The problem with anti-heroes is that sooner or later, the writers need to make a choice: Is their protagonist deep down not-bad person who has just made some questionable choices? Or is this particular anti-hero a basically irredeemable monster, someone who has some of the traits of a human being, someone whom you could even pity under the right circumstances, but ultimately, someone who should be held accountable for all the damage their bad choices have made? It’s possible to put off this choice for a long time. The thrill of the anti-hero, the reason they make for such vital TV leads, is their ability to do things that aren’t strictly within the bounds of good behavior. It’s the ambiguity that draws us in and the unexpected shock of not knowing just what this person is capable of that holds us. But while ambiguity has its place in narrative character, the writer has to decide just what all of this means. Without that perspective, a drama becomes just an excuse to string together one shocking incident after another, until the shocks lose their impact, and the stakes collapse in on themselves.
There are some shocks in “Sovereign,” the première episode of Sons Of Anarchy’s fifth season, some more unsettling than others. Gemma doing it doggie style with Nero, a friendly, upscale pimp played by Jimmy Smits? That merits an eyebrow raise, especially coming during the episode’s traditional mournful opening montage. (The montages are feeling even emptier than usual this time around, but we’ll get to that.) Clay’s still alive and walking around with an oxygen tube, and he decides to tell the whole club about his part in Piney’s death, a bold, risky play that is both a brilliant strategic move by Clay (if Jax wants the truth to come out now, he’s going to sound like he’s lying), and a smart choice for the show overall. Clay’s non-death last season was one of the centerpieces of a lot of frustrating, backward-stepping plotting, but Ron Perlman is still terrific, and turning him into a wily, nagging thorn in Jax’s side goes a long way toward making up for the fact that he’s still (mostly) breathing.
The biggest shocks of the hour, though, come at the hands of the man who’s presumably going to be the club’s main antagonist for a while: Pope (Harold Perrineau, aka Michael from Lost), a high-powered businessman of unknown reach and motives who just happens to be the father of the woman Tig killed last season. Tig was trying to get to Laroy on the mistaken impression that Laroy had shot Clay (it was Opie, as Clay himself confesses in this episode), and now Laroy and the Niners are on the warpath, attacking a gun shipment during the episode’s cold open. Pope, though, isn’t one for rash behavior. He quickly clamps down on Laroy. Well, “clamps down” is a little light for “hacks up into bits,” but Laroy is dispatched offscreen, and just as we’re getting adjusted to the new status quo, Pope’s main henchman tricks the Niners’ newest boss into an ill-advised attack on Jax. It’s a rapid shuffle of moves that establish in short order that Pope is formidable, Pope has designs, and Pope is willing to go to any length to take care of business. He demonstrates this definitively by first sending out witnesses to various police stations to turn the heat up on Jax and his friends; and then by kidnapping Tig, and burning Tig’s daughter, Dawn, alive in front of her screaming father.
It’s a nasty piece of business, and while the show has deployed this kind of horrifying violence before, it still has power. But something is wrong here, and it has to do with that question of perspective. At one point early in the episode, Jax tells Tara she should start carrying a gun, and she agrees without questioning it. On the one hand, sure, that’s sensible, although I have no idea if Tara would actually be able to defend herself effectively with a firearm if it came to that. But on the other hand, Jax and Tara’s two boys are sitting at the kitchen table while Tara and Jax have this conversation, and neither character seems to recognize the irony. Maybe this is a conscious decision by the show’s writers, maybe the irony is intentional, but there are no obvious cues to indicate this. Worse, the episode goes out of its way to reset to a position where the Sons are once again facing an enemy so horrible that the our heroes can only look good by comparison. Pope isn’t just a wounded man grieving over the loss of his child. He’s a monster, willing to kill anyone, even an innocent like Dawn, if it serves his purposes. And while that’s good for some immediate tension and suspense, it’s also a kind of cheating. Tig did, after all, murder an (as far as we know) innocent woman, and the Sons are still running guns and breaking laws for no other reason than putting money in their pockets (well, Jax is doing it because of the government). Instead of dealing with that and trying to handle the complex moral problems and dramatically rich contrast between the way the Sons view themselves and the way they actually are, we’re once again getting distracted by a convenient sociopath. His actions have to be so evil there can’t be any question of whom to root for—so poor Dawn burns.
