Balancing is hard work, whether you’re the head of a struggling outlaw biker gang, or a bunch of writers working to tell stories about the head of a struggling etc. Take tonight’s episode, “Laying Pipe.” One storyline focused on Jax, Chibs, Opie, and Tig, as they headed into lock-up knowing full well that Pope was gunning for them. The other storylines focused on life on the outside, specifically the ongoing adventures of Gemma and Clay, and, unsurprisingly, this part of the episode wasn’t anywhere near as exciting. On their own, Gemma’s attempts to force her way into her grandchildren’s lives, and Clay’s (slightly more successful) attempt to mess with his old lady’s head, were familiar reruns of old routines, but combined with the prison story, which for most of the show’s running time was intense, terrifying stuff, the scenes away from the prison were rough going, a distraction from the story that really mattered. Gemma whining about her rights? We’ve been down that road before. Jax facing off against Pope, and learning that no matter how much he thinks he’s lost, there’s still more that can be taken away? New or not, that’s at least relevant. Dawn’s death was just the beginning. Pope still wants more blood.
A paragraph in should be enough buffer for anyone who wandered into this review without watching the episode, so let’s get down to the big twist: Opie’s death. Pope needed one more sacrifice. (He gave his reasons, but I’d bet the real motive was just to show off his power; Jax thought he could dodge retaliation, but not against this guy.) Jax and Opie talked it through, and Opie, who’s been struggling for meaning ever since failing to bump off Clay last season, decided to go all noble and take a pipe to the back of his head. It’s a brutal scene, as bad in its way as Dawn’s death in the premiere (Dawn’s execution was more horrifying, sure, but we barely knew her; Opie has been the show’s moral center since the first season), and it was a bold choice for the series overall. Opie is a major character, and losing him means making Jax even more alone, silencing one of the two remaining sane perspectives in his life (Tara being the other one, so far), and driving him further away from his dwindling reserves of humanity.
Unfortunately, it’s not a very good twist. For one thing, it’s too obvious. When Pope tells Jax he’s going to need a dead Son from the four that were taken into custody, well, Jax is out for obvious reasons, and Pope himself specifically demands Tig stay in jail for a long time, presumably to spend the rest of his life being beaten and what not for Pope’s satisfaction. That leaves two guys, Chibs and Opie, only one of whom told his ex-wife last week that he wasn’t sure if he loved anyone anymore. Sure, Ope’s death is the only one of the four possible of creating serious dramatic impact, given his consistent decency and seemingly endless losses to the club (I guess Jax dying would’ve been a bigger deal, but that wasn’t going to happen), but any viewer who was invested enough in the show to care would also most likely realize what was coming, turning scenes of what should’ve been agonizing tension into a waiting game. Pope’s requirement was too neat, too perfect a demand, making it once again easy to see the various pieces that were pushed into place to get Opie down on his knees bleeding while Jax screamed in another room. Putting a hero in an impossible situation is one of the cornerstones of great drama, but this was just the illusion of impossibility; the answer was obvious, and Jax is once again rendered passive, naively believing that not making a choice will somehow save the day. It’s a decision the character keeps making, and while consistency is important, by now, it’d be nice to think he’d learned something.
But that’s less frustrating than the pointlessness of all this, which comes across as just another attempt by the writers to generate excitement with boldness when they’re all out of other ideas. The death of a likable character on a show can be an effective, powerful tool, both to invigorate a flagging narrative, and to get rid of someone who doesn’t serve a useful function anymore. I can see where losing Opie could be an attempt to do both things; this early in the season, it’s good to make some strong choices to set up the stakes, and given that there was no way Opie could conceivably come back to the Sons with Clay still around, maybe the assumption was that there weren’t many stories left to tell with him. But just look at the arc he gets: goes into prison for not ratting out the other Sons, comes back only to have the club president decide he’s a rat and inadvertently shoot his wife, struggles to make a new relationship work but, despite another wedding, can’t make a go of it, loses his father to the same club president, shoots the club president, is betrayed by his best friend, goes into prison to protect that best friend, then decides to give his life for the people who have used him so badly. It’s a bit like watching four seasons and change of a friendly circus bear getting abused by drunken clowns. Happy endings aren’t a requirement, but losing a character as important to the show as Opie was should have more impact than a stunt. It could’ve been a triumphant exit, or a heartbreaking one, and the writers (and actors; Ryan Hurst gives it his all, as do the others) are clearly going for both. But while I’m sad that Opie will be gone, it’s more a conceptual sadness. I will miss what he did for the show. Apart from the visceral ugliness of a guy getting beaten to death, aside from the basic manipulation of it all, there was nothing. It was just a bad thing that happened; presumably, more will happen next week.
As for the rest, Gemma’s storyline was flat out awful, a drag of time that served little purpose other than to remind us just how pointless the character has become. She’s pissed that Tara is keeping the kids at daycare, because that means she has to get a form from Tara to be able to see them. It’s a minor inconvenience, so Gemma uses it as an excuse to rail at her daughter-in-law, and then try some inept manipulation with Wendy (Drea de Matteo). Katey Sagal’s work on Sons has always been top-notch, but the writing has been less and less deserving of her efforts, and this feels particularly low, ending with Gemma freaking out when she sees Clay with a prostitute. Really, without Sagal, Gemma would be barely watchable—the actress makes a miserable, inconsistent caricature, someone whose motives and intelligence shift with the wind. It could be her story this year is that she’s learning to be an older woman, and how to accept the change and loss of control this brings, but that’s been basically her story since the first season, and it’s not getting any more compelling. Neither are her battles with Tara, who states for what feels like the 10 millionth time that she’s the one in charge now, and Gemma needs to back off.
As an hour of television, “Laying Pipe” isn’t a disaster. The structure is flawed, in that the non-prison stories are distractingly irrelevant, but the prison sequences move quickly, and the reveal of just how far Pope’s power reaches is well-handled; watching the head guard pocket an envelope full of cash as Jax comes into his office was a nice touch. And Opie’s death does have an impact, even if that impact is more manipulative and unsatisfying than it should be. It’s just, this feels like a big card has been played, the sort of card you hold back until the best possible moment, and the end result isn’t worth what’s been lost. Time will tell how this latest tragedy will affect the Sons; right now, it just looks like one more drop in a sea of troubles.
- I’m still not sure what to make of Pope, although I do like the way Perrineau’s innate edginess as an actor (I can never quite decide if he’s neurotic or insane) makes the character hard to read.
- Plot stuff: Jax makes a deal with Pope to cut him in for half of the coke muling money ($50,000). This, plus dead Opie, earns the surviving Sons their release. Pope also wanted Tig in jail, but Jax, arguing that he needs Tig’s loyalty to maintain control of the club, manages to convince Pope otherwise. It’s not a bad moment, because it’s hard to tell if Jax (who promises to turn Tig over to Pope after everything is done) is trying to pull a fast one, or really willing to sell out his friend.
- The one interesting part of the Tara/Gemma confrontation: “You gonna kill me?” “No. But my husband might.” Which means Tara is threatening Gemma with her knowledge of Gemma’s involvement in J.T.’s death, I assume? Actually, that’s not interesting—that’s a thread that’s been dangling for far too long now.