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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sons Of Anarchy: “To Be, Act 1”

Illustration for article titled Sons Of Anarchy: “To Be, Act 1”

By the end of “To Be, Act One,” it’s impossible to argue that the SAMCRO way of solving problems is a good one. All season, we’ve seen the club’s illusions about itself shattered: Clay’s commitment has been revealed as nothing more than opportunism with a patch; the idea that they could control the drug trade was ridiculous; and even the Irish, who’ve long been a main source of income for the Sons, are proving themselves to be less than trustworthy allies. But even if we can accept all this, even if we can mitigate or prevaricate or deny, claim that Clay is just an outlier and Jax wasn’t thinking clearly, there’s no getting around what happens in “To Be.”

Last week, Opie shot Clay, but I had my suspicions that the injury wouldn't be fatal; this week, it turns out I was right, much to Opie’s surprise. (This seems like a bit of fudging, given how close Opie and Clay were when the gun was fired, and how long Opie had to aim. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible for Opie to have missed. He was upset, and 10 feet away is still ten feet away. Plus, Clay’s a hard guy to murder. Still, you can’t rely on too many improbable events to make your story work, and we’re going to need a good reason for why Clay lived other than just, “It’s not quite the end of the season yet.”) Jax does his best to cover up what happened to give himself time to decide how to handle the situation, and when other club members show up and see what happened, he blames Clay’s shootings on a couple of black guys. Shades of The Sopranos here, where the myth of the “Unidentified Black Males” is a convenient way for Tony and others to doublethink their way out of a crime they’d rather not admit. Jax isn’t the same kind of monster, but his hastily constructed cover story gives us the clearest evidence yet that SAMCRO is seriously, deeply corrupt. Tig hears about what happened, goes insane with grief and guilt, and decides the Niners must be behind the hit. So he runs over Leroy and his wife while they’re dining at an outdoor cafe, and kills Mrs. Leroy. That brings Tig’s widowmaker count to two, and it’s pretty hard to deny that his behavior is an anomaly. This is a club solution to a club problem, only it doesn’t solve anything. It just means more people die.

It’s hard to know exactly how to judge “To Be,” as it’s very much the part one of a two-part finale. (Even says so right there in the title.) There are a lot of big scenes here, and a few that have been building since the very start of the series, but the pay-off hasn’t quite hit; we’re going to have to wait until next week to find out exactly how everything goes down. But provisionally speaking, “To Be, Part One” is a good-to-great hour of television, with Sons doing what it does best: throwing its characters into about 16 bad situations at once, and then forcing them to pick up the pieces on the fly. It starts with Jax stopping Opie from putting a final, definitive bullet in Clay’s murdering brain; it ends with Jax determined to do the deed himself, although with a syringe full of blood thinner rather than a gun.

Gemma’s behavior last week wasn’t quite as back-stepping as I’d feared, as it turns out her plan wasn’t to protect Clay, but to give him up to Jax by finally showing her son the letters that have caused so much chaos and death over the course of this season. Of course, Gemma makes sure to shape the narrative to serve her own needs. After getting the letters from Tara (who gives them up for her own reasons), Gemma pulls out ones that incriminate her as part of her dead husband’s murder, and then delivers the rest to Jax with a carefully constructed speech. It’s a terrific scene, the pay-off to years of hints and foreshadowing, although it’s not complete. Jax finally knows his father was killed, and he knows of at least one person who’s responsible, but he doesn’t know the whole story. Gemma is making a big play here. If it pays off, she’ll have taken care of two threats at once, while solidifying her relationship with Jax. If it fails, her son could turn on her for good. As always, Katey Sagal manages to make a character who could seem monstrous into someone who understands the cost of every con she pulls; she’s hard because she’s spent a lifetime convincing herself that being hard is the only way she’ll survive, but there’s still a soul buried underneath all that toughness, and Sagal makes sure we never forget it.

