This post contains spoilers through the third episode of the fifth season of Sons of Anarchy.*
I’m not sure I buy all the complicated mechanics that brought Opie to this particular death, but sure as Jimmy Darmody, who walked to his murder in the last episode of Boardwalk Empire last year knowing full well his life had ended in Europe, Opie’s been gone since his father’s killing, since his brokenness ruined his marriage to sweet porn star Lyla, maybe even since Tig Traeger shot Opie’s first wife Donna with a bullet that was meant for Opie, a piece of metal that’s been chasing him ever since. “I don’t know if I love anything,” Opie told Lyla last week, giving her the money to care for his children while he went back to prison with the Sons. “It just ain’t fun anymore,” he told Jax in the prison yard. “Chasing cash we don’t need and spending every dime trying to stay alive.” “American dream,” Jax replied, not quite agreeing with him.
Jax is a prince by blood, and Opie’s membership in SAMCRO has been sealed by spilling it, over and over again. Where Jimmy represented an underlooked historical phenomenon, the men who failed to successfully reintegrate into society after the First World War, Opie is terrible lesson about a particular kind of membership in a downwardly mobile white underclass. Jax’s pride may shame him about the prospect of living off his wife, but Opie never had a wife he could live off of. His association with criminality has meant that Opie has always been at risk of running up the kind of debts and obligations that he can’t pay off through honest labor and still provide a stable environment for his family. And perhaps most importantly, the Sons have always given him his most powerful sense of identity and social standing, even as the men who gave him that status were an inevitably fatal cancer on his family. Opie has always returned to the Sons, and why wouldn’t he? Even family that eats away at your soul is better than the prospect of becoming a hollow man.
And in the end, Opie’s love for Jax, and his inability to part from the remaining source of his identity, turns into a kind of suicidal impulse. When he finds a way to join the Sons in prison, “staying close,” as Gemma puts it, he does so with an act of violence. When Jax starts a scrap, loyal Opie follows him into it. And when Jax, cornered by Pope’s ultimatum, his seemingly limitless power over the imprisoned Sons, Opie does the inevitable: he fights, and in fighting goes to his death. “Keep it interesting, shithead,” the warden doing Pope’s bidding tells him. He means to shame him, to turn Opie into an animal fighting for his life in the dark. But in Kurt Sutter’s Hamlet, Opie is Horatio following through on his offer to his prince to quaff the poison. “Now cracks a noble heart,” indeed.
And Jax is left with the terrible responsibility, not of rehabilitating Opie’s memory, but dishonoring it. “I just watched my best friend get beaten to death. For you,” Jax tells Pope, the architect of all this woe. “Now I’m going to get the club to sign off on your cash. But I need Traeger outside. Him knowing I saved his life is going to give me an internal advantage I’m going need. And when I’m done, you can send him out the same way you did his kid. Because I really don’t give a shit.” Pope, rather than lashing out or renegotiating, is almost kind to Jax. “There you go,” he tells the younger man. “Finding the hidden advantage in an unfortunate circumstance. using pain to take you to the next level. Those are the things that turn players into kings.” “I guess you would know,” Jax spits at him. “Yes, I would,” Pope tells him. And I imagine he’s talking about more than the loss of his daughter to Tig’s reckless violence, a murder that gave Pope and Opie a profound grief and rage in common if only they’d known about it.
I know some viewers have doubts about Harold Perrineau’s performance, which for the sadistic violence he orders, has been surprisingly restrained. I haven’t needed the man himself to be exceptionally menacing, given his ability to shake parts of the web, though I hope that this season of Sons of Anarchy manages to make space to explore what it means to have a black man with Pope’s level of influence over the police and prison system, and whether his model will come into conflict with the one Roosevelt is trying to build in Charming. Rather, I think both he and Nero (the result of an equally restrained, but more laid-back, performance by Jimmy Smits) are people who see themselves clearly. But while Nero is a rogue, Pope is a monster, and I wonder see some of his restraint, the sympathetic look he gave Tig after murdering his daughter, his treatment of Jax as a peer, as the products of resignation.
Jax’s previous understanding of leadership has been shaped by John Teller’s journals and letters, an act of self-mythology, and by Clay’s emotional, egoist acts and overcommitment of the club. And by leaving Nero’s protection and entering prison, Jax has passed from hands of a man who takes an easy approach to “life and the pleasure he takes from it,” as Michael Chabon defined a rogue, to one whose life is deadly serious, and whose pleasure is control. It’s going to be a dreadful education in kingship. Sons of Anarchy can be a major offender when it comes to montages, but the decision to be restrained to the point of severity as Opie died, Jax pounding in silence against the glass that separates him from dying with his best friend, the quietness as Opie looked for his enemies in the dark, was a powerful symbol of what Jax’s indecision had wrought. Jax’s inability to choose between his men, as he was unable to pull the trigger on Clay last season, his paralysis up against a man who has no problem dealing death within his own organization, and the obligations that left him no room to maneuver, came at a terrible cost. Hamlet got to escape Denmark, the maintenance of his memory his dying concern. Jax has to stay in Charming, and find a way to rule, and to live with himself.
*A note: I can’t really bring myself to write about Tara, Gemma, and Wendy today, though I will at some point. It just feels too small.