In the superlative second season of Sons of Anarchy, creator Kurt Sutter learned from his early mistakes and tapped the full potential of his testosterone-addled Shakespeare-meets-Roger-Corman premise. But then he got a little too sure of himself. The third season fell apart under its own weight, the drama more soapy than operatic and painfully over-plotted. The fourth, though better, was equally in thrall to Sutter's overconfidence, a quagmire of plot threads that continually raised the stakes while lacking courage for the required follow through. Characters set up for certain death miraculously escaped their fates. Time and again, the titular motorcycle club averted inevitable arrest via out-of-nowhere deus ex machina, despite the chaos they unleashed across town on a regular basis. It was one elaborate case after another of Sutter having his cake and eating it too.
It seems season five will be more of the same. In just the first two episodes, the series sets up more antagonists, complications, and subplots than most would in an entire season. A major character is trapped in a corner by someone who has the best possible reasons to kill him, only to be told, Bond villain-style, that "death would be too easy." Former club president Clay (Ron Perlman, bringing fresh vulnerability to his portrayal), whose murder of original charter member Piney (William Lucking) last season was set up as a game-changer for the Sons of Anarchy, causes surprisingly few waves with his confession in the opening hour. His replacement, Jax (Charlie Hunnam), is, as usual, juggling multiple threats across the legal spectrum.
Thankfully, despite Sutter's tendency to run in place and preserve the lives of his beloved creations, the playing field has been altered somewhat. Clay, injured by enforcer Opie's (Ryan Hurst) assassination attempt, has been sidelined; he's for all intents and purposes the new Piney, breathing tubes and all. Gemma (Katey Sagal), the charter's former first lady, finds her voice in the group's decision-making process slowly being eclipsed by that of Jax's girlfriend, Tara (Maggie Siff). Jax and his lieutenant, Bobby (Mark Boone Jr.), are firmly in charge. These power dynamics could, potentially, lead to interesting shifts in the loyalties of the other members, their numbers swelled by an additional wild card: fresh transplants from the club's Nomad charter.
Matters are further complicated by two additions to the cast. The season's new big bad is dapper Oakland crime lord Damon Pope (Harold Perrineau), whose daughter was killed by Tig (Kim Coates) in last season's finale. Unsurprisingly, he's a believer in the Edmond Dantes School of Vengeance and very determined to bring the Sons down. Sadly, Perrineau's portrayal of the character feels a little played out before it can even get started. The archetype of the reserved, diabolical, and well-dressed crime boss who's also a community figure is done to death at this point and there's nothing Perrineau can do to top, say, Gus Fring. The second new arrival is an area pimp (the preferred nomenclature is, apparently, "companionator") named Nero Padilla (played with agreeable sleaziness by Jimmy Smits, having more fun with a role than he's had in ages), a possible new love interest for Gemma and ally for the club.
To be clear, Sons of Anarchy isn't a bad show. It got perilously close to becoming one during the absurd Irish detour in season three, but has recovered considerably since. Its colorful cast is excellent, holding its own amid the wealth of strong ensembles in today's cable-drama landscape. The first couple of episodes of season five showcase particularly strong performances from Hurst as ticking time bomb Opie and Coates as a rage-fuelled Tig, who's traumatized by bloody developments in the opener. Sutter excels at offering up pulpy thrills and strong individual scenes that riff on B-movie tropes: meets gone wrong, brutal acts of retribution, mano-a-mano showdowns. If the series could be judged on the basis of being little more than a put-your-brain-on-hold bloodbath, it would be a wild success. But Sutter seems to aspire to greater heights. The second season revealed artistic ambition, reaching for a certain amount of depth in characterization and storytelling. Assessed on that level, the last two seasons have fallen far short of the mark and it seems season five will only repeat the pattern.