This post discusses plot points from the November 6 episode of Sons of Anarchy.
Sons of Anarchy is a show that’s always at its best when it puts aside complex arms deals, and the Galindo Cartel, and the CIA and focuses on a simple question: what does SAMCRO mean for the downwardly mobile white men and women who are affiliated with the club? Last night, while it had its share of exploding vans and poker club shootouts, and a setup for a devastating assassination, was primarily concerned with that question, and with the question of the aspirations that its main characters have seen slip out of reach.
Nero and Gemma discussed those questions most directly in a series of conversations that heightened their relationship even as Gemma finally reckoned with the fact that she would have to end it on Jax’s orders. “Ex-junkie, ex-con, those six-figure offers were kinda slim,” Nero explained to her of his decision to become a pimp rather than to go completely legitimate. “It’s hard to be a land baron on minimum wage,” Gemma agreed with him. And Nero gently probed the failure of her own dreams. “What about you, mama?” he asked. “Being an old lady’s your life’s ambition?” “My only ambition was to keep moving,” she told him, ruefully. “I was all in from that first ride. Knocked up two months later.”
Gemma’s not a stupid or incapable woman–quite the reverse. But unlike her daughter-in-law, Tara, she’s never had someone direct her considerable talents in a productive decision, or one that could have given her financial independence and legitimate leverage in her marriages. It’s heartbreaking to hear her tell her son, one who has the trappings of power that were his to claim as a man, and as a prince of the club, “I can count the times I’ve been really happy on one hand. You and your brother. Abel and Thomas…I like Nero, Jax. I haven’t felt light in a very long time.” Her price to return to the man who beat her down, and who she’d rather see dead, is pitifully small: a key to Jax and Tara’s house, and permission to see her grandsons. Whether you despise Gemma or admire her tenacity, there’s something crushing about the tiny scale of her dream, and the thought that she may not be able to handle even that. Clay’s predatory grin of triumph when she came home to inject his hands after the ride was a reminder of how high the cost can be for even the littlest ambitions.
Tara, by contrast, spends much of this episode in triumph. “You’re a persistent little gash,” Otto tells her when she returns to prison intent on getting him to recant the testimony that makes the RICO case against the Sons possible. “Yes, I am,” she replies. But one of the fascinating elements of Tara–though I’m not sure whether it’s a deliberate choice or an inability to read the character that’s produced this–is the extent to which being an old lady is a kind of role play for her, or a genuine identity that she’s chosen. When we first met Tara, her connection to Jax was reestablished by the fact that she was being stalked by a man who would eventually try to sexually assault her. Now, taking on the role of his old lady lends her a kind of cold power as she lets Otto masturbate to the sense of her perfume and the touch of her hand, telling her “Unhook my hand…Please. I’m not going to hurt you…Come to me. Hold my hand…I just want to feel a woman’s hand on me one more time. Please.” For someone who sought protection in the club against a rape, there’s something uneasy about watching Tara allow herself to be used as a sexual object for the sake of that club, to see her go home and tell Jax: “It’s just incredibly sad. He’s just emotionally broken. The perfume crushed him. He was sobbing. I think I got through to him.”
And part of what makes Tara’s position so delicate here is that, unlike Gemma or even her husband is that she has the ability to exit the dynamic they’ve all committed themselves to. When Margaret makes clear to Tara that she still has job options that would allow her to leave Charming, rather than embracing that possibility, she deflects it. “The Oregon offer’s still on the table?” Jax, who has his own worries about his lack of skills and ability to support his family if they should leave the club and the illicit income it generates. “I don’t know,” Tara insists. “Let’s take the boys home.” It’s an interesting question for Sons, one that gets at the heart of some of the show’s darkest questions. Would Tara’s decision to stay in Charming be a noble commitment to an institution and a way of life that’s worth saving? Or is it the height of privilege by a woman posing as something more dangerous than she actual is to throw away an opportunity that would never be available to anyone around her?
Because it’s striking how, for all the power he wields as president, how few tools Jax has available to him, intellectually and professionally. Jax may tell Roosevelt, after the sheriff reveals that Juice has ratted on the club, that “We always have a choice.” But having choices isn’t the same thing as having palatable options or the emotional capacity to make good decisions and the skills and connections to implement them. When the owner of the poker club who had the misfortune to help Frankie Diamonds tells Jax after the Sons smash up his joint “What the hell is wrong with you guys? Someone sneezes, you throw a fist? How do you get anything done?” he’s asking a powerfully salient question to a group of guys who lay down a fairly stupid number of bodies given their long-term plans to stay alive and functioning.
The person who may have the moment of clearest reckoning about all of these choices is, surprisingly, Clay. “I know how bad you want it back,” Bobby tells him of Jax’s chair. “Yeah. I thought I did,” Clay tells him. The old lion may be lying in service of his long game. But if he’s speaking the truth, it’s an illustration of an awful bind. Leading the Men of Mayhem may have been glorious once. But these days, it seems like only the best of a lot of bad options for men handicapped by failing hands and an economy they can’t keep honest pace with.