Sons of Anarchy 5.01: Sovereign

SPOILER WARNING: This post will appear every Wednesday following a new episode of “Sons of Anarchy.” It is intended to be read after seeing the show’s latest installment as a source of recap and analysis. As such, all aspects and events that have occurred up to and including the episode discussed are fair game. 

The Lion Declawed

After nine long months, SAMCRO is finally back. “Sovereign” began with Jax writing in a manner that seems to be addressing his sons when they come of age, just as his own father did. Although his father died when he was 15, Jax has more of JT in him than Clay. The prodigal son now sits at the head of the table with Chibs to his right as the new sergeant-at-arms. Bobby Munson will be on his the other side, having been made the new VP in the premiere, and Opie will be taking an extended leave of absence from the club. It’s great when tiny details in something like wardrobe can portray significant changes in the characters. We saw that in “Sovereign,” as Jax and Chibs’ new position patches were a freshly sewn white. In contrast, you could still see the remnants of the word “president” stitched into Clay’s cut. It served as a subtle reminder of Jax’s recent coup and just how far the once mighty Clay has fallen.

Almost more interesting than the things that have changed however are those that have stayed the same. Namely the fact that Clay’s still breathing (or trying to anyway). The former president’s non-death last season still seems like a bit of a cop out. Remember Jax needs his step-dad around to keep the Irish happy, a plot choice that fails to live up to the real-world reasoning that those in charge aren’t ready for Ron Perlman to leave the show. After doing so much work to build Clay up as a villain last season, the writers had better have some tricks up their sleeves if they want viewers to continue accepting his sticking around. That started last night, and how.

Anyone who thought Clay would accept defeat and move quietly out of the limelight was sadly mistaken. His physical ailments have caught up with him, and it’s no coincidence that he now bears significant resemblance to Piney, who he killed last season. After Clay’s talk with Gemma, my first guess was that he’d undergo yet another role reversal and be made into a sympathetic character again. That notion was quickly discarded, Clay’s still up to his old tricks, only now he’s got only his wits to work with and none of his former brawn.

Clay’s trickiest move was coming clean about killing Piney, right at the table during “chapel.” Well, sort of. The bare facts were there, but he twisted the tale to make his actions seem justified and himself more sympathetic. This was not a repentant man struggling to explain things to his club, it was a con artist making the best play he could, bluffing a shit hand. Clay’s faux explanation has neutered any plans Jax might have had to use the truth to turn the club against him after he’d served his purpose. If Jax tries to tell the real story now, the guys will think he’s doing exactly what Clay actually did: lying to get his way. All that said, some element of making Clay likable again survives due to his leafing through a photo album even though Gemma specifically told him not to make any pictures. Maybe he really is sorry? Maybe, but I doubt it.

Villain vs. Anti-Heroes 

After Opie shot Clay last season, the rest of the club was told the One-Niners were responsible. In a tumult of rage and guilt, Tig sought vengeance by attempting to kill the enemy gang’s leader, Laroy. Instead, it was Laroy’s girlfriend, one Veronica Pope, who ended up dead. The woman was the daughter of Damon Pope (played by Harold Perrineau of “Lost”), a Gus Fring type: powerful businessman with criminal ties. From his ordering the repeated killing of the gang’s leaders, we learned that the One-Niners are really just a street-level arm of Pope’s operation. This time around, it won’t just be the Niners the Sons are dealing with, but Pope, a man of unknown motivation, power, and yes, responsibility. Unlike that gangster in his employ, Pope is in fact a “Spider-Man nigga.”

The first step for SAMCRO’s newest antagonist was retaliation against Tig. But this was no simple vengeance. There’s an eye for an eye and then there’s burning a man’s daughter alive as he stands there chained and helpless. It’s clear that watching that flung the affably unstable Tig right off the deep end. Let’s see, Tig kills a woman because he thought he was avenging Clay. It turns out that was a lie, and Tig’s actions (which were entirely unprovoked in the eyes of Pope and the Niners) led to his own daughter’s horrific death. I wonder who he’ll blame for that? Trouble is, as badly as Jax wants Clay dead himself, it will be up to him to rein Tig in.

That’s what all this means for the club, but Pope’s actions and demeanor say something different entirely about the show. Early in the first season, my main problem with “Sons of Anarchy” was that it showed a bunch of interesting but ultimately uber-violent “bad guys” doing a bunch of horrible things and laughing about it afterwards with little to no character development. That changed as I came to understand the characters and their motivations. One way the show tried to justify the viewer rooting for the Sons was making them the gang that does everything except deal drugs. That excuse I found cheap, but I respected that they wanted to maintain Charming’s small-town, well, charm. They kept corporations out so small businesses could succeed, stopped developers from building “McMansions,” and the like. Plus, there was the simple idea that no matter how bad the Sons got, their enemy was usually a whole lot worse.

After all the forward movement of the past four seasons, introducing Pope as a sociopath, a man who won’t shy away from burning your daughter alive before your eyes, seemed almost as convenient as drugs=bad, Sons don’t sell drugs, therefore Sons=good. This isn’t to say bringing in Pope was a bad move or that the show won’t handle the move with grace, anything can be done well if it’s done right. But the character should not simply be a way to distract from or delay further exploration of the Sons’ moral complexities. While the characters might look in the mirror and see righteous outlaws, the viewer should be given a more objective perspective and be allowed to decide for themselves what they see. If Pope only sets up SAMCRO as the lesser of two evils, the show is giving up on all that, at least for the time being, which would mean, well, I wouldn’t give up on the show, but I’d be disappointed.

One Last Thing

Early into the season premiere, Lieutenant Roosevelt showed up at Teller-Morrow to ask the members if they knew anything about a couple of recent break-ins, one at the home of a club groupie (or “crow eater”) and the other at that of a Teller-Morrow mechanic. Roosevelt guesses the crimes were retaliation for the killing of Veronica Pope. The episode ended with Wayne Unzer, former chief of Charming P.D. and friend of the club, having his home invaded. Somewhere in between, SAMCRO inducts a couple of Nomads into their chapter. One of them was “Greg the Peg,” who has a prosthetic leg and joked about having “somewhere to put his feet up.” Turns out one of the guys who broke into Unzer’s house was wearing the same shoes. Oh, and a prosthetic leg to boot (check out these screenshots provided by a user of the “SoA” subreddit). My guess: the Nomads are all working for Pope, who’s now got three different inside perspectives on SAMCRO. Strap on your helmets and throw on your cuts, we’re in for a hell of a ride this season.

Watch Kurt Sutter and the cast discuss “Sovereign” and answer fan questions below. Be sure to follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.

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