This post discusses plot details from the September 10 episode of Sons of Anarchy.
First things first. At the Television Critics Association press tour this summer, I asked Kurt Sutter if the gun used in the school shooting that ended last night’s season premiere of Sons of Anarchy was meant to have been a gun that the Sons sold as part of their weapons business with the Real IRA. He confirmed that it was. “I’ve wanted to do that story for about three years,” he explained. “I feel like it’s an organic story to our world in terms of it’s what these guys do. I feel like thematically it’s the right fit because we have a lead character who’s a father who’s trying to figure out if he can raise his sons and avoid the kind of violence that happens. So yes, I feel like that will continue to play out and that is the truth.”
Sons has always been a pulpy show, but director Paris Barclay gives the look of this episode a particularly hyperreal, almost comic book look as he draws visual parallels between Jax and the boy who will eventually carry out a murderous rampage. They look physically similar — I initially thought the sequence was a flashback to Jax’s childhood, though it’s hard to imagine Gemma cheerily dispatching Jax to Catholic school — to an unsettling extent. Jax’s initial voiceover, his meditation that “I feel like my life has taken a turn. I’m headed down a road I’ve never been on before. Nothing is familiar. The signs don’t make sense. Do I get off the road, or do I keep riding?” initially comes to us over the sight of that boy in his bedroom, preparing for what will turn out to be a horribly abnormal school day. They even pass each other in the street, and Jax, who should be the intimidating figure in his brief encounter with the slight boy, as he straps on his motorcycle helmet, appears disconcerted by something in the boy’s gaze. Neither of them know it at the moment, but they are locked together, especially because it appears that not only did the Sons sell the gun that was used in the massacre, but the boy’s mother is involved with a member of Nero’s crew.
Given that Sons is such a sprawling show, the question is where the shooting will fit in between what seems like a brewing war between some combination of Jax, Tara, Wendy, and Gemma over Jax’s boys, Clay’s struggles to stay alive in police custody, the Sons’ unfinished business with Damon Pope’s crew, the expansion of their prostitution business, and Bobby Elvis’ decision to light out for Nomad country, among other plot points.
But I do appreciate the way the show managed to weave an air of clammy unease about guns throughout the episode. It’s not just the drowsy mother who doesn’t know that a kiss goodbye from her son in the morning will be her last who’s asleep on watch. “Grandma’s got a gun,” Tig teases Gemma at the beginning of the episode after she picks up a toy water gun as part of her ongoing courtship. “It’s for Nero’s kid,” Gemma explains. When she passes the present along to Nero’s child, who they’re visiting at the care facility where he lives, the boy’s thrilled, the water pistol giving him a range he doesn’t have from the wheelchair he uses. Gemma sees herself as having made a gesture towards the boy, but Nero, who is in business with Gemma’s son, and well aware that his business is guns, is incredulous. But even there, what he see is more bad taste than a fully-developed culture of violence. It’s ill-bred to give a child a fake gun in preadolesence, but not wrong to consider that he might grow into possession of a real one.
That sense of manufactured lines is everywhere in this episode of Sons of Anarchy, and it shows up in the second major blowback storyline in the episode, Jax and Nero’s encounter with a group of Iranian pornographers. It’s horrible to watch Lyla escorted into Diosa, bloodied, tear-streaked, her normally impeccable hair disheveled, crying “I want Opie. I want Opie,” a man who was never fully there for her in the first place. As with the school shooting, it turns out that Lyla’s experience is a reminder that the Son’s porn-and-escorts businesses don’t exist in a vacuum, and that bad actors in the space may not actually be manageable or controllable in a way the Sons find acceptable. Lyla had accepted a freelance porn gig, only to find out that “It was torture porn. They never told me. The more I asked them to stop, the more they hurt me.”
We see more of Jax and the Sons’ reaction to the studio where Lyla found herself shooting than we see of their reaction to the school massacre. And what their reaction suggests is that for all Jax has committed a great number of exceptionally violent crimes, he’s also a remarkably compartmentalized, even naive man. “She said you weren’t real clear about the gig,” Jax tells the men shooting a violent pornographic film in a warehouse down by the docks in Stockton, somehow expecting people working in those circumstances, rather than as part of the voluntary agreements in the licit porn industry, to be professionals. “You didn’t tell her she was going to get cut, burned, and beaten.” He seems genuinely surprised by some of the equipment in the facility, and the uses to which they’re being put.
There are two sets of lines to be drawn here, one between acceptable and unacceptable working conditions for porn performers, and another between kinds of pornography Jax is comfortable creating and consuming, and between images and scenarios that make him uncomfortable. It would be interesting to see Sons explore those two sets of standards and how they interact, a more complicated discussion than Gemma’s summation of the issue, which consists of breaking Ima’s nose for putting Lyla in a compromising position. But then, the Sons and their associates tend to live with poorly defined and highly particular boundaries. “Now you’ve had your hand on my tits. You can’t call me ma’am anymore,” Gemma tells a prospect who’s getting on her nerves with his formality, sticking his hand on her chest, before telling him to go help Lyla. “Why don’t you see if she needs anything. Don’t grab her tits.”
Added into these blowback stories are several additions to Sons ongoing discussion of sexual assault, which seem to me to be dealt with too briefly given their gravity, but have the virtue of reinforcing the sense that rape is about power and domination, rather than about sex. The episode opens with Otto (Sutter) being raped in prison on Lee Toric’s orders, and while the show has done more shocking and baroque sequences, and will do more of them this season, the ugly simplicity of this sequence, from Otto’s stained clothes to his drooling, muffled sobs in the aftermath of the attack has real power beyond Sutter’s self-flagellation. “How’s your morning?” Toric tells him, reveling in the violence carried out on his orders. “Yeah, tough one for me, too. Had the memorial for my sister last night. It’s too bad death is the only thing that puts life into perspective.”
Later, Tig is told that one of his daughters passed through the Iranian pornographers’ studio. “I hope you watch our movies and see your daughter raped. Maybe you’d like to see that. Oh Daddy. Daddy, that hurts,” one of the men tells Tig, taunting him after having his studio busted up. Tig responds by drowning the man, urinating on him, locking his body in one of the cages used in the films, and dumping him in the bay. It’s an unpleasant sequence, and there’s something pointless to it. Once again, Tig’s daughter is lost in a cycle of violence between men, the question of why she might have been doing porn, or how she might have ended up doing torture porn unwillingly vanished in their rage and lack of control.
Maybe it’s odd to say, but amidst all this ugliness, I was charmed by a prospect that Jax would regard as cataclysmic: the death of the Redwood Original, and a renewed attempt to get back to the principles that animated John Teller in the first place. “My club has been cut in half,” Jax tells Pope’s replacement beseechingly. “I lose another body, my charter folds.” The man is unsympathetic, and so am I, especially when Bobby Elvis is contemplating making a break for it. His first tentative inquiry is to Quinn as the other man delivers him a fridge. Bobby asks “You miss being a nomad?” and Quinn, wistfully tells him “Every day.” Nomads may be free to damage communities as they pass through without staying to suffer the consequences. But given what Jax and the Sons have done to Charming, the community they once told themselves they were protecting, the idea of staying on the road and staying free of the kinds of entanglements that are setting brother so violently against brother seems appealing, even principled.