For a few moments at the beginning of “Playing with Monsters,” Sons of Anarchy doesn’t take itself too seriously. The newly minted porn studio, Red Woody, helmed by adult star turned director Lyla (Wonter Ave Zoli), commences production on their first feature, a ridiculous lesbian spin on Frankenstein entitled Skankenstein. Members of SAMCRO, including the permanently forlorn Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), giggle like schoolchildren as they watch the sensual absurdity unfold. There’s even electrified nipples.
Unfortunately, creator Kurt Sutter has left very little room for this kind of levity in Sons of Anarchy’s final season. The silliness achieved in the opening moments is quickly overwhelmed by more deadeye stares and extreme violence, a numbing cycle that shows little sign of letting up. After three episodes, the merry-go-round of bloodshed is already getting tiresome.
Managerial styles, and how they relate to leadership strategies, continue to be an emerging theme. Jax finds it necessary to halt his brash assault on the Lin clan to create an alliance with the African-American gang affiliate One-Niners in order to circumvent the dominance of kingpin August Marks (Billy Brown), who remains the only character smart enough to see past SAMCRO’s “It wasn’t me” façade. This dangerous shift comes after August breaks down the difference between being deadly and smart, earnest advice Jax interprets as an immediate threat. Maybe it’s Sutter’s intention to make his antihero seem doubly insane during what can only be described as one epic fail, but now things are just getting ridiculous. These don’t even feel like the same characters from seasons past, and you can’t chalk up their carelessness to fury or brotherhood.
While Jax creates truces as quickly as he shatters them, fringe storylines once again provide more interesting dilemmas. Wayne explains his investigation into Tara’s (Maggie Siff) murder as “something I need to do” while new Sheriff Althea Jarry (Annabeth Gish) reveals herself to be a compromised figurehead, taking a bribe from SAMCRO and making doe eyes at badass Irishman Chibs (Tommy Flanagan). These two developments will likely be a big part of Charming’s transition into a new era, possibly one that looks a lot like the setup in the inaugural episodes. The only mystery is if it will be a place of corruption or honor.
In a macho series that has always been interested in fathers and sons, Gemma (Katey Sagal) still stands out as a subversive force. She intervenes during a skirmish at the brothel, defending one of the workers from her abusive dad. Punches are thrown and SAMCRO’s matriarch ends up with a black eye. But more importantly, young Abel (Ryder Londo) witnesses the attack, inspiring him to ask his dear old grandma, “Does my daddy do bad things?” Later, Gemma reads the young boy a children’s book where monsters are friendly and helpful, her way of answering an unanswerable question.
Making amends seems to be an impossible task for Juice (Theo Rossi), who reaches out to Chibs by way of Wayne (Dayton Callie), hoping to see if there’s a way the club would take him back. This plotline has been treading water ever since the season premiere, and “Playing with Monsters” does very little to push it forward. Sutter has plans for Juice, but up to this point it seems unclear if the oft-troubled character will resort back to his cowardly ways or finally do the right thing.
Nero’s (Jimmy Smits) descent into gangland business remains another weak link in this season’s plot dynamic. Aside from loyalty and some delusional desire to save Gemma, there’s no convincing reason he should be helping his Mayan brothers mow down a group of opposing gang members with AK-47s. It does prove, however, that Sutter and his writing staff are convinced Sons of Anarchy must end in as messy a state as possible.
As if to destroy any memory of the gregarious porno scene that sets the episode in motion, “Playing with Monsters” ends with Gemma and Jax paying a little visit to the buffoon who roughed her up during the aforementioned skirmish with the prostitute. As her son does his best to beat the man to death, Gemma turns her back to the carnage like she’s done so many times before. If there’s a single composition that sums up Sons of Anarchy best, it would be this one, of a mother’s poison working its spell.
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