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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sons Of Anarchy: “Ablation”

Illustration for article titled Sons Of Anarchy: “Ablation”

Gemma pretending that she got run off the road by some guys in a van isn’t surprising; in fact, there’s an inevitability to it, and the fact that Clay is the one to officially come up with the lie makes it all the more fitting. “Ablation” makes a plot point out of something that’s been burning in the background all season. Gemma’s a wreck, and she’s faced with a choice: either try and pick her life back up with Nero, or give into damnation and go to Clay. You could argue that she should have a third option—figure things out her own damn self—but the fact that this never seems to come up actually makes a lot of sense. After all, Gemma’s whole world is defined with her as a maternal, old-lady center. She’s someone’s mom, someone’s grandmom, someone’s wife, someone’s fuck buddy. As Jax tells Clay near the end of the episode, the idea of Gemma without a family is some scary, scary shit. So yeah, using Nero and Clay to define the next phase of her life, to represent the good and bad of possible tomorrows, is fitting. And, as this episode makes abundantly clear, it’s actually important to the rest of the club. The problem with Gemma’s storyline for most of the season has been that it looked like a lot of extraneous misery porn—every week, Gemma had a chance to redeem herself, and every week, she screwed up and someone suffered and Jax gave her that look. At the end of this hour, though, it all comes into focus. You could say the earlier criticisms were a function of impatience, or that the writers weren’t effectively able to integrate the Gemma scenes in a way that wouldn’t be distracting before now; but either way, when Jax coldly decides to whore out his mother as a way to bring down his greatest enemy (an enemy, by the way, who once beat the shit out of Mom), it all becomes clear.

There’s a lot of clarity in “Ablation,” with a lot of subplots that had once been either murky or discarded suddenly coming into sharper focus. It’s thrilling to realize that Pope’s villainy at the start of the season (however well-justified) was mostly just a feint, a narrative fake-out to distract us from the real Big Bad. Actually, that might be an exaggeration. Pope did, after all, burn Tig’s daughter alive and arrange for Opie’s death, so Jax might end up getting some measure of revenge on him by the end. (Especially this new Jax, who is a nasty piece of work.) But in a weird way, Pope isn’t really a threat anymore. He took his piece out of the club to avenge the death of his daughter, and now he’s just a cheerful business partner, offering Jax advice and proudly explaining his plans for urban development. He’s likeable now, and Jax’s occasional meetings with the man are, outside of the time he spends with Tara, the most relaxed conversations of his day. After all, he knows exactly what Pope is capable of. You could even say that, much like Gemma with her two men, Pope represents a potential future for Jax. Not that they’re going to hook up or anything (that would be a very different direction for the show, I think), but that Pope represents a possible future for Jax. This is the kind of man whom, if he plays his cards right, and if he makes certain choices, he might one day become.

Jax certainly seems to be heading in that direction. If there was any doubt earlier, the way he handles the survivor from last week’s assault—the second guy Frankie hired to try and take out Jax—clinches it. It’s not just that Jax kills him. You could make a case that he didn’t have a choice, that it was important to remind everyone that if you come at the king, you best not miss; I’m not sure I’d completely agree, especially given how scared and apologetic the guy was (I’d make a terrible outlaw, obviously), but I don’t think it automatically would’ve demonstrated Jax turning his back on his soul. But he puts an arm around the guy’s shoulder, reassuring him before he shoots him multiple times in the stomach. That’s not a quick, clean kill. That’s a death to make a guy suffer, which this poor bastard does for a few seconds before toppling off the edge of the roof. Jax has this nasty grin on his face the whole time; it’s the same look he had last week when he beat the guard to death, and the same look he has earlier this episode when he takes to a corpse with an ax. Again, his actions remain basically understandable, but the attitude he takes toward them, the way each harsh act costs him less and less, is powerful. In a sense, this is all part of the cost of leadership, at least when it comes to the Sons. You have to get cold to get the job done. But it’s great how the writers and actors don’t shy away from the unpleasantness of it all. There’s a terrific ambiguity to what’s going down, and that ambiguity adds to the tension and to the intensity.

“Ablation” moves at a good clip throughout its running time, and it mimics that feeling that has marked the final third of every season of Sons so far: events spinning out of control, as one solution leads to more problems leads to more solutions leads to more problems, etc. But there’s still time to take old crimes into account. Juice’s brief service as an inside man for Eli and the Feds last season seemed to end in an anticlimax; the poor guy shot one of the Sons, but when the Feds’ case fell apart, he was left to his own devices. That was sloppy, like nearly everything in last season’s finale was sloppy, but one of the highlights of this season is how it’s been finding ways to redeem past mistakes. I may be alone in this, but I’ve been enjoying Clay’s attempts to get back into the limelight, because they’re so perfectly in character and also serve as a reminder of just how toxic the club has become—no matter how Jax tries to hold things together, so long as Clay is still at the table, the rot comes from the inside. And now Eli, driven past all decency and compassion by the death of his wife and their unborn child, is putting the pressure back on Juice for more info on his wife’s killers, as well as offering Jax Juice’s name in exchange for a chance at revenge. Juice, meanwhile, has finally come clean to Clay, confessing his crimes and binding them together permanently. One of the best tools an ongoing series has is its history, and it’s exciting the way this comes together, shifting allegiances in a way that makes perfect sense and promises the potential for a lot of damage down the line. I suppose it’s all a bit mechanical, but it doesn’t ever feel that way in the moment; besides, most of these choices have been driven by character rather than the needs to plot, which makes a big difference.

It would be going too far to say that everything in the season has been leading to the moment when Jax basically orders Gemma to go back to Clay, but there is a definite sense of recognition in that moment, of seeing a bunch of seemingly disparate pieces finally coming together. There’s something surprisingly heartbreaking about it too—or if not heartbreaking, at least effectively pathetic and sad. Clay’s attempt at a lie to cover for Gemma’s smoking lasts maybe a day, and then it all falls apart, with Tara hitting her and telling her she’s cut off from the family. Technically, Nero is partly responsible for this, because he tells Jax the truth about what happened as an attempt to save Gemma from her demons (reasoning that the more she lies to cover up the drug use, the more she’ll go on using), and I wondered if the writers would use this betrayal as an excuse to drive Gemma toward Clay. But they’re smarter than that. Nero just pushed something that was already basically collapsing, and Gemma knows deep down that what she’s doing to her life isn’t sustainable. That’s what makes Jax’s orders so cruel. He thinks he’s being the tough, hard king, using people to achieve his own ends—he clearly believes that this is the only way the club is going to survive, for him to become Pope and destroy anyone standing in his way. Maybe he’s right. But by giving Gemma the choice between re-engaging with her old life, or giving up everything she loves forever, he’s destroying her chances at recovery. It could work out in the end, but I doubt it. Clay has a gift for breaking whatever he touches.

Stray observations:

  • “Hey, next time? A few fingers on glass will suffice.”—Unser, who for some reason isn’t a fan of corpse hands.
  • Frankie manages to steal Nero’s nest egg and escape Charming, though I doubt he’ll be gone for long. He also pistol whips Chibs instead of shooting him, leaving him bleeding in the dirt.
  • Abel is fine.