Sons Of Anarchy: “Poenitentia”
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Sons Of Anarchy: “Poenitentia”

Lee Toric: drug addict, probable psychotic, and oh yeah, murderer. I’ll give “Poenitentia” credit for making the scene in which Lee first accidentally, and then intentionally, shoots a prostitute unexpected and funny in a deeply creepy kind of way. The whole thing plays out as farce: Lee standing by the window in his black bikini briefs, scared there’s a threat lurking outside (there isn’t; it’s just Tyne Patterson looking for a team-up); then the hooker, not sure what’s going on, comes toward him, and he jumps, shooting her in the stomach. She is understandably upset. Lee tries apologizing, and then, once he realizes the spot he’s in, covers her face with a pillow and finishes the job with another bullet. The few seconds before that final shot—the hasty sorries, the prostitute's shock—are all queasily, unsettlingly believable. Out of context, there’s a nightmarish reality to the whole thing. Lee had no intention of killing her. Things just got out of hand, like they so often do in Charming.

And there’s the rub. While the scene isn’t bad out of context, it’s immensely stupid when you put it back into the episode. It’s just too fucking much. It wasn’t bad enough that Lee is manipulating the legal system in order to get revenge on people, most of whom were not directly responsible for his sister’s death. It wasn’t bad enough that he’s lied, falsified court documents (and, by the end of the hour, evidence), and is clearly unstable. No: He has to clumsily shoot someone who barely existed, just so we can understand that Lee Toric is a Bad Guy. There’s no buildup to the shot, no sense that Lee’s behavior was headed toward this ugly little catastrophe.

Despite Donal Logue’s presence and raspy, I’m-not-joking voice, Lee isn’t really a character. He’s just a collection of tics in the form of a threat. Even though Lee uses the dead woman’s body as the next piece in his play to destroy the Sons, there’s no sense that this was a plan. And even if it was, it’s still ridiculous. (I watched the scene again on the off chance this was all some kind of scheme from the beginning, but the way it plays out doesn’t look plotted, just idiot luck.) This is sloppy writing. We’ve seen that Lee was on edge before, and that he was an addict, but there was no sense of the kind of behavior that would really justify this. It’s just random, and even Lee’s attempts to make her death somehow “worthwhile” can’t redeem the moment.

Maybe it’s part of this season’s commentary on the culture of haphazard violence, but if so, it’s going to need to start being something different than just more of the same. Another week, another lack of follow-through on the school shootings; hell, given that Primo and the mom are dead, it’s hardly even acknowledged. Which is bizarre. The gun is giving Lee a way to go after the club; his difficulty in pinning any dirt on Nero is what drives him to plant evidence of the dead woman in Nero’s truck. But that’s it, really. Wouldn’t this be all over the news? Wouldn’t it have been useful to show us characters reacting? Surely we could’ve shaved off a few more “Let me tell you what just happened” scenes to make room. Or maybe that bit where Jax decides to play peeping tom on Colette and Barosky screwing. What the hell was that? It can’t be a shock to him that they’re having sex; it doesn’t change what we know about Barosky’s character; and it doesn’t provide Dax with any leverage to use against him should the situation turn sour. I guess it’s a way to get Kim Dickens naked in another episode.

The problem with turning on an episode early is that its hard to watch later scenes with anything approaching sympathy. Once Lee shot a woman, I was basically out. So I have no idea if Gemma being Gemma all over the place was even more irritating than usual, or if I was just turning on her like I was turning on everything else. (Although her conversation with Nero outside the church, when she makes fun of his religion—can’t stand to have a man put anything else ahead of you, huh—and questions him on what he told his priest, was obnoxious, and that came before the shooting.) She and Tara spar for a bit, which isn’t terrible, and then Wendy shows up with a bruise on her neck, because she’s decided to turn to the man who forced drugs into her for protection. But wait, it’s a ruse! Because… honestly, I don’t know. Is this yet another complicated scheme for revenge? Wendy did say she missed the club last time she visited, even as she said the whole situation was so complicated that she wanted out. Maybe this is her way to trick everyone into liking her again. Which could potentially be interesting if we knew her at all at this point. For a character who’s been with the show (off and on) since season 1, Wendy has always been more obstacle than person; Drea De Matteo makes it work, but the shot of her wiping the bruise off her neck makes it hard not to think of her as one more crazy enemy to burn through.

