How many times have you sat in front of the TV and watched the following scene:
A man is heading toward a cliff at uncontrollable speeds. He can’t stop himself in time. He falls off the edge. The view overlooking the plateau shows nothing but empty space, and you start to contemplate the horror of their death. Then the camera creeps forward to the ledge, looks down, and…WHOA, he’s still alive! Hanging on to a branch by his fingertips, or standing terrified on an unexpected shelf, or snagged by his pants on a rocky crag.
A hundred times? More? Well, watch any season of Sons of Anarchy, and you’ll see that same scene played out metaphorically over 13 episodes. Every year, an outside element drives the club to their perilous cliff. Minor characters die, and sometimes major ones too. The whole structure seems on the verge of freefall, and then, out of nowhere, Jax finds a foothold via some desperate, brilliant plot, and miraculously the Sons manage to avoid death and pull themselves back up to the plateau. It’s a contrivance, kinda, but it always manages to be exciting and entertaining. Step back a moment, though, and it’s all pretty predictable.
Then again, that’s TV, right? Every show can’t be Game of Thrones, where the writers kill their darlings to keep you in suspense. We accept a certain amount of repetition, and if the reactions to some of the GoT deaths are any indication, a lot of us become angry when the plot dares to diverge. The emerging problem with Sons of Anarchy, though, is that all those last-minute escapes take their toll. Not only on the club, which suffers from death and/or the psychological weariness that comes from existing on the brink of death, but for the viewers as well. After all, you can only surprise us so many times. When a show pulls off the same stunt for five seasons, and mostly resolves the central Shakespearean dispute between son and guy-who-killed-son’s-dad-and-married-his-mom, where do you go from there? How do you keep us breathless?
The answer, all season, has been for Jax Teller to break bad. (Apologies for using that very zeitgeisty expression, but it’s exactly what’s happening.) But unlike the sui generis Walter White, Jax has a negative model in Clay Morrow, and it’s a model whose sins he’d rather not repeat. Still, the club sees the ethical descent in motion, and in “Wolfsangel,” only the fourth episode of the season, Chibs makes the outright accusation: Jax is becoming the person he despises. Jax bristles at the accusation, of course, saying that his primary interest is the club, but there’s no denying that the wheels are coming off and Jax’s moral foundation is currently in “unstoppable-landslide” mode.
First things first: Tig is still alive. After Jax left him for dead last episode to settle a debt with August Marks, he shows up at the Teller front door with a message that Marks wants to meet. Jax is understandably anxious about seeing the ghost of a should-be-dead man at his door, but Tig has only a hint of suspicion about Jax’s intentions. It turns out, though, that August wants in on the gun trade, and is willing to give Tig a pass if Jax can set it up. At this point, it felt a little like Sons was trying desperately to keep us interested without killing anyone, and glad as I was to see Tig back, there was a sense of frustration about the lengths they were willing to go.
The writers must have sensed it, because they gave us more than a few lesser bodies in the hour that followed. Jax clashed with Galen, the IRA gun-running boss, and told him that they wanted out of the business for good, and would be in touch if and when they found a new buyer. He hit him with a vicious gut-punch for good measure (to be fair, Galen swung first), and that didn’t sit well with the angry Catholic. Galen responded by taking the guns to the club warehouse, killing Filthy Phil and V-Lin the prospect (RIP, we hardly knew ye) before carving them up with a saw and leaving their severed hands on the club jackets as some sort of sinister Belfastian message.
Meanwhile, Clay is still managing to screw the club from inside prison. He had to kill a Nazi gang leader in order to make things good (at least temporarily) with Damon Pope’s people, but the white power folks didn’t take kindly to the act, and got their revenge by attacking Wayne Unser, of all people, and carving a swastika into his chest. The gang goes on a revenge mission, using their old pal Darby—who married a Mexican woman and gave up his white power ways—for information. When their initial plan fails, they beat a narrow escape and expose Darby in the process.
Then there’s Lee Toric, on a chaotic crusade to destroy the club and avenge his sister’s death. His plan to implicate Nero in the death of one of his hookers fails when Lieutenant Eli Roosevelt sees through the plan. We get the sense that Toric is royally screwed, law enforcement-wise, but that proves irrelevant when Clay slips Otto a shiv on the sly. Toric tries to get him to turn after months of torture, but Otto, tongue missing, manages to taunt Toric’s dead sister using only the written word, and stabs him in the kidney in the ensuing confrontation. When he slits his throat moments later (some of Toric’s last words, in a surprised, almost impressed tone: “I didn’t even see that coming.”), the guards shoot him dead on site, and another club worry is gone.
Jax, as he’s wont to do, manages to tidy things up neatly when he uses the Irish K-9 machine guns to mow down the Nazis that beat up Unser, and then plants the guns on their property. It’s the latest in a line of bold plans, but it’s not nearly as satisfying as the ones that came before. Previously, the gang has always come out ahead, both morally and materially, and this has somehow made the tragedies and setbacks justifiable. Now? Jax is winning Pyrrhic victories. He’s escaping death and the law, but the price isn’t worth the reward. His club is down to bare bones—Juice, Chibs, Tig, and Happy—and he’s inviting the wrath of everybody in the Charming universe, from Irish to Nazi to black to blue. And he’s no closer than ever to getting out of the violent business that keeps reducing the ranks of the club he claims to care so much about.
Worst of all, though, is the personal stuff. As Unser recovers under Tara’s care, he asks Gemma what might have happened if the kids were with him. “They weren’t,” she says, emphatically, but the question is more than just valid—it’s pressing. It’s why Tara is using Wendy to play against Gemma and get her kids out of Charming. And the same omnipresent danger is why Nero is finally realizing that he needs to follow suit and distance himself from the club in a hurry: “I’m neck-deep in shit I spent 10 years trying to get away from,” he tells Gemma.
Between Darby, Tara, Nero, the kids, and everyone who has died or been imprisoned, nobody gets involved with the Sons of Anarchy and comes away clean. Even the fortunate few who keep their lives end up sacrificing something almost as valuable. In the past, maybe the club ethos was worth the certainty of loss. But now, as Jax admits in one of his increasingly rare honest moments, “nothing here works.”