Sons Of Anarchy: “Straw”
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Sons Of Anarchy: “Straw”

It’s strange for a season première of Sons Of Anarchy to maintain such a note of optimism throughout, but by now, we’ve all learned it’s a fool’s game to predict what Kurt Sutter and his writers are going to do next. Tara, having beaten the false charges that put her in jail last season, is living in Georgia with the kids, running her own practice and putting her past behind her. Jax has joined them, and I assume this year is going to be a lot of fish out of water stuff as Jax tries to adjust to being a “normal” dad—blowing up the barbecue, accidentally bringing hookers to a birthday party, framing his enemies for murder, that sort of thing. Clay has confessed as fully to his crimes as he could without implicating the club, and now he’s living in monastery in some undefined European country as part of a work release program I can’t even begin to understand, but hey, he looks good in a robe. Tig is getting some grief counseling, Bobby has taken over as club president, and SAMCRO is now in the business of merchandising and rebranding—maybe not the happiest outcome, and more than a little cynical, but hey, you can’t have all those smiles without a little bite. Also, Gemma is pretty much okay with everything, and she’s looking forward to seeing her grandkids at Thanksgiving (Tara invited her!). Oh, and Opie isn’t dead anymore.

No, wait, that’s a parallel universe screener. My bad. Turns out “Straw” is as grim and despairing as ever: there are two rapes, literal torture porn, a guy getting drowned in a bathtub full of piss, and, at the episode’s climax, a 10 year-old (if that) mowing down his classmates with a machine gun. That last scene is shot from the outside of the building, I guess for reasons of taste and whatever, but there’s still a chance to see some blood spattering on the glass. It’s a shocking moment from a show that has to work a little harder every year to find new ways to push its audience’s buttons. Questions of “taste” don’t really enter into the equation, apart from deciding how much you’re willing to choke down. On a purely aesthetic level, the school shooting is a striking shift away from expectations; given the number of times we see the little boy (dressed in his school uniform throughout—my mind kept cross-referencing him with Jake from Stephen King’s Dark Tower books) weaving in and out of the rest of the episode, it is clear something bad is going to happen. But the obvious assumption is that he’ll be a victim of one of Jax or Nero’s poorly considered plays. Maybe Peter Weller’s crooked cop will run the kid down to prove he was a scumbag. Instead, things go in a different direction. We’ll have to wait until next week to find out what ramifications, legal and otherwise, the shooting will have for Jax and his crew (the kid’s mom is hooking up with Primo—Dave Navarro—who is one of Jimmy Smitts’s guys; presumably, Primo is where the kid got the gun), but the thematic implications are clear. This is a toxic environment. It breeds madness. And things are only going to get worse.

Exactly how much worse is up for grabs, but man, there are not a lot of happy faces in Charming these days. The extra-long première works hard to get everyone up to speed, but in truth, not a lot has changed since we left. Tara, who we saw arrested last year, is in jail now, waiting for a hearing to see if she’ll make bail (Jax and the lawyer are confident, but given how this show works, I think Tara is going to be behind bars for a while). She refuses to see Jax, which is silly; presumably, this is meant to heighten the distance between the two and drive home the tragedy of their separation, as well as to demonstrate Tara’s shame at where she’s ended up, but it mostly just seems arbitrary. Worse, it serves as a kind of lame justification for Jax to sleep with Collette, a new business associate. The fact that Collette is played by Kim Dickens should, arguably, be reason enough (the seduction scene plays like some weird mix of Mrs. Robinson and Oedipus). While she and Jax are knocking boots—or rather, having moderately explicit cable-TV sex on clean sheets—Tara’s sinking deeper; by the end of the hour, she’s fighting with a fellow prisoner who stole her blanket, which is actually a pretty Gemma thing to do.

Speaking of Gemma, she’s the only one who’s getting what she wants. Clay is behind bars, and on his way to a shiv in the stomach as soon as he gets put into the general population; with Tara gone, Gemma has all the face time with her grandkids she wants; and her position as the club’s official Old Lady is more secure than ever. She and Nero remain a couple, and Gemma’s making headway with Nero’s son, buying him a goofy looking squirt-gun which, in retrospect, is a lot more ominous than it initially appeared. Hell, even Wendy has decided she’s done with this craziness and is moving on. (Nice that she can be so forgiving after Jax forcibly injected her with drugs last season. She even says she missed the club!) So while everyone else suffers varying degrees of angst, Gemma is her usual awful self. Why not? It’s paying off dividends. She can keep up the facade of the tough-but-fair bitch, pick fights with lawyers, and slam porn stars’ heads into counters, and everyone, including her son, is too spooked to mess with her anymore. She’s basically won.

