Maggie Siff doesn’t really do “vulnerable and crazy” very well. At least, she doesn’t do it the way I suspect this season desperately wants her to. Siff is one of Sons Of Anarchy’s best actors, and she’s turned fine work this year, like always. But at times, that work has seemed to run at cross purposes with the writers’ intentions. The main problem is that Siff comes across as smart, and she’s always come across as smart. It was a stretch in the first couple seasons to believe that such a smart, ambitious woman would willingly throw her lot in with a biker gang just because her high school boyfriend still had the hots for her, but Siff mostly managed to make that work; Tara’s attraction to Jax was too elemental to be touched by common sense, and Siff and Hunnam work well together.
Lately, though, it’s gotten more apparent how little Tara belongs in this world. Tara’s big play—getting custody of the kids away from Jax, Gemma, and the club through a series of legal tricks and con games—seems clever, but it’s messy, and kind of stupid, depending almost entirely on the willpower of an ex-junkie with an undeniably complicated relationship with the parties involved. It was a comic-book plan, based on a lot of convoluted logic that was never going to hold together very long, and while this is a show with a lot of comic-book plans (Jax’s multistage masterwork to get out of bed with the Irish being the most recent example), the setup never fit Tara all that well.
Maybe that was intentional on the part of the writers. Tara did, after all, rage at Jax in a previous episode about what he’s “done” to her—the clear implication being that her relationship with him, and by extension SAMCRO, has made it almost impossible for her to see things clearly anymore. That’s not a bad approach to take, but Tara’s breakdown has never been completely believable. For comparison, look at Juice, who finally cracks in “You Are My Sunshine,” nearly overdosing before confessing to Nero that he killed the school shooter’s mom. This whole year, Juice has been a bit too intense, a bit too quick to use violence to solve problems. Other characters have mentioned his behavior (Bobby’s comments in this episode are partly what leads Juice to nearly kill himself), but those comments have never come across as forced or overly labored. It wasn’t the subtlest of dramatic devices, in that each time someone said, “Juice, are you okay?” it became more and more obvious that he wasn’t, but that doesn’t matter; what matters is that it established a clear pattern of behavior so that his breakdown, brought on by guilt and, presumably, Clay’s death, makes sense. It’s a solid dramatic arc, and it’ll be interesting to see where it goes.
Tara’s problems, though, have been less effectively managed. She just doesn’t seem that deranged, and the few attempts to make her look crazy (attacking Collette over Jax, pulling a gun on Unser and Wendy, hitting Wendy in the face when Wendy tells Abel she’s his mother) don’t fit in with Siff’s troubled, stressed, but fundamentally sane presence. The clearest sign of how we’re supposed to be viewing Tara’s latest attempt to free herself from the club comes after the confrontation with Unser and Wendy at Gemma’s house. Driving away in the jeep, Tara tries to justify her actions to children who can’t possibly understand what she’s saying, and her voice is shaky, near to breaking. She’s disturbed by what she’s done, by what she believes she’s been forced to do, and the strain is taking a toll. We don’t know yet if she’s going to Patterson or not (she doesn’t), but regardless, Tara’s all messed up inside, and this is not a good choice she’s made.
But why isn’t it? What other options does she have? The writers seem to be taking as writ the idea that Jax and SAMCRO is home, and even if that home got a little dangerous and messed up, well, everything’s on the straight and narrow now, if Tara would just wise up and realize it. Except in order to get onto that straight and narrow, Jax and his people had to murder yet another large group of men, because that’s pretty much what they do. A culture of violence isn’t something you just shrug off with a dozen or so murders, and as many layers as Jax’s plans have, the blood remains on his hands, straight down to the bone. The idea that anyone would try and raise children in such an environment is hideous, and Tara’s desire to get out is a relatable, even noble, goal. She still loves Jax, and she still has friends in the Sons, but she’s willing to sacrifice all of that if it means raising her children in a world without all this death.
