This post contains spoilers through the first episode of the fifth season of Sons of Anarchy.
“What if I don’t want to be in charge?” Laroy Wayne’s deputy asks Damon Pope’s number two after seeing Laroy’s body in a railyard pit. “Rise to it, brother. With great power comes great responsibility,” the man tells him, only to calmly shoot him later and promote another man, citing the dead lieutenant’s reluctance to take up the mantle of leadership. It’s a fascinating little play in the mist of everything else going on as Sons of Anarchy begins its fifth season, a warning about commitment for Jax Teller, the prince become the king, and who, having faded into an image of his father in the final frame of the last season, has taken up not just his patch, but his pen. “Finding things that make you happy shouldn’t be so hard,” he writes to his sons. “You have to find the things you love. Run to them.” But for Jax, as it always has been, the question is what he loves best. Is it his club? His wife? His mother? His father as he remembers him? Or, through all the hate, the deeply broken man who raised him? Damon’s daughter is freshly dead at Tig’s hands. John Teller is long gone. But as both men struggle to balance their rage and their leadership obligations, it seems this season of Sons of Anarchy may be a meditation on what it means to be a leader and a man, at home, and in the world.
Just as that weathered photograph would have suggested, the woman at Jax’s side, and the woman the show has suggested she would turn into are at odds as the season begins. “I’m training my new replacement. Starting my new duties,” Tara tells Jax sourly at the beginning of the episode. She may have smashed her hand and turned down her transfer, like Prospero “deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book,” and chosen Charming, but Tara doesn’t seem reconciled to her choice. Jax is deferring to her on questions like day care for their sons, attempting to adapt Charming and the norms of SAMCRO to some of her needs.
But Gemma will not adapt so easily. “We don’t let other people raise our children,” she tells her son. “It’s selfish, and it’s lazy.” And she takes the case to Tara, picking at her daughter-in-laws parenting decisions. “Thomas is congested. You need a humidifier in that room,” Gemma complains. “And they don’t need to be in daycare. We can take care of our own.” But Tara has power over Gemma here, the expertise of a doctor she can use to reject Gemma’s home diagnosis, the authority of being Jax’s Old Lady, the mother of her children.”And let’s be honest. I don’t think you’re up to the task,” Tara tells Gemma, having been instructed to abandon politeness, to play by the rules she accepted when she chose to be Jax’s. “I smell weed and alcohol on your breath every morning…I’m a doctor, Gemma. I know how long drugs and alcohol stay in your system. And until you pull it together, I don’t want you alone with my boys.” Of course, Tara’s not above sitting at the table with a joint, at flicking off the baby monitor so she can’t hear her son cry. Tara may have the power to shame Gemma. But I don’t know that her strength and education can prevent Tara from becoming the woman in the picture.
Now, it’s true that Gemma is a bit of a mess, but there’s something delightful about the fact that being a mess leads Gemma to Nero, another man with a broken heart. No showrunner loves his leading lady like Kurt Sutter loves Katey Sagal, and it’s awfully fun to see him give her a chance to banter and flirt with someone like Jimmy Smits. “Easy now, lover. Was it that bad?” Nero asks when Gemma greets him in the morning with a gun. “Let me guess. JDate?” Nero’s business partner asks when she finds the couple in a standoff. “I did a spic pimp,” Gemma remonstrates herself. “And I did a drunken cracker MILF,” Nero reminds her. It may not be Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, but this is the closest Sons of Anarchy has ever come to screwball.
If Damon Pope represents the impossibility of separating work and family when your business is in blood, Nero is a playful reminder that it’s possible to work in some dirty businesses and still be a decent man, a male counterpart to sweet porn star Lyla. As Jax goes into hiding at his business to avoid going into prison while Niners remain a threat, that’s a lesson he could, perhaps, use some exposure to.
It’s one even Tig remembers as his daughter burns to death in a hole full of bodies, telling her “Aw, baby. Aw, baby,” in between screaming at their attackers to stop. He was a terrible father to her in life, but he does the best he does for her in her terrible death. And even as Damon commits a dreadful murder, the look of understanding in his eyes when Tig tells him “I am gonna cut your ugly black head off,” is clear. He knows Tig’s pain, but he can’t stop himself from replicating it. Generation turns into generation, blood into blood. And the images in the photograph remain the same.