In a way, that gives her the most to lose, although the threats we see coming into focus in the première don’t have much to do with Gemma yet. Peter Weller’s crooked cop (I have his name in my notes as Charles Borski, although I could’ve misheard) briefly butts heads with Jax and the gang when they muscle into his territory to take care of some Iranian torture porn filmmakers—this is where the second rape comes in—but he could go either way at this point. Weller is always a great presence, and he gets maybe the funniest line in the episode (see Stray Observations), but he’s amenable enough to negotiation, so long as Jax embraces the opportunities he offers. Given that those opportunities come in the form of Kim Dickens, well, we’ve covered this. But it’s great to see both these actors on the show. If “Straw” is any indication, season six is going to be as full of nifty guest turns as last year was, and that’s one effective way to alleviate the darkness. Sons is, at heart, effective pulp, and it needs to sustain a certain level of energy to keep working. Part of that energy comes from sharp, intense plotting, but part of it also comes from having a great cast. Bringing in some ringers every now and again can’t hurt. (Especially when they keep upping the number of Deadwood alumni.)

The big threat, though, the dude who will most likely be bringing everybody down for the next few months, is Donal Logue, returning as the vengeance-obsessed Lee Toric. Otto killed Lee’s sister last season in an attempt to help out the club and get some revenge on Jax, and Lee did not take this well. He arranges to have Otto raped (this is the first rape), and he’s also the one responsible for Tara’s arrest; presumably he’ll find some way to block her from getting bail. Oh, and he seduces Clay into ratting on SAMCRO, because like all villains on this show, Lee has decided his grudge against one man has to extend to that man’s motorcycle club. (It makes sense, in that the Sons are all Otto has left even if he despises them. But still, this plot model is getting old.) Logue is a terrific actor, and he’s clearly relishing the chance to play the heavy here; his understandable rage against Otto is, if anything, even more sympathetic than Pope’s anger over his daughter’s death, mostly because Lee doesn’t start the season by burning an innocent alive. But the character already seems played out. His crazy drug addiction is less a twist than a clichéd way to make sure we understand that he’s, well, crazy; and that insanity is going to rob his actions of any moral authority they might have had. Hell, starting off with Otto getting raped was enough to do that, even if Otto is enough of a piece of shit at this point that it’s hard to care much what happens to him.

So, there are rough roads ahead, as there always are on this show. The question is if there’s going to be much point to all the suffering. Not-Jake’s attack on his classmates and teachers is a horrific, nightmarish scene, and it’s the sort of bold, gutsy choice Sutter has always been willing to make. What remains to be seen is if he and the rest of the writers can earn putting a simulacrum of real life tragedy in the midst of all this operatic carnage. Sons’ occasional bouts of tastelessness are part of the show’s strengths, because in its best moments, we see people go through the absolute worst and come out the other side—maybe not happy or healthy, exactly, but they survive. This is a show that’s willing to engage with ugliness other shows won’t touch, but that means a lot of this is working without a net. The more horrible, the more exploitive, the more willing the writers are to rub our faces in the muck, the harder they have to work to maintain their balance and respect our trust. In theory, the school shooting is a comment on the self-created Hell all these characters are mired in, and it, along with whatever vile shit Lee cooks up next, could force Jax to come to some kind of reckoning. But that’s just a theory. For right now, we’re left suspended in space. There’s a lot of ground to land on, and none of it looks friendly.

Stray observations:

  • Clay, realizing he has no other options (aside from “dying”), decides to turn rat for Lee. That’s going to have some nasty fall out for SAMCRO, but I’m more curious as to what it’s going to do to Clay. Ron Perlman remains one of the show’s best actors, and even if Clay should’ve been dead a season ago, he still makes the most of what he’s given.
  • I’m less interested in what Bobby decides to do next. Mark Boone Junior is great, but watching him moon over maps as he debates his options isn’t very exciting. I’m sure he’ll get pulled back into Jax’s orbit soon, though.
  • “You’re a stupid whore.”- Jax, laying on the sweet talk.
  • “Zero Dark Shithead” is not a great insult.
  • “Persia hasn’t been a country since 637 AD. They’re called Iranians.”- Peter Weller, master of Wikipedia
  • Unser has a new nickname: Uncle Touchy. “You know that makes me sound like a pedophile, right?”
  • Chibs and Juice work through their issues with the power of punching.

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