Sons of Anarchy Review: "Straw" (Episode 6.01)
When will Clay Morrow die?
That’s been the prevailing question of Sons of Anarchy, and at the start of the show’s sixth season, the answer continues to be: Not Yet.
When we last left the gang in charming, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam, who will trade one kind of leather for another when he stars as Christian Gray in the upcoming Fifty Shades of Gray) had framed Clay for the murder of gang boss Damon Pope with such ingenuity that it could only be a matter of time—hours, not —before Pope’s followers had their revenge. But in “Straw,” the erstwhile head of the MC stays Teflon; death can’t stick to him. This time, he has the machinations of a retired U.S. Marshal named Lee Toric (the excellent Donal Logue) to thank for his extended lease on life. Toric, a heroin user with a history of violence and at least a passing interest in sadomasochism, was forced out of the marshal service for one too many steps outside the bounds of good taste. Now, he’s cashing in a few favors to investigate the death of his sister, a prison nurse who was stabbed to death with a crucifix by Otto Delaney, a club member and inmate who committed the crime to effectively end a RICO case against the Sons.
Toric is on a revenge mission, and his aim, like so many antagonists before him, is to take down the club. Logue is a Canadian actor, and his portrayal so far has been so eerie, mixing elements of the righteous vigilante, the tortured brother and the sexual deviant, that he’s quickly becoming my favorite guest star since the inimitable Lincoln Potter. But he’s up against a seemingly unstoppable force in Clay and Jax, which raises the second critical question facing this show—have the writers run out of ways to keep the main players alive, and to keep our interest? I’ve developed a nagging sense of impatience with Clay, despite the fact that Ron Perlman’s presence is one of the show’s high points, alternately menacing, warm and evil. But his survival has gone on too long, to the point that when he accepts Toric’s deal and remains in protective custody, free from Pope’s posthumous revenge, it feels frustrating rather than intriguing.
And then there’s Jax. I believe we’re supposed to view him as a complicated character, but it’s become increasingly difficult to infer morality from his actions. Like Clay, he’s a great talker, but even his journal letters to his young sons, when he intones on what it means to be a man and a leader, have begun to feel like self-delusion. This is a person who tries to obey a code of family and club, but increasingly makes decisions that hurt both in favor of selfish interests. In “Straw,” his wife Tara is in prison for passing the crucifix on to Otto (she didn’t realize it would become a murder implement), and when she refuses to see Jax, he responds by sleeping with Colette (Kim Dickens, aka Ava Crowder on Justified, one of FX’s many crossover performances), a madam with whom the club is opening a new escort house. The scene is played as a kind of spiritual relief, coming in the middle of one of the show’s trademark music montages to the beautiful strains of Leonard Cohen’s “”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueHqPGk_ybc">Come Healing," but it’s hard to see it as any more than the latest betrayal by a man who casts his friends and family aside when they cease to be useful.
The problem is that Jax is not supposed to be Walter White, who slowly loses all traces of whatever goodness he initially possessed as he breaks bad. He’s supposed to be the outlaw with a heart, who balances the stress and difficulty of running the club with a sense of ethics; he outsmarts the really evil bastards of the world, and he protects the people that matter. Increasingly, though, he’s gained in intelligence while losing the moral component. There’s reference to this at the end of season five, when he tells Bobby that maybe he’s not so different from Clay, and that maybe the president’s gavel corrupts anyone who holds it. But this seemed like a token acknowledgement of the depths to which he’s lowered himself, while the narrative of Jax-as-hero continued with the dramatic way he murdered Pope and saved Tig, his brother in arms.
Now, in the show’s sixth season, I have to wonder if the creators have everything in hand; there was room to maneuver Jax into shadowy terrain through five seasons, but how much lower can he go without becoming an outright villain beyond redemption? Unlike Breaking Bad, this has never felt like a show about a person losing his humanity, and without some degree of goodness, I don’t know if Jax can hold our interest as anything more than a thug. It’s a difficult tight-rope act for the writers, because it’s not like the viewers can ever truly worry about his death. Without Jax, there is no show, and this is an all-too-familiar plague of traditional dramas. Unlike George R.R. Martin, these writers don’t have the luxury of killing their darlings.
Aside from Loric, “Straw” felt largely uneven. Sons of Anarchy is a show that ineluctably builds steam as the season progresses, so it may be unfair to judge much from the first episode, but the extra pieces felt a bit superfluous. Lyla gets beat up by a gang of Persian torture porn producers, the club retaliates by killing them all (Tig drowns the leader in a bathtub full of urine, pisses on him more for good effect, and then sings “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” after disposing of the body on a pier), and a cop named Borosky hooks Jax and Nero up with the escorts. Otto (played by show creator Kurt Sutter) continues to be savaged by agents of Loric in prison, while Tara refuses to turn on her husband and erupts in anger at the end of the episode by beating a fellow inmate and inevitably making her situation worse; barring a miracle, her days as a surgeon are behind her.
Watching Tara’s decline has been heartbreaking—reuniting with Jax was easily the worst decision of her life—but Gemma’s continued survival has been almost as hard to bear. The fantastic Katey Sagal continues to flourish as the club’s manipulative matriarch, always seeming to survive and thrive while the world around her collapses. She’s with Nero now, none too upset at seeing Tara in prison (though she didn’t put her there, as we were led to believe at the end of season five), and generally getting away with everything short of murder as her character becomes less and less sympathetic, but never less charismatic.
Juice is nearly back in the club’s good graces, and a beatdown from Chibs seems to be his only lingering penalty from turning informant, while Bobby is disenchanted with Jax’s leadership and plans to go nomad. August Marks, who has taken over Pope’s empire, tells Jax that Tig is still on the chopping block and that he still expects him to die as a penalty for murdering Pope’s daughter. On the lighter side of things, Gemma has nicknamed Unser “Uncle Touchy,” delighting in the fact that it makes him sound like a pedophile. But on the very dark side of things, a mysterious towheaded boy haunts the episode and enters a school with a machine gun at the very end; we see the bursts of light from outside, and the blood splattering on the windows.
Mostly, though, “Straw” felt like a weak continuation of last year’s plot, with a few bright moments failing to disguise the desultory structure. Like Jax himself, Sons of Anarchy is at a transition point, and this year will be a testing ground; can the writers rescue their lead from the black hole into which he’s falling? Jax won’t be interesting unless he can hold onto a remnant of the sincere humanity he inherited from his father. The contrast of violence and goodness is what makes him compelling, and it won’t work if the latter element disappears. We know Jax will survive…he’s the star, after all, and the show must go on. But in television, growing dull is a fate worse than death.