But like I said: I turned on this episode early on, so sympathy is in short supply. The writers found yet another way to keep Clay alive for a few hours longer, although really they’re just resorting to a trick they’ve already used: Once again, Jax needs Clay in order to make peace with the Irish, who apparently worship Ron Perlman like a god. (Which, to be fair, isn’t an illogical position to take.) So Jax asks Pope’s former second-in-command, August, to use his connections in the prison to protect Clay, which means Clay gets to stab some White Power guys. It’s fine that Clay’s still on the show at this point, and having him stabbed in the gut in jail isn’t going to be the most satisfying conclusion to his arc, but as is so often the case, this seems contrived. Each step of it makes sense—Jax wants to get out of the club’s deal with the IRA, the contact man has a history with Clay, trust is an important thing in criminal organizations (rare commodities are always valuable, even if they’re constantly breaking), and August wants to maintain his relationship with the Sons for, I dunno, money and power based reasons. It’s possible to follow that chain of logic. But the end result still plays like a stall. Once a narrative is stretched past a certain point, logic doesn’t really enter into it. We’ve seen these tricks before, and they’re always going to look suspicious.

Really, though, Clay’s survival is the least of the problems right now. This season has all the pieces that Sons usually puts into play. There’s a crazy threat who will keep tightening the noose around the club’s neck each week until he gets busted, or a bullet in the back of his head. (Maybe he’ll commit suicide in a way that frames Jax.) Jax and Tara will stare soulfully at each other while each maintains a private, and increasingly disparate, agenda. (Tara’s pregnant. That’s fun.) Gemma will do her “I’m the only one who really knows what’s going on around here” shtick. There will be half naked ladies and dudes with greasy beards, and fucking and violence and so on. There will be exciting set-pieces—tonight, we had Jax and Barosky taking on the Iranians, which gave the crooked cop a chance to slit a dude’s throat, and it was pretty bad-ass. There will be betrayals, like Jax finally giving Tig up to August, after realizing that Tig almost certainly killed a guy he wasn’t supposed to back in the premiere. But since Tig realizes he’s been betrayed at the end of the hour and we don’t see him get shot, there’s every chance he’ll find some way to wiggle out of it.

Most of all, and this is what’s been dragging me down lately, there will be the endless self-aggrandizement of all that world-weary-warrior-biker bullshit. The guys in SAMCRO are often likable guys. They are capable of caring for each other, they can act heroically, they have big emotions and they do understandably stupid things; they aren’t monsters. But they also aren’t noble knights, forced into violence by the far greater evil that surrounds them. They’re criminals, and their behavior has hurt others since the start; their refusal to recognize the consequences of their actions as anything more than an excuse to stare soulfully out a window while yet another montage kicks in has made it that much more difficult to root for them. Jax’s angst isn’t built on a tragic spiritual crisis. He’s a pretty boy in a leather jacket pretending to be a king, and the longer the show goes on, the more it seems like the writers have lost sight of that. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying these characters, or even rooting for them—it’s all a made up story anyway. But the lack of perspective is telling. Lee has to be a great evil, because if he isn’t, somebody might stop and notice that yeah, selling machine guns is a pretty shitty business. Just like using women as a commodity, or indulging in the desire to beat the shit out of anyone who irritates you. These guys are charming, charismatic, and often goofy. They’re also assholes. The contrast between those states is one of the things that gives an anti-hero drama its power, and once you lose that, it’s just a lot of near misses, screams of “NOOO!”, and back-clapping hugs until the end.

At least Tara’s still around. At least she has the good sense to be horrified. The question is, will she be a hero, or just another obstacle?

Stray observations:

  • Jax’s visit to Clay in jail didn’t quite have the same power that Gemma’s visit did, although we learned that Clay never really planned on rolling against the club. Which makes Lee look even dumber. Oh, and Jax gave Lee a warning, which I’m sure will have an effect. (It did not.)
  • Lee is kind of going through the corrupted hero playbook. He uses drugs, he forges signatures to get the information he wants, he tortures suspects (to no real avail), he frames people, and he lies to other good guys. Oh, and he accidentally killed someone. Maybe he’s the anti-hero now.
  • I’m not sure what’s worse. The montage we get at the end of every episode, or the fact that they keep running longer and longer. At some point, we’re going to get 40 minutes of pure music video; maybe Katey Sagal covering “Thick As A Brick.”

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