So, what does this season of Sons Of Anarchy look like without Lee Toric in it? About the same as it did before, only duller. Aside from two big scenes in “The Mad King,” too much of the hour was a perfunctory scramble to fill the void, as the fight with the Irish escalates and Tara and Wendy continue their backroom wrangling to get custody of Jax’s sons away from the club. Maybe “dull” is an odd word to use to describe an episode full of running and shooting and rape-by-proxy and clubhouse devastating explosions, but dull is what came to mind through most of it. It’s not that Lee’s presence would’ve been an improvement, exactly; his increasingly spastic efforts at revenge generated drama in much the same way flailing in the produce aisle can generate a salad. But at least he served as some kind of focal point. As familiar as the Big Bad structure has become in the last few years, it’s still one of the smartest ways to organize a season of serialized television. With Lee present, everything else that happened around him served largely to keep Jax from dealing with the more serious problem at hand—it created the illusion of structure, even if it was hard to ignore the sense that we’ve been down this road a few times already.
Now that Lee’s gone, that sensation is even stronger. Does the show really need another fight with the Irish? As villains go, a bunch of old white guys sitting around in a kitchen across the ocean doesn’t make for the most pressing threat. They’ve made their presence known, first by offing two Sons, and then, at the conclusion of this week’s episode, blowing up the clubhouse in an attempt to wipe out the entire ruling board of SAMCRO in one fell swoop. Both incidents were undeniably shocking, and it’s hard not to be at least a little curious to see what happens next. But this isn’t a narrative with much inherent sense of payoff. The show needs either a great sneering villain, or a deep emotional investment, to really work, but apart from wanting to see Galen (I got the name right!) dead because he won’t stop smirking, this battle has precious little resonance. So far, no one’s stopped to consider that maybe the moral cost of doing bad for so long might be a little steeper than just asking your partners nicely to let you go, and now that it’s obvious the Irish kings aren’t going to let the Sons turn their backs without some significant scarring, the conflict has shifted into an entirely external one. Who cares about a school shooting when the real bad guys are blowing things up? So we have an unexciting threat whose ongoing presence serves mostly to let our protagonists ignore the more complicated consequences of their choices. At least Lee’s craziness had, at some point in the far distant past, a hint of moral weight to it.
Really, though, that’s not the biggest issue with “The Mad King.” If this had just been a tedious hour of people running around and glaring at each other before the big ka-boom, it would’ve been a mediocre, but passable, entry. What dropkicks this one into the depths is a bizarre, cringe-inducing attempt to indulge in some of Kurt Sutter’s much-loved shock moments, a scene that is almost too ludicrously indulgent to be even considered offensive. In an attempt to pass on information, Clay requests a conjugal meeting with Gemma; legally, the meeting can’t be wiretapped by the cops, although this privilege comes with a price tag. Clay gets across what he needs to get across in a couple minutes: Galen, with the Irish’s backing, intends to bust Clay out of jail and bring him back to Belfast, where he’ll take over the gun-running operation. This seems like a pretty labor intensive mission to save an old biker’s neck, to the point where I’m not sure the potential gains outweigh the risk, but regardless, Clay doesn’t want anything to do with it. He brought Gemma in because he wants her to ask Jax what he should do.
Which is cool; with Lee gone, Clay needed another way to be relevant to the main storyline, and it could be compelling to see if Jax is able to put aside his loathing for the man long enough to use him. (And maybe this is how Clay finally goes out, sacrificing himself to take out a bigger threat.) What isn’t cool is that after Clay says his peace and Gemma tries to leave, two prison guards enter the room and demand Clay and Gemma have sex. It was, after all, a “conjugal visit,” and by god, they’re going to see some conjugating.
Thankfully the camera cuts away before things get too explicit (although not before one of the guards demands Gemma take her top off), but it’s still a thudding, idiotic scene, as clumsy as Lee’s half-assed murder was a couple weeks back. At least the murder led somewhere; apart from some free-floating suffering for the parties involved, there doesn’t seem to be any point to this at all. Maybe it will pay off down the line, but it’s hard to see any pay-off that could make something this dumb seem worthwhile. Partly it’s just a nasty thing to happen to these two characters, given their history, but the nastiness doesn’t linger as long as the nihilistic slapstick of it all, the sneering impression that this is what the show’s really about deep down—brutal shit happening for no damn good reason. For a while, the brutality was part of the texture of Jax and the rest of the crew’s life, an attempt to contextualize the intensity of their behavior. It never entirely succeeded, given how much their own actions contributed to the insanity, but that, it could be argued, was part of the point. Now, though? The world has become cartoonishly evil. The next time Chibs steps off for a cup of coffee, the barista might pull out a flamethrower and melt him down. Tara could go for a walk to clear her head and get pulled into a van by a serial killer and have her skin turned into wallpaper. The boys… well, something awful could happen to the boys. You get the idea.
The world is a dangerous, often cruel place, and there’s nothing wrong with heightening that cruelty for dramatic effect. But at a certain point, the intensity burns out the nerve-endings, and all the chaos blurs together into a low, hollow numbness. Jax and the others run around town trying to track down Galen and Connor. Tyne shows up at Sheriff Eli’s office, demanding his help on the school-shooting case. There’s an inspector at Collette’s whorehouse. Gemma and Clay are forced to have sex by a pair of evil guards. Tara learns that Lee’s death puts her in a worse position than before. Wendy is having second thoughts. And so on, and so forth. I have no desire to beat a dead horse (hell, Tig will probably end up doing that by the season finale), but there’s no drive holding this together. There’s plotting, sure, and the explosion in the final seconds of the episode raises the stakes, but none of that takes away from the fact that this is all more than a little like flailing. Sutter and his writers keep swinging for anything they can hit, anything that will leave a mark, and there are few spots left vulnerable to bruising. Once the pain fades, though, there’s nothing to replace it. And here are six different characters to explain how that happened.
- To cut the writers some slack, the plots on the show can get complicated, so it’s useful to have someone occasionally check in to remind us what’s what. But do we really need this much exposition? Considering how many episodes have been running long this season, it seems even more indulgent than usual.
- Tara’s attempt at a long con really should be more exciting than it is. It pits a good character in direct opposition to the show’s protagonist, and, in theory, raises some interesting questions about who we ought to root for. In a stronger season, this would be a great subplot to keep running in the background until it boiled over at the worst possible moment; here, though, it’s a decent idea that doesn’t have a lot of energy behind it. (Although Unser’s offer to help out was a solid development.)
- That scene between Tyne and Eli in the sheriff’s office had some hilariously awkward blocking. “Let’s just stand here for a second and talk for no reason, ‘kay?”
- Using the Shamrock pen to clue Jax in on the explosion was a nice touch.