sons of Anarchy,” at any given moment, there will be a lot of moves, and a lot of lies. And a whole lot of plot.
“Sons” creator Kurt Sutter has described the show as “an adrenalized soap opera, it's bloody pulp fiction with highly complex characters.” Seen through that lens, the sheer tonnage of story and conspiracies — with Jax simultaneously caught between a Mexican drug cartel, a prosperous black crime lord seeking revenge for his daughter’s death, IRA gun runners, and the machinations of his mother Gemma and stepfather Clay — makes sense.
And on a whole, the fifth season did better at dealing with all of its plot than did the fourth, which concluded with the out of left field revelation that the club’s cartel contacts were undercover CIA operatives with the power to make every single problem of the season go away. There were no cheats of that level this time around — no characters admitting that they’re actually extra terrestrials who moved out of the gated community from “The Neighbors” — and the various stories led to some brutal, unsparing conclusions in the finale.
Jax, who spent most of the last two seasons looking for a way out of town with wife Tara and their kids, instead was absolutely corrupted by the absolute power that comes with sitting in the club president’s seat, and elected to stay and consolidate his forces. (In parallel, Jax’s new business partner Nero declined his own retirement opportunities in favor of re-entering the violent but thrilling gang life he’d been on the verge of escaping.) Tara, ready to take the boys away on her own, was instead arrested for her unwitting role in a murder committed by incarcerated club member Big Otto, while the self-loathing, suicidal Otto(*)literally bit off his own tongue to avoid having to answer questions from investigators. Jax arranged for the murder of this season’s big bad, Damon Pope, and framed Clay for the murder, knowing that Pope had already made arrangements for his killer to himself be killed.
(*) Otto is played by Kurt Sutter himself. On both this show and “The Shield,” Sutter has demonstrated a flair for the stomach-churning, and he often saves the most extreme of those moments for scenes involving his on-screen alter ego. When Otto spit his tongue onto the table, half of me was wincing and the other half was thinking, “Of course!”
All of this was very effectively presented, as the show has embraced the toxic effect the club has on all who get involved with it — including the once-sympathetic Jax, whose surprising transformation into self-justifying villain was wonderfully written, and played by Charlie Hunnam. And as Pope and Nero, respectively, Harold Perrineau and Jimmy Smits turned in some of the best work of their careers.
Where the style of “Sons of Anarchy” still loses me, though, is in how busy and complicated the story inevitably gets each season, until you reach one of those Bobby Elvis moments where you just have to take a mental break to be sure you’re keeping track of it all.
It’s not even that the story is hard to follow (which it usually isn't), so much as it is that the contortions of the plot wind up undercutting these highly complex characters that Sutter talks about.
Clay spent all of last season ruthlessly scheming against Jax and anyone else who stood against him, telling any lie necessary to escape his latest jam. He began the new season in a reduced capacity, struggling to move or breathe without an oxygen tank, seemingly remorseful over all the misdeeds that cost him his crown, his wife, and the respect of those around him — but it was eventually revealed as part of a long con that Clay hoped would get him back the club presidency. By the time the story went back and forth and back and forth, Clay was once again acting filled with regret, but by then it became impossible to take any of his words or deeds at face value.
There were definitely times when the plot overload wound up illustrating a character arc, like the way Jax’s worst impulses took hold as the threats to the club and his family mounted. The scene last week where he injected his recovering addict ex-wife with heroin to head off a custody dispute was chilling in how uncompromising it was. Almost as good was Tara’s reaction in the finale to Wendy telling her about it; where once she would have been in denial about it, here she quickly accepted that, yes, this is who and what her husband has become.
I think a piece of self-described bloody pulp fiction can have great characters, just as great characters can be at the center of an adrenalized soap opera. (“Breaking Bad” fits both those descriptions at various times.) But when “Sons of Anarchy” returns next fall, I’d love to see it ease back on the throttle just a bit, and find a way to explore these great characters without piling problem upon problem upon twist on top of them.
A few other thoughts on the finale, and season:
* As a fan of both "Terriers" the show and Donal Logue the actor, I'm glad to see the plot set in motion for Lee Toric to stick around as an adversary for the club. And I'll be curious to see whether he was the one who found something implicating Tara for conspiracy, or if Gemma lived up to her threat to keep Tara from taking the boys away by any means necessary. (Certainly, Gemma has mounted a stirring comeback from that point at mid-season where all the characters rightly wanted nothing to do with her.)
* When I last wrote about the show, I said I wanted to see what Sutter and company had in store for the repercussions of Opie's death before I judged whether eliminating one of the show's best characters and actors was a good idea. Ultimately, I think the impact the death had on Jax — who seemed to push much deeper into the territory of by any means necessary in the wake of Opie's murder — was worth it for the arc of our main character. I just wish the episode(s) after Opie died (the first one in particular) did a better job of capturing the impact of his absence from the club and the series, rather than just diving into more beefs with more adversaries for Jax to resolve.
* That said, the SAMCRO roster is awfully thin right now, whether Clay (who already lost his patch and had his tattoos blacked in) dies (which I doubt) or simply rots in prison. Time to bring in even more fresh blood next year, or will we learn that the remaining nomads and other charters have started to (rightly) view Charming as a place to be avoided at all costs?
* I traditionally do a season-ending post-mortem interview with Sutter (he even belatedly agreed to do one last year). This year, I didn't request to do one, simply because I hadn't been doing weekly analysis of the show, which helps fuel the kinds of questions I ask during those interviews. I didn't pay any less attention to the show this year, but it's still a different way of watching for me, and I'd rather not do the interview if I can't do it right. (And before anyone asks, I'm not beefing with Sutter; our last interaction was very cordial, and he even answered a few questions for my book.)
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org