It’s funny; I watched this episode on Sunday and took a fair bit of notes, but sitting down to write this review, I find it hard to remember much between the opening scene and the ending scene. That’s one of the reasons I consider it half of the story, even if the level of serialization here isn’t any more significant than it was through the rest of the season. Most of “Be” is spent setting up the dominoes and not letting them fall, although the ones that do crash leave a mark. Consider Tig’s rash and misguided attempt at vengeance, or the rage and despair on Opie’s face when Jax drives him away from the garage. Most action thrillers get mileage out of characters continually out-maneuvering each other, but I think Sons does as well, if not better, at forcing people to make big choices based on limited, or faulty, information. Clay, the closest thing to a mastermind we’ve seen this season, shot Piney because he was convinced Piney had something the old man didn’t actually have. He sent hired killers after Tara before he found out she’d be with Jax, short-circuiting his plan and causing the exact problem he’d spent so much time and blood trying to avoid. And Jax spends most of this episode working hard to protect Clay from Opie’s rage and the rest of the club, because he doesn’t know what’s going on, and he wants to find out before he makes any definitive choices. That’s a problem for the club, because with Clay out of the picture and Bobby in jail, Jax is the de facto president; and in the world these men have helped to create, slow decisions are almost as bad as no decision at all.

Which isn’t to say snap judgment calls are all that much better. Tig’s decision to avenge his friend (who, let’s not forget, beat up Gemma so badly that Tig was driven to turn in his Sgt. of Arms patch) based on limited information led to the death of an innocent, and as exciting and bad-ass as his escape from Niners’ territory was (including a SAMCRO escort and kick-ass score), it was difficult to enjoy completely, tainted as it was with the knowledge that Tig really didn’t deserve to get away clean. The show has had its share of morally complex action set-pieces, but this one, for all its bravado, was hard to stomach. There’s a sense of moral rot setting in with most of the members of the Sons by now, a rot that’s been there from the beginning, but was easier to ignore when the cost wasn’t so obviously dire. But now, it’s hard to imagine how the club could possibly get out of the depth of shit they’ve waded into, and despite Jax’s fervent assertions that he wants to take his family and get the hell out of Dodge, he’s as stained as everyone else. His and Tara’s promises to each other have taken on the feel of catechism, empty words repeated without meaning, rather than a statement with any real bearing on reality.


What to make, then, of Tara’s play at the end, when she hands Jax a leather case with a syringe that could end Clay’s life? It’s a big step for her; she’s helped tend the wounded, but I don’t think she’s ever conspired to commit murder, not even with her stalker back in the first season. She probably wanted him dead, but that was based on fear rather than cold calculation. In giving Jax the means to take revenge, Tara is both confirming Gemma’s wishes and superseding them. They all know Clay needs to die, but now when Jax kills his surrogate father, he’ll be doing it to rid himself of his responsibilities to Charming and the Sons for good and for all, instead of taking his place as heir, as Gemma clearly intends. I like the idea of a more determined Tara, and I think she’s right, as far as it goes, in saying she’s smarter than Gemma; while Gemma is far subtler and infinitely more clever than Clay, she still shares his fatal weakness of over-reaching. Thing is, there’s a decent chance Tara, for all her smarts, may be making the same mistakes. Murders in Charming rarely go exactly as planned, for one thing. I doubt it’s going to be as easy to leave town as she and Jax hope, especially not with Linc getting ready to make his play during the meet between the Irish and Galindo. And hey, Romeo is still determined to carry out the hit on Tara, even if he doesn’t know she’s out of the hospital just yet. Last week, I said that Clay needed to die. This week, I’m not quite so sure of myself. I can actually see a way this works where Jax chooses not to use the syringe, deciding, despite the fervent wishes of both women in his life, that maybe the club solution isn’t the best solution in the end. Regardless, SAMCRO’s problems keep getting bigger, and driving fast and kicking ass is only making things worse.

Stray observations:

  • Every time the show shows Tara’s hand getting smashed in the “Previously on” segment, I wince.
  • So, you think Jax calls Opie at some point, says, “Sorry about the whole punching thing, I guess Clay really is a bastard after all”?
  • It took two tries for Clay to kill Jax. He’s nothing if not determined.
  • The A- is provisional, depending on how everything shakes out next week; if it goes well, I may bump up to a full A. And yes, I'm totally mad with power right now.