Sons of Anarchy (FX, Tuesdays 10pm) returned on Tuesday night to start the fifth season of a show that can loosely be described as “Hamlet on Motorcycles”. Last year’s run of episodes saw SOA return to form – after a disappointing third season – and it ended up third in my list of the top shows of 2011. By the end of the finale, Jackson “Jax” Teller had taken over as the head of SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original), usurping his step-father, Clay Morrow, whom he discovered had been responsible for his Dad’s death. However, because a gun deal between the IRA and a Mexican cartel Clay had been orchestrating was being secretly arranged by the CIA, Jax found himself in a position where he could not yet avenge his father’s death – nor allow his friend, Opie (whose Dad, Piney, Morrow had also killed) to do the same.
Season five takes up the story a few weeks after all of that action had taken place: Jax is now President of SAMCRO and has fully taken on his father’s mantle by writing a memoir for his children, Abel and Thomas, to read some day; much like the manuscript of his Dad’s that he discovered in the pilot episode. At the beginning of the premiere, Teller is leading the bikers on a drug run for the Mexican cartel, but the cargo gets ambushed by members of the One-Niners – an African-American gang out of Oakland, whose leader’s daughter was murdered by Tig Trager as supposed revenge for the shooting of Clay, which was actually carried out by Opie. The result is that Jax has been put into an impossible position: he must work to get the gun deal done with the Irish – who will not deal with anyone but Clay – and the Mexicans, who have two secret CIA agents working with them; if he fails, then his club will face RICO charges and most of its members will end up in prison, meaning SAMCRO is unlikely to survive; he cannot have his first-choice Vice-President, Opie, because of Clay’s continued presence at the table; and he is trying to negotiate all of this whilst subduing his own thirst for revenge of his father’s death and trying to make peace with the One-Niners. Jax has also been able to negotiate with the CIA for the release of Bobby Munson – who had been ratted out by Otto – but is unable to explain how this was possible to the club, raising the suspicions of Clay.
In previous years, Sons of Anarchy has been accused of maintaining the status quo to a point where it became unrealistic, but now Kurt Sutter (creator and show-runner) appears willing to write his characters into impossible situations and not give them an easy way out. This new, harsher direction is exemplified by the path that Tig has taken in the last three episodes to have aired. Firstly, he failed to adhere to Clay’s wishes to provide protection for him on the night he was shot; then, feeling guilty for his own betrayal, sought vengeance on the One-Niners – whom he had been incorrectly informed had been responsible for the attack – and killed Laroy’s girlfriend; only to discover that his old President had lied and the Oakland gang had not been accountable for what had happened to Clay. Tig was already unable to forgive Morrow quickly for setting him on the path to kill an innocent woman and this bitterness will have only been exacerbated by what occurred next. Trager received a phone call from Oakland PD advising that his daughter, Dawn, had been picked up but, when going to get her, he was ambushed by Damon Pope’s men – the Godfather of the One-Niners, and the father of the girl Tig had killed. SAMCRO’s former Sergeant-at-arms was then handcuffed and forced to watch Dawn be burned alive by Pope, powerless to save her. It was a brutal, unrelenting scene and one that appears likely to set Tig on a path where he will be hellbent on revenge, with new President Jax unable to rein him in.
Gemma Teller Morrow – the Gertrude of the Hamlet analogy – is first seen in this season having…relations…with Jimmy Smits – AKA Nero Padilla, a self-described “companionator” (more accurately described as a pimp by Gemma). The Machiavellian Lady Macbeth of the show is now facing a battle on two fronts: with her estranged husband, Clay, who made a not-too-subtle threat to reveal her involvement in the death of Jax’s father, Gemma’s first spouse; and with Tara, over the upbringing of Abel and Thomas, as well as a competition as to who will have the most influence over Jax. When Pope finds two witnesses who will testify that they saw Jax and Chibs kill one of the One-Niners in a highway shooting, Gemma is able to gain some control over her son by providing a safe haven him and his Scottish brother. That sanctuary comes in the form of the companionation establishment she had woken up in the previous morning; her night of being fiddled with by Nero seemingly enough to convince him to help her out without hesitation. One major setback for Gemma came at the end of the episode, when Unser – her main ally – was attacked by One-Niners in the latest home invasion in Charming, his fate looked bleak at the show’s end.
The other great development for the start of this season was the introduction of Damon Pope (played by Harold Perrineau, or Michael from Lost) as the leader of the Oakland gang. He was shown to be a man who did not want to get his hands dirty – a Stringer Bell for the Sons of Anarchy world – but was ruthless in the manner with which he got his points across. The way the new street leaders of the One-Niners were dispatched of was brutal, especially the scene in which Darnell is double-crossed when he believes he is to kill Teller, only to be executed at point-blank range himself – a move that ensured that “T-T-Tyler” has no illusions of doing anything but making peace with SAMCRO. Pope’s dealing with Tig and the burning of Dawn was the most shocking act, but it showed a man unwilling to put himself in harm’s way, but prepared to do what was necessary to avenge his own daughter’s death. The Sons find themselves up against an adversary who is not only hard to reach, but also clinical and unrelenting in his actions.
Sons of Anarchy’s return was always going to be something I was looking forward to, but the willingness the show displayed to take the narrative in a new direction, suggests that this year has the potential to match the brilliant heights it reached in season two. The introduction of fresh blood in the cast in the form of Jimmy Smits and Harold Perrineau also appears to have added a new edge to SOA and their character development over the season will be interesting to watch.