So maybe the point is that Tara’s motives are pure, but the situation is too painful for her to find a way through it. But for that to work, Sons Of Anarchy would have to be significantly more critical of its heroes than it’s so far managed. There are plenty of shows with antiheroes who want us to simultaneously root for the protagonist while judging them (okay, him) for their (okay, his) actions, but while Sons has flirted with that level of darkness in the past, it’s never really committed. Everyone’s having too much fun. Which is fine! I realize I often come across as a spoilsport in these reviews, but honestly, when the show just has goes for a crazy, pulpy adventure tales, it’s a blast to watch.
The trick comes in wanting to have all that fun while still keeping the anarchist edge that makes shows like this so thrilling. If Breaking Bad or The Shield was just a bunch of good people fighting bad guys, there’d be no danger to it, no tension between moral values and visceral ones. By first creating a power fantasy (chemistry teacher turns brilliant drug dealer, tough cop takes law into his own hands), and then simultaneously reveling in and criticizing that fantasy, those shows were able, for long stretches of time, to be both exciting and challenging, satisfying as both adrenaline trips and dramatic commentary on the dangers of greed and hubris. Sons often wants this kind of conflict—and even at times manages to achieve it—but in the end, it will never completely turn on its lead. Jax has done some dark shit in the past (remember when he forcibly injected drugs into Wendy?), but he’s still treated as a good man with difficulties.
Which, again, could be fine. Not every show needs to relentlessly interrogating its own objectives. But Tara’s storyline, and the school shooting that started the season, have forced the writers into a position that they are almost certainly not willing to see through to the end. A murderous biker club against a mother protecting her children isn’t a conflict that ends happily for anyone, because as soon as the fight begins, it changes how we view these characters, and in ways I’m not sure anyone was expecting. Jax’s rage at discovering Tara and the children are gone fits his character, but like his earlier confrontation with the lawyer, it paints him in a light that I don’t know if the show can sustain.
It’s difficult to judge how all of this will play out, even with one episode left in the season. If I’m wrong—if this all concludes in a way that does well by both SAMCRO and Tara (not necessarily in ways that make either party happy, just a way that doesn’t try and downplay the clubs sins in order to make sure they remain sympathetic)—that’ll be fantastic. But while it’s fascinating to watch the leading characters split off in ways that make them villains to each other, the scenario right now feels dangerously out of control, in ways that no one behind the camera is able to deal with.
While “You Are My Sunshine” has its lagging sections (again, the extra long episodes are unnecessary, especially as the season heads into its endgame; when tension should be rising in a great wave, we’re just getting a lot of fits and starts), there is genuine suspense in the final minutes, as Tara picks up her kids and decides to go on the lam. Nero finding out that Jax ordered a woman killed was an important twist in their relationship, as it once again finds Nero forced to justify his connection to a club that’s dragging him in directions he doesn’t want to go, all the while promising it will all be all right in the end. The episode at least acknowledges that being friends with SAMCRO isn’t the healthiest line of work, and that acknowledgement could go someplace. But in the end, while Tara is huddled up in a motel room, shades drawn and terrified, Nero comes to find Jax worried over his wife and his kids’ disappearance. Nero has a moment of internal struggle, but in the end, he moves to comfort his surrogate son. Who will offer Tara the same mercy?
- Shout out to Jimmy Smits, who is quietly giving one of the best performances on the show. His on-going struggle between the demands of his old life and his desire to go clean is the sort of storyline that could theoretically get old at some point, but still has some juice in it, as seen by his scenes with, um, Juice. He’s arguably a better example of Tara’s arc, in that his conflicts with the Sons show the club’s weaknesses without completely undermining our sympathies.
- “Go back to dick. Girls are shit.” Gemma, trying to convince Wendy she should no longer be a lesbian. (Also, a pretty good explanation for just what makes Gemma such a delightful person.)
- Jax’s maneuvering with the Irish is upsetting the balance with the locals, according to Alvarez. So I guess things won’t work out perfectly after all.
- So, Happy gets rescued, and Tig gives him a gun so he can shoot his defeated kidnapper in the head. “I love you, guys,” says Happy. Is that kind of fucked up, or am I supposed to be cheering? Because a few odd moments with Tig aside, this plays as triumphant, and I’m not sure I’m convinced.
- Guesses on next week? Probably something ironic and awful will happen to Tara. Or Sutter could double down and kill one of the kids. Should be fun!