Viewed primarily as a pulp-delivery device, “Sovereign” does okay. Clay gets most of the episode’s best scenes, as his attempts to play the cowed lion are never completely convincing; the way he edges closer to Jax’s involvement with the Feds could make for fun times, and it's a great, logical way to give him power in their relationship once again. The script is bogged down by clunky expository dialogue, as characters are routinely telling each other information they both already have, just for our sake. In particular, this hurts the first scene between Jax and Opie at Piney’s memorial service. Instead of raw emotion and resentment, we get a lot of tepid explanation and repetition. The hour suffers in general from a lack of momentum, as it struggles to get various pieces into play while also reminding us of who did what when. (My favorite example of this is when the sheriff reminds Juice that he still knows about Juice’s misdeeds from last year. I’m pretty sure Juice already remembers that he shot a guy and ratted on the club to keep his parentage secret, and even if he didn’t, I don’t think at the bike club, 10 feet away from the rest of the Sons, is the best place to bring this up, obliquely or not.) But it picks up as it goes along, and given Clay’s continued treachery and the danger Pope represents, there’s every reason to believe we’re in for a decent ride, even if we're not going anywhere in particular.
If it seems unfair to judge Sons as though it was aspiring to some kind of Great Drama status, it is, but there’s a difference between not going in much for subtlety and weighty themes, and not grasping the simple fact that stories need to mean something in order to hold an audience’s interest. At its best, this is an exciting action show with a rich vein of affecting melodrama at its core, but the excitement and the melodrama starts to lose its impact when it becomes obvious that the writers are reluctant, even unwilling, to go past a certain point. The first couple of seasons, the show thrilled us with its cast of dangerous hard cases, with the tension of characters we liked engaged in reckless behavior—but that tension only matters when we believe it will eventually pay off. Tig (inadvertently) shooting Donna in season one was a hard, powerful choice, but four seasons later, he’s still walking around, even though Opie knows the truth. And Clay is still walking around, even though he (inadvertently) ordered the hit, killed Piney, and ordered a hit on Tara. There are reasons—there are always reasons—but at this point, those are starting to look an awful lot like excuses. Four seasons in, and, a few casualties aside, the Sons still stand; nobody’s making any choices. That takes some of the fun away. Sure, Pope looks like bad news, and the fact that Jax and company end up on the run at the end of the episode, hiding out from the police in Nero’s high-class escort club, is promising. But is there any reason to believe it will last?
- It’s also problematic that Pope, as nasty as he is, is awfully familiar. A bad guy who commits horrible violence against the Sons and their loved ones isn’t a new idea for the show, and it’s hard to imagine anything topping the awfulness of Gemma’s gang rape in the second season. Not to mention that Pope is more than a little reminiscent of Gus Fring from Breaking Bad; Perrineau doesn’t have Giancarlo Esposito’s immaculate poise, but it’s still the same “control freak who keeps up a friendly face to the community while maintaining his criminal empire” vibe. (Of course, Adam Arkin was much the same in season two, but he was a white bigot, so I guess that’s different?) The racial stuff could get very unpleasant. Tig’s “I am gonna cut your ugly black head off” threat is made in the heat of the moment, but—well, why is it important he’s black, Tig? (Which isn’t to say that the Sons have to have enlightened views on race, or that the writers are racist or whatever. Just, well, if this show is just going to be a lot of pulpy nonsense, it needs to avoid raising issues it has no intention of dealing with.)
- Gemma seems to have found a new friend in Nero. I wonder how he’ll end up disappointing.
- Considering all Tig has done at this point, and the fact that he keeps murdering women while aiming for someone who turns out to be innocent, he should be insane now.
- Oh, and the episode ends with Unser getting beaten up by a group of home invaders who’ve been plaguing Charming. As always, it is no damn fun being Unser.