If the first few episodes of Sons of Anarchy’s final season are any indication, then the series is going down in the same manner it started: as a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, with the eponymous motorcycle club’s royal family and their dysfunctional dynamics at the heart of what ails its crown prince. Jax (Charlie Hunnam) is as dark and vengeful this season as he was bright and optimistic just before his wife Tara’s shocking demise. SAMCRO is licking their wounds while preparing to once again make their ascendance in their town of Charming. And Jax’s mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal), is alternately remorseful and gratified that sacrificing Tara allowed her to preserve the strength of her two fractured families: Jax and his young sons and the motorcycle club.
In what has quickly become a stylistic hallmark for the series, the season premiere, “Black Widower,” is bookended by two montages set to cover songs by cult artists that fans of the show have heard before: Audra Mae and the White Buffalo. But, to flip a popular cliché, the more things stay the same, the more they change. Viewers are encouraged to once again survey the landscape, to take note of who’s survived Jax and Gemma’s power plays, as well as who hasn’t, and all as the series builds to how it will all come back to haunt the mother and son in the end. So far, it’s only those who’ve gotten closest to them who’ve paid with their lives. But what’s brought sharply into focus amid the show’s familiar iconography is how their own time is just about up.
A cursory glance at Sons of Anarchy’s cast of characters reminds us that only Gemma and Juice (the twitchy Theo Rossi), the ex-Crow still on the outs with the club, know what really happened to Tara. Perhaps out of guilt over sitting on the sidelines or maybe because of his own identification with SAMCRO’s only other reluctant civilian ally, Charming’s former sheriff, Unser (Dayton Callie), teams up with the town’s latest one, the pragmatic, biker-friendly, and not entirely reputable Althea Jarry (Annabeth Gish), to nose around the irregularities surrounding Tara’s demise.
Gaining more prominence this season are Jimmy Smits’s Nero, the noble ex-gangbanger who’s become Gemma’s lover and a sort of mentor to Jax, and Drea de Matteo’s Wendy, Jax’s former “old lady.” As present or one-time lovers to the club’s monarchs, each also had an affinity for Tara. Nero and Wendy are pivotally placed in a position where their respective alliances with Jax, Gemma, and potential wild card Juice will increasingly become important as the season and the series wind down. This is already evident in the shuttling between one camp and the other as Nero tries to broker a fragile peace between Jax and his Latino rivals only to go home and sleep with Gemma. It’s made even more conspicuous in the way former junkie Wendy is trying to ingratiate herself with both Jax and Gemma in order to regain access to her child with Jax. She’s allowing Gemma to stash Juice away at her apartment, a perