For those who find Shakespeare wordy, remember that it took only five acts for Hamlet to kill Claudius (spoilers herein): Sons of Anarchy enters its sixth season with Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) still unable to pull the trigger on Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), the man who killed his father, married his mother, and became the metaphorical king of the titular motorcycle club. That's not to say there haven't been explosive gun fights, murderous melees, and deadly betrayals along the way, with the series sprawling out from the small town of Charming to the wider Californian territories and up the gun-smuggling chain to Belfast, Ireland, but creator Kurt Sutter and his fellow writers have begun to come up empty on ways to keep Clay alive. Even a series about a motorcycle club can only spin its wheels for so long.
Compounding the issue is how seemingly eager FX is to supersize most episodes, regardless of whether they warrant it or not. There's too much meandering without meaningful payoffs: The series breaks the tension of, say, a stand-off with Armenian porn purveyors to focus on the entirely unrelated exploits of a former Son, Bobby (Mark Boone Junior), who, disgusted with Jax's direction for the club, is attempting to start his own NOMAD chapter of the Sons. Dayton Callie is a decent actor, but now that his character, Wayne Unser, is no longer the sheriff of Charming, he seems to exist solely so people like Jax's mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal), can bounce expository information off him.
This extra time also yields a great deal of repetition, with Tig (Kim Coates) again going rogue and crossing the wrong people, and Juice (Theo Rossi) once more having to prove his loyalty for something that nobody would remember if we weren't reminded via a pre-show recap. Former U.S. Marshal Lee Toric (Donal Logue) is a relatively new character with personal, vengeful reasons for bringing down the Sons (a murdered sister), but this plotline is just a more extreme and unorthodox version of one from a previous season, in which Sheriff Eli Roosevelt (Rockmond Dunbar) attempted to blackmail various Sons into turning evidence on a racketeering case. Worse, while Roosevelt had regrets and empathy for his pawns, Toric is quickly turned into a thankless, one-note character who shoots heroin, poses naked in front of mirrors, and murders prostitutes. (Boardwalk Empire this is not.)
If these characters were more fully realized, these same-old-same-old situations would be more captivating. Instead, we get shallow scripting for new characters like Colette (Kim Dickens), who cozies up to Jax (and encapsulates her role as a madam looking to expand her business) by announcing, "I listen almost as good as I suck dick." (Deadwood this is not.) This kind of talk undercuts the very gritty, real world that Sutter's built up until this point by reducing people to caricatures. Consider the sort of cheesy, tired, unbelievable machismo that leads to Chibs (Tommy Flanagan), VP of the Sons, pummeling a fellow member: "I gotta get right with this," he explains. "I love you," replies his victim, bracing himself. "I know," says Chibs, taking off his rings.
Unlike so many of the other characters on the show, Jimmy Smits's Nero Padilla, a former O.G. who's sucked back into machinations with his fellow Byz-Lat gangbangers after hooking up with Jax's crew (and Jax's mom), at least appears conflicted and anguished by the choices he has to make. Smits is one of the few cast members who are still reacting to scenes, rather than simply acting in them. Hunnam and Perlman, on the other hand, are playing it so relentlessly tough that they're all but inscrutable: Clay attempts to make amends in much the same tone that he goes around shanking people in the prison yard, while Jax professes his love for his wife in about the same tone he uses for casually ordering the murder of an innocent mother. It's the women—Sagal, Maggie Siff, and Drea De Matteo—who provide the real emotional weight and stakes for the series; the other characters and action sequences provide only violence and noise.
In fact, Sons of Anarchy seems more intent on pushing the envelope with more and more exploitive violence than anything else. In moderation, drowning a man in a bathtub of piss or using someone's mouth as a bottle opener might be shocking, but here it's just schlock. Instead of a school shooting serving as a moment in which the Sons come face to face with the consequences of their gun-running extra-curriculars, it's just another obstacle to get past, with the gang trying keep an aggressive new D.A. from tracing the gun to the kid's strung-out mother's boyfriend's cousin, Nero. Good work is supposed to be a product of blood, sweat, and tears, but these days, Sons of Anarchy only has the blood.