“Sons of Anarchy” has its “Sopranos” moment

In a brutal episode, one of the show's best yet, it's clear that the bikers are just prisoners of their own making

Topics: Sons of Anarchy,

"Sons of Anarchy" has its "Sopranos" moment Ron Perlman (Credit: FX)

Last night’s “Sons of Anarchy” was the best episode this season, and one of the best single episodes the show has produced. At its best, it reminded me of a late “Sopranos” episode, “Members Only,” with which it shared certain fascinations — mainly a ruthless awareness of what sort of characters the show has chosen as its heroes.

“Sopranos” fans will recall that sixth-season episode. It was uncomfortable not just because of its horrifically violent acts, which included the shooting of a major character, but because of its tragic awareness that there was really no way out for these gangsters — the life that they thought of as completely free was in fact a prison without bars, a walking death. It was the episode in which a mob informant decided he’d had enough of the life and naively asked to leave it, only to be reminded that this was not the sort of job one could just leave. He ended up hanging himself by a rope — not unlike the half-black Juice on “Sons of Anarchy.” Pushed into ratting on the Sons by a new sheriff who threatened to expose his lack of racial purity to the motorcycle club, Juice ended up trying and failing to hang himself from a tree like the “Strange Fruit” described in Billie Holiday’s song, the episode’s de facto theme. (It was an attempted self-lynching, one of the most spectacular acts of internalized racism and self-loathing that’s ever been seen on American TV; the racism of the club and the government’s exploitation of it drove Juice to wrap that chain around his neck.)

Last night’s “Sons” episode, titled “Hands,” attained a merciless “Sopranos”-like power that trumped this year’s two big Juice episodes. And it made similar points about the illusion of freedom in the criminal world.

The episode’s agenda was signaled in that early sequence at the gas station in which Jax made small talk with the motorcycle cop about his bike. The officer confessed that he liked the old model better, but this one was easier on his bad back. “Maybe it’s time to trade it in for a cage, huh?” Jax said, meaning a car. “When I’m dead,” the cop replied. “Amen to that,” Jax answered.



It was a moment of random camaraderie between crook and cop, but it resonated throughout the episode, which treated the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club, the town of Charming, and the criminal life itself as gigantic cages in which all the characters were trapped — perhaps without possibility of escape. Clay, the club’s president, desperately wants to be released, but he’s going to have to sell out the club and everybody in it to make his dream come true — and he probably will, if he doesn’t get exposed as a manipulative scumbag and murdered first. His vice-president, Jax, wants out, too; by the end of the episode he has confessed that urge to Opie, and shamefacedly admitted that when he talked Opie out of his own exit strategy, he effectively signed Donna’s death warrant. Poor Tara is in love with Jax but wants out of the life, even though she knows she’s not allowed to admit it; she tried to physically escape — symbolically, that’s what the job interview in Providence was about — and ended up the victim of a kidnap-murder attempt touched off by the fiendish, ass-covering sociopathic schemer, Clay. By the end of the episode she was bedridden, one of her delicate surgeon’s hands shattered — probably beyond repair. The combination of violent trauma and pain medication pushed the truth out of her.

The attack, she told Jax, was “… fate … We’re supposed to be together, right? But you can’t leave here … The club won’t let you. Gemma won’t let you. Charming won’t let you … The only way I can be with you is if I lose my way out. I lost that today, baby. My dead hand. No one will want me now, no one. I’ll never save another life again. I’ll never fix a tiny heart. It’s OK, because now we can be together. You. Me.” And here she turned tearful and bitterly sarcastic: “Gemma. Here in beautiful Charming. Happy family. Maybe I should smash my other hand. I get to stay home and be mom.” By the end she’s screaming at Jax: “Get out!”

You can say that Kurt Sutter’s show is turgid or nasty, brilliant or overrated, but you can’t say it has no moral point of view on its characters. Even though it mostly avoids narrative hand-holding, it’s as moral — at times verging on moralistic — as “The Sopranos” or any classic gangster film. The heat in last night’s episode was purgatorial. As directed by Peter Weller and written by Chris Collins, David Labrava and Sutter, “Hands” was acutely aware of the repressive power that the club exerts over all of its members — even Clay, who’s the season’s only out-and-out villain — as well as the power that other institutions and ways of thinking exert beyond the club. The script casually linked the club’s ingrained racism with the subtler institutionalized racism of American law enforcement; the town’s black sheriff, Eli Roosevelt, was revealed to be a virtual slave to the white assistant U.S. attorney Lincoln Potter, bound by a contract to do pretty much whatever he was ordered to do. (“I’m done being your boy,” Eli told Linc, then apologized to Juice in a moment whose racial solidarity was more powerful for being understated.) Both Tara and Gemma were confirmed as prisoners of gender — collateral damage from the striving and showdowns of selfish, macho guys. Gemma tried to interfere in Clay’s clumsy campaign of terror and received a horrendous beating for her trouble; it was preceded by Clay’s icy statement that she was not a member of the club, but an Old Lady, and that he should remind her of her place more often.

As she prayed for Tara’s recovery in the hospital chapel, Gemma got called out for daring to think herself more free or moral than the thugs that destroyed a young surgeon’s hand: “You’re an awful woman, and all this suffering landing on Tara, it’s because of you.” This was truth, just as Tara’s tearful excoriation of Jax was truth. SAMCRO brought them all to this. The thing they all love is repressing them, twisting them, killing them, because that’s what it does. By the end of the episode, Gemma had resolved to have Clay murdered “by the hand of a Son” because — as she’d already been reminded this season — “Clay can’t be saved.” But having Clay murdered won’t liberate her, either. She’ll still be a prisoner of the allure of the club, the allure of the lifestyle, the cage of the open road. These characters all inhabit their own cages; some inhabit cages within cages within cages. Few will escape.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>