One of the funny, even joyful things about Sons of Anarchy is the way it will randomly throw an act of gruesome violence into the middle of an otherwise slow episode. Almost as if the writers are saying, “don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten who we are.” Last night’s eighth episode, “Los Fantasmas,” spun its wheels a little while exploring the morality of its characters and setting up the final five episodes of the season. But just when I began to think I might be watching some kind of Russian psychological drama, I was treated to some literal wheel-spinning. As in, a mysterious man in a car spinning his wheels, narrowly avoiding Tig as he raced down a back road, and plowing into a Bizlat gang banger. And as I watched the bloody corpse dragged along the road, I thought, right, right, this is Sons of Anarchy. What was I expecting?
The driver, a little predictably, was the father of one of the students who was murdered in the school shooting at the beginning of season six. He’s out for revenge, and when the local paper publishes a headline speculating that the Sons and Bizlats had supplied the gun that the boy used, he finds his target. The man meets a bloody end when Jax tracks him down and sics the cops on him as a favor to King-of-the-Docks Borowsky (who is getting bullied by D.A. Patterson and needs to keep her from bringing heat on his dirty empire), and rather than go quietly, the grieving father stabs his own carotid artery with a butcher’s knife.
Okay, so: There will be blood. This much is a given. But I swear “Los Fantasmas” was more think piece than gore-fest. The title is the Spanish word for phantoms, and phantoms are largely what we see throughout. Not the literal kind of ghost, but the haunting shadow of what could have been. Gemma is still in jail, falsely accused of murdering Tara’s unborn child with a kick to the chest…all of which, of course, was a plot Tara herself set in motion, and carried out with a packet of her own fake blood when Gemma wouldn’t take the bait. But as Unser himself notes when Gemma finally gets released, the love that’s inside her is buried so deep that it may be inaccessible. She’s twisted up with old hatred and a lifetime of scheming, and it will be a long, hard road back to her family.
Unfortunately for Tara, she’s had to become a demon to beat a demon, and the episode is full of speculation about what her life might have been if she never returned to Charming. In the final moments, Jax even asks her if she regrets her choice. She says no, but Jax wishes she had come five years earlier, or five years later. He’s lost, another phantom of a gangland idealist who had to compromise his dreams and ethics the minute he became president. If Tara is becoming Gemma, Jax is becoming Clay, and it seems like there’s no way around destiny. It turns out that life outside the law might involve too many compromises, and if you manage to survive, it’s only because you killed something in yourself. You live by becoming a phantom.
Patterson is still on the warpath, the death of Lee Toric be damned, and she thinks she’s got Nero on the verge of giving up the Sons. But some code keeps him faithful, and instead of turning on Jax, he tells her that he supplied the gun himself, via some mysterious dealer he had never seen before or since. It’s a clear lie, but Patterson is tempted to accept the confession and sate the public desire for a scapegoat. Even when the DNA comes back exonerating Nero for the murder of the prostitute (the one Toric killed in his hotel room), she has enough to take him down. Oddly enough, it’s Lieutenant Roosevelt who proves to be her guiding conscience, giving her a lecture about extorting a false admission of guilt using a wrongful murder charge as leverage. Which is a little strange, as is the scene where Unser delivers a platitude about how Charming will unravel without the Sons, and Roosevelt blandly accepts it. This show’s characters have a famously short memory, and that’s fine, but it does feel like Roosevelt has forgotten the death of his wife at the hands of the Sons (or an offshoot of the gang, but still) rather abruptly.
But of all the characters who can’t make the moral choice, Patterson becomes an exception when she adheres to a more rigorous approach to justice and sets Nero free. While she relaxes her physical grip, though, she tightens the moral one by planting a seed in Nero’s mind that may bear fruit later: “If we believe in the same God, debts will be paid,” she says. She shows him a picture of the dead children, and we’re left to wonder if Nero too can rescue himself from the corrupting influence of the Sons.
And that’s the rub, isn’t it? There are debts hovering over and around everyone in Charming, and with only a season and a half left to go, comeuppance has to be imminent. The paradigm of Jax rescuing himself and the club from disaster at the end of each season has been obliterated by his—and everyone’s—fall from grace, and there’s something rotten spreading in their midst. Even if they survive, they’ll be nothing but phantoms. Wendy is back on drugs, Tara is compromised, Gemma has been banned from seeing her family, and Jax is lost. There’s no room for a savior; at the final moment, Jax holds off tears when he begs Tara to let him back in. There’s no answer, and none will be forthcoming. We’re too far gone for reconciliation.