Sons of Anarchy Review: "Poenitentia" (Episode 6.03)
We’re now three episodes into a Sons of Anarchy season, which means the entire world is collapsing around Jax Teller and his motorcycle club. Nothing new there; living on the brink of disaster comes with the terrain when you choose the outlaw life, and collateral damage is everywhere. What’s different about this season, though, is the darkness. I don’t mean death, whose bloody sickle adorns the club crest and who has never been far from action. Death is a given. In Season Six, it’s the absence of morality that feels so unsettling.
The club was started on a bedrock of ideals, and it went off the rails when Gemma and Clay conspired to murder John Teller. Things descended from there, but John’s son Jax was an agent of revenge and restoration. All hopes were pinned on him as the man to move the club away form violence, settle the score with Clay, and force the club to live by a moralistic (if not legalistic) code. If he vacillated in the task, Hamlet-like, it didn’t much matter, because the long arc of the Sons of Anarchy universe bent toward justice, and Jax turned out to be a mastermind who was more than capable of navigating the thorny traps laid by his enemies.
Now, though, that dream is over, and Jax has failed. I wrote last week about how Sons has begun to seem a little like Breaking Bad: Charming, but it’s still shocking to see just how far the chosen one has fallen. He murdered an innocent woman last week to protect himself, and that felt like the last straw. Still, just because someone has crossed a line doesn’t mean the horror won’t continue, and Jax’s fall from grace feels endless. The conclusion can’t be escaped: He’s beyond redemption. The savior has become the villain, and there’s no going back.
Let’s start with the sad end of Tig (played by the excellent Kim Coates, who will be missed). Granted, his days have been numbered ever since Damon Pope marked him for death, and he hasn’t helped his own cause by getting sloppier in the aftermath. When the club broke up a Persian torture porn ring earlier this season, memories of his own daughter’s death drove him to wrath, and he killed one of the producers rather than follow Jax’s order to cut him loose. The blowback came this week with a driveby shooting that injured a colleague of corrupt cop Charles Barosky (Peter Weller, Robocop himself, who also directed last week’s episode) while they were sitting down with the club to discuss the logistics behind their jointly operated brothel.
When Tig lies about killing the Persian, Jax realizes it’s time to pay his debt to August Marks, who has taken over Pope’s organization. He sends Tig to clean up at the porn studios, and gives up his location to Marks. The pain in Tig’s eyes when he sees his enemies bear down is a reminder that Jax is no longer interested in doing the right thing at all costs; if the consequences are severe, he’ll cave, and he’s already falling down the slippery slope. He even kisses Tig, Godfather-style, before he sends him off to die. Like the mafiosi who stayed loyal only as long as it suited them, Jax no longer seems to value the notion of club-as-family. So Tig dies, and it’s nothing more than another inconvenience for the man with the gavel.
And then there’s Clay Morrow, the character who cannot be killed. He refuses to turn state’s evidence against his club, despite knowing that certain death awaits him in GenPop when obsessed, borderline-insane U.S. Marshal Lee Toric’s protection is gone, but he makes the noble gesture anyway. But as he prepares to face his fate, Jax intervenes through Marks, for the same reason that preserved Clay last season; Jax wants to get away from guns, and only Clay can placate the Irish. So instead of dying, Clay has to earn his protection by killing a white gang leader, which he does violently with a shank in the midst of a prison-yard brawl. Just like that, he now has two groups who want to kill him, no hope of ever escaping prison, and yet…he’s still alive.
To Jax’s credit, there’s an end game in play. He wants to move away from guns and focus the club’s efforts into the “escort” and pornography businesses, making money but cutting off the violent side that comes from running weapons. Still, the decisions he’s made in order to even start the process have compromised him beyond repair. All the rationalizations in the world can’t make it better. He’s mired, and like a car that spins its tires in the mud, every movement just makes it worse.
The thematic line of dialogue in “Poenitentia” came early, when Gemma left the church with Nero, her new fling. He had been to confession, and she’s cynical about the whole concept. Nero says it makes him feel better, even though he obviously can’t confess his real sins.
“And then what?” she asks. “He [the priest] just sprinkles magic Jesus water and everyone pretends the bad shit never happened?”
And that’s the rub; you can’t call yourself a good person if you don’t walk the walk. For so long, Jax was a beacon of goodness in the underworld. He was a perfect lieutenant, full of brilliant plans that kept the law at bay while saving the club from having to make the truly evil decisions. But maybe second-in-command is where his ascent should have stopped. As the president, he’s been confronted with the truth of living beyond the law, which is that there’s no moral middle ground. If you want to survive, you can’t be a good guy among bad ones, because they’ll always be willing to take it a step further. You have to go all the way, and when Jax turns ruthless, he loses his soul. At least his father had the courage to die for his beliefs; instead of avenging him, Jax just turned into Clay.
Of course, being on the right side of the law doesn’t guarantee spiritual purity. Lee Toric continues his adventures by accidentally shooting a prostitute in his motel room—a crime so sudden and bizarre that it’s almost comical—but makes lemonade of the situation by using her blood and hair to frame Nero in the hopes of turning him. He lost Clay as a potential informant, and he can’t turn Tara, but there’s absolutely nothing he won’t do to avenge his sister’s death. When Jax meets Clay in the interview room, he knows Toric is behind the tinted glass, and he tries to exonerate the club while threatening him if he keeps pursuing Tara, but the Marshal is so far gone that he’s beyond fear. And later, when he collects the dead hooker’s hair and blood for the frame-up (she’s in his bathtub, for now, and the “Do Not Disturb” sign is on the front door), he delivers a familiar refrain: “I’m going to make this mean something.”
Jax is just saving the club, Nero is confessing his sins, and Toric is pursuing a higher cause. These are the justifications that help resolve that pesky cognitive dissonance, and allow them to look in the mirror without succumbing to total self-hatred. But in real life, things are messy; the wrong people are dying, the right people are living, and families are being torn apart while the violence escalates. When it’s revealed near the end of the episode that Tara is pregnant, it feels less joyous than troubling; another life is entering this world, where corruption and death infect everyone. The child is cursed before it’s even born.
“Poenitentia” is the Latin word for repentance, and as the title of this week’s episode, it’s laced with irony. Everyone seeks absolution, but nobody makes decisions that would merit any kind of cosmic forgiveness. Sons of Anarchy and Hamlet will always be inseparable to me, and watching the half-hearted attempts at atonement in the rotten state of Charming, it was impossible not to think of Claudius’ famous couplet after his own confession, when he realized, in a moment of horrible clarity, that he was doomed:
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below
Words without thoughts never to heaven go