"‘Sons of Anarchy’: To Sir With Love"
This post discusses plot points from the fifth season of Sons of Anarchy through the December 4 finale.
From its pilot episode, Sons of Anarchy has made one of its hallmarks out of its musical montages to close out episodes and particularly seasons. The sequences can be thunderingly literal, though in terms of blunt force, they’re on the gentler end of the tactics Kurt Sutter’s retelling of Hamlet employs to underscore its arguments about power, masculinity, and loneliness. And so one of the things I enjoyed so much about the finale to this fifth season of Sons, a season that despite its flaws restored my faith in the show in some significant ways, can be summed up by the music that bracketed this episode, which for once came at the two main points the episode was trying to make sideways.
It began with Lulu’s “To Sir With Love,” and a focus on Gemma and Tara. This is a song with a rather literal origin, as the theme song to the 1967 movie adaptation of the memoir of the same name: when Lulu explains that “The time has come / For closing books and long / Last looks must end,” she was actually talking about a school year. Here, the men about whom Gemma and Tara think that “And as I leave, I know that / I am leaving my best friend / A friend who taught me right from wrong / And weak from strong that’s a lot to learn,” have taught them, but not exactly by example.
The strongest arc of this season of Sons has been Tara’s moral education, and it makes sense that her journey, which began with an image of her and Jax fading into an old photograph of Gemma and John, ends with Gemma resuming her place behind the man at the head of the table, telling Jax “It’s okay, baby.” This is the story of the failure of a grand experiment, of Tara trying on being a traditional old lady, blind to her husband’s flaws, having hair-pulling fights in the example of her mother-in-law, and deluding herself into believing that she could manipulate a man like Otto Delaney. That example’s been proved wrong at almost every level. Otto manipulated Tara into facilitating what will likely be his last murder. The fight between Carla and Tara fixed none of Tara’s long-term problems and contributed to Carla’s suicide. Like the nerves in her damaged hand, Tara’s old self, and the old moral sense that propelled her out of Charming so long ago are growing back, an inevitable life force.
Perhaps the most telling moment in the end of Tara’s experiment is that when Wendy tells her “You have no idea what happened to me last night, do you?…Jax came to see me after Tig dropped me off. Told me to back off from his family and threatened to tell my work that I came here looking for Abel high and out of control…Unfortunately a positive drug test might make it true. Because he banged a speedball into my shoulder,” Tara believes her, almost immediately. She doesn’t question Wendy’s version of events, or her motivations. She heeds Wendy’s warning to “Believe it. The MC, this town. It kills all the things you love…Trying is never going to get you out. Go to Oregon now, before something awful happens to you and your sons.” Rather than letting Jax talk her back into believing that Wendy’s a danger to their family, she tests him and when Jax tells Tara “She can’t prove shit. She’s just a junkie. She’s never gonna get custody,” he fails.
And when Tara confronts Jax, truly, about what their life has become, and forces him to make a decision, it turns out that, as he’s alluded to in the past, Jax isn’t much for the idea not just of living off his wife, but by bowing to her moral code. “I’m just getting things in order,” Tara tells Jax when he discovers the paperwork she’s filled out to provide for their children if something should happen to them. “She’s the best choice. You shouldn’t have attacked her, Jax.” “Is that what this is?” he demands of her. “You trying to teach me some kind of lesson?” She tries to lay out a vision of old ladyhood that could bridge the gap between them, maybe even provide a bridge to a new kind of life. “I used to think if I gave up on the club, or Charming, I’d somehow be betraying you and I didn’t want to do that,” Tara explained. “And then I realized my job as your old lady is to be strong when and where you can’t be. That’s what this is, baby. I took that job in Oregon. It starts in two weeks. The boys are coming with me. And if you love them, and if you love me, you’ll follow us up there. We both know if we stay here we’ll end up like the two people we hate the most. And our boys will be destined to relive all of our mistakes.” But it’s too late for them, as she’s taken off to jail, though whether by the machinations of Gemma or former U.S. Marshal Lee remains unclear. The season ends with Abel pulling one of Jax’s rings off his finger, looking at it as a mysterious object, and then placing it carefully on his own finger, too big for the weight now, but the boy has time to grow. It’s a quite moment, but one of the most forceful statements Sons has ever made for the power of fate over free will.
Or for the power of Gemma. There’s a bit of deus ex Chucky in the deliver of the flowers from Tara’s new employer to the auto body shop rather than to the hospital or to her house, which makes no sense for a woman trying to hide her offer from her husband. But it’s first very funny and then very revealing to see her go after Tara. “You looking for me?” Tara asks when Gemma stalks into the hospital. “No, I’m here for in vitro counseling,” Gemma insists in one of her classic zingers. And their confrontation is one of the starkest explications of the differences between the woman who’s accepted her working-class status, and her daughter-in-law, who’s flirted with downward mobility. “You’re not taking my family anywhere,” Gemma promises. “Shut up you lying bitch. I am sick of your little power play. The things I’ve done to buy my way back to my boys…You set one foot out of charming, the only place you’re going is prison.” When Tara threatens retaliation, Gemma explains why she has an ultimate advantage: she’s desperate. “I’m dead without my boys,” she tells Tara. “At least I would have the satisfaction of knowing you were locked up.” Now, she’ll have to test how satisfied she actually is with that outcome.
The same is true for her relationship with Nero, with whom she negotiated terms. “I’m not a casual girl. Do you want to be with me or not?” she asked. And when he warned her about his limitations, she explained to him that “Only men need to be loved, sweetheart. Women need to be wanted.” One of the interesting questions for Gemma, though, is whether she needs the man she’s with to be a criminal, and if so, what kind. The strongest evidence for the idea that she turned Tara in, in addition to her direct threat to her daughter-in-law, is the conversation she overheard between Nero and her son. “You need to buy that farm,” Jax told Nero. “You’re so close to getting out.” “So are you, man,” Nero told him. “So are you.” Gemma—another woman not convinced by the efforts of a man in her life any longer—has removed Clay from the game. If Nero is getting out, too, Jax is her last chance. Sending Tara to jail requires Jax to stay in to guarantee Tara’s protection. He may not be her husband, but he’s a president Gemma’s groomed to her own specifications.
In fact, almost all the plot mechanisms were relatively neat this week, in stark contrast to the Rube Goldberg machine of the cartel-Irish deal, which has the occasional flash of interest, but for me has become an irritating distraction from the character development of the show. Jax’s assassination of Pope and his crew, framing Clay in the process, after he locked down the maintenance contract for Charming Heights, was a brutal and simple solution to a messy and complicated relationship. Even Otto’s solution to remove himself from the RICO case, and from everyone else who wants to use him, which was so viscerally violent I’m still having dry heaves two days after watching it, had a grotesque elegance to its finality. If Sons could extricate itself its most baroque plot mechanisms and refocus itself on the powerful moral questions it’s paid varying levels of attention to, the show could be on a concluding drive to greatness.
And “Sympathy For The Devil” is a nice way to rephrase that question: “Pleased to meet you / Hope you guess my name / But what’s puzzling you / Is the nature of my game.” Jax has spent a long time trying to convince himself that there’s way to alter the nature of the game, to be a different kind of king. But the game stay the same. And the chair does something fundamental to the man who sits in it.