"‘Sons of Anarchy’ Open Thread: Banana Vodka"
This post discusses plot details from the October 23 episode of Sons of Anarchy.
I remain deeply ambivalent about this season’s treatment of Gemma, which appears to be coming to a head in this episode. I understand what the show is trying to do with her: tell a story about a woman unmoored from the sources of her identity and increasingly self-destructive as a result. It’s telling that it’s Nero, someone from outside that family, who diagnoses her problem for Jax. “She’s still your mother, jefe, and you got to respect that,” he warns the younger man, having promised to stay away from Gemma but still seeing her clearly. “She’s stuck in between a husband she hates and a son she thinks hates her. Women like her don’t do so good without family.”
But I wish that Sons of Anarchy had found a way to tell that story that didn’t involve treating Gemma like she’s a shameful whore, down to her choice of poison. “Since when do you drink banana vodka?” Jax asks his mother after she becomes the target of Joel McHale’s conman, adding “Jesus Christ. Who are you?” when he finds out she can’t identify the man who robbed her by name. He even apologizes for her to Nero, telling him “I’m sorry you got pulled into this. She’s a goddamn train wreck.” Jax, of course, is not exactly one to preach to his mother about chastity—he slept around on the road even when he was in a relationship with Tara, and Gemma has far more right to go out and have fun without obligations than he did on that unfortunate occasion.
I understand that much of Sons of Anarchy is about how a deeply retrograde, patriarchal subculture that’s survived into the modern era affects both the men who are sworn to the culture and the women who end up participating in it by proxy. And Katey Sagal has always acted the hell out of every line of material written for her. But I’m not sure there’s enough, or sufficiently delineated, distance between how the show views Gemma and how Jax views her right now for Sons of Anarchy to make this very tricky storyline work. The show is pulling it off intermittently. The moment of her weeping in the motel bathroom at night, wrapped in a blanket, was one of the best moments in this arc of letting Gemma sit with her own decisions, as opposed to filtering them through the eyes of her son, or her lover, or her ex-husband. And there was something extremely touching about watching Gemma reminisce to Tara about Luann Delaney, the best friend she lost to murder motivated by SAMCRO’s business dealings in the second season of the show (both the best Sons of Anarchy has ever done, and not coincidentally, the one with the best long-arc Gemma story). “He liked to watch her movies,” Gemma told Tara. “But I’m guessing they’re not to going to let you bring a stack of old videotapes in there. Perfume. Otto loved that goddamn perfume. Smelled like cum and patchouli, was godawful. But he wouldn’t let her wear anything else. It came in a blue bottle, it was Blue Roses, Blue Violet, something like that.” Even in death, Luann, like all the SAMCRO women, is defined by her relationship to a man.
But I thought the show whiffed again when Gemma and Jax finally spoke. “After my Thomas died, I did the worst thing a mother could do,” she told him. “I made you make up for the love that he couldn’t give me anymore. I’m sorry, Jackson. I’m sorry that I’ve always been too much.” Gemma’s committed her crimes and kindnesses, but I really, profoundly wish the show would allow her a deeper reckoning with both her guilt for the sins she’s incurred in the service of SAMCRO, and for the huge damage the club has done her. Gemma got raped and kept quiet about it for the club, she lost Luann, she saw her grandsons kidnapped, she took a beatdown by her husband. But instead, this episode reduced what Gemma’s working through to the nature of her relationship with Jax. “Yeah, when he died, I felt so bad,” Jax tells her. “It wasn’t because he was dead. It was because I would have you all to myself. I knew how wrong that was. I love you, Mom. And we’re going to get through all of this, I promise.” If Jax wants to help his deeply traumatized—and guilty—mother get through what’s ailing her, they’re going to have to learn to talk to each other more honestly than that. As Gemma tells Unser about his profession of love, “Too many people feeling shit. What you said was the truth. More people did that, there’d be less bodies lying on floors.” Terrifyingly—if frustratingly, given the way the show uses Abel to gin up drama—this episode ended with the suggestion that the bodies on the floor could be Gemma’s grandsons.
Watching Gemma’s story was doubly frustrating because of a small moment happening in the background. It was disgusting enough when Jax used Opie’s funeral to dangle his widow, Lyla, as bait for Nero to take over Cara Cara’s prostitution business. But it broke my heart to see that come to pass, and to see the show treating that development so casually. “You doing good?” Jax asks her, and receives a mild “Yeah, Nero’s a good guy,” in response. “Lyla’s working now?” Jax asks Nero. “Yeah, she’s great,” Nero tells him. Lyla has always been a tragic figure to me: a truly decent woman who took care of Opie’s children, was slut-shamed by him even though he knew what she did for a living when they met and through their courtship, and now is working as a prostitute to support his family though he’s dead. She’s a casualty of SAMCRO, but the show doesn’t seem interested in reckoning with the damage done to her on a particularly deep level, and it’s sacrificing both good storytelling and moral sophistication as a result.
Doing that, though, might require Sons of Anarchy to judge Jax more harshly, to expose him to the California sunshine the way Walter White’s been bleached to bone in the Albuquerque light, and to see what scuttles out. I think the show wants to believe there’s still substantial distance between Jax and Clay, when I’m increasingly uncertain that’s the case. Clay may have made a deal with the Nomads, who in the wake of their exposure want to know “What happens to our deal? We get you back at the head of the table and get part of your end?” But Jax went behind the table to earn a separate cut from Pope that he doesn’t have to share with the club. Clay may have set up Wayne Unser—and then decided to kill the Nomads instead to keep his ruse alive—telling him, “You were a good friend, Wayne. I’m sorry I wrecked that.” But Jax was unable to protect his best friend, and he’s repeatedly made decisions that put his family in harm’s way.
Sons of Anarchy started with the premise that it was possible to be a violent man without being irredeemably coarsened by that violence, that you could ponder philosophy, weep over your son’s vulnerability, nourish a life-long love. But it hasn’t made that argument in a long time. And I wish that it were committed to testing that proposition, and either confirming or rejecting it.