Chess pieces move and bodies drop. One could easily imagine Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) having this credo tattooed onto his perfectly sculpted chest as a reminder of his Machiavellian ways. Sons of Anarchy has mastered this kind of cause and effect one head shot at a time. Cagey strategies occasionally play a role in taking out enemies foreign and domestic, but SAMCRO prefers all-out blitzkrieg.
“Toil and Till” amplifies the theme of brutal retaliation to another level, piggybacking on the sporadic splashes of violence in last week’s premiere to expand the battlefield across multiple California zip codes. The final season of Sons of Anarchy is already leaning toward a second civil war, one waged between factions who will never fully understand why things went south. Everyone who matters is on the precipice, but interestingly, before the bullets begin to spray, director Billy Gierhart opens the episode with a flood of quiet.
The morning after dispatching an Asian gangster he believes killed his wife, Jax awakens to an empty house. Alone and contemplative, he smokes and stares at the tainted space in the kitchen where murder has occurred more than once. Other characters share a morning cigarette as well: Gemma (Katey Sagal) and Nero (Jimmy Smits) fawn at the breakfast table having rekindled their romance, and Juice (Theo Rossi) sits exiled and stagnant waiting to make his next bad decision.
As usual, Nero imparts a nugget of endearing wisdom: “We find who we’re supposed to find.” Intended as a romantic gesture toward Gemma, his words can’t help but harbor a disturbing quality considering the comeuppance to follow. This notion gets even more complicated when Nero and Wendy (Drea de Matteo) hit the road to visit a potential grammar school for Abel, Jax’s oldest and most traumatized son. Sons of Anarchy likes to pit characters together that rarely share screen space, and this is one of the most rewarding examples. The two recovering drug addicts participate in a conversation that deepens both of their backstories, proving once again that this series does wordplay better than gunplay.
“Toil and Till” may begin in solitude, but it quickly revs up the violence as Jax and SAMCRO begin a secret guerilla war against Henry Lin’s (Kenneth Choi) criminal network. Convinced Lin sent the assassin that killed Tara (Maggie Siff) and Sheriff Eli Roosevelt (Rockmond Dunbar), Jax declares jihad on his once ally with a brazen first strike, wiping out all the participants of a lucrative drugs-for-guns deal with a barrage of machine gun fire.
Unlike similar scenes in Justified or even The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy consistently fails to shoot action well. The pacing feels clunky and contrived, all swinging-dick antics and little logical coherence. Maybe that’s the point considering how relentless and sloppy SAMCRO is becoming, but the aesthetic deficiency in style has been a continuing problem for the series.
While Jax bluntly dispatches Lin’s pawns and confesses he “has no vision” for SAMCRO any longer, Wayne (Dayton Callie) continues to develop as a character of importance. After discovering Juice’s hideout and spending a night gagged and bound, Wayne convinces the panicked biker to let him go. It might seem like an obscure plot thread in a loud and action-driven episode, but Wayne’s ability to calmly communicate sage advice is an essential development and one that could flower into something more profound.
Later, Wayne meets with Charming’s new sheriff, Althea Jarry (Annabeth Gish), a stoic and determined peacekeeper who could be this season’s key ringer. She convinces him to become a consultant for the police in order to help quell the level of violence, further solidifying Wayne’s role in investigating Tara’s demise. Gish, who was recently dispatched on The Bridge, where she played a far more tepid role, looks to be in her element as a strong, focused pragmatist ready to change the Charming landscape for good.
A return appearance by Peter Weller’s Barosky confirms that the road to hell will run through Stockton port, a fact that Jax and Nero will have to reconcile soon enough. If anything, “Toil and Till” works as a formal crossroads for all the different players in Sons of Anarchy’s universe—at least the ones still breathing. Aside from SAMCRO, who continues to make gutsy moves without any real understanding of the consequences, every other gang looks ready to go out in a blaze of glory, smart business practices be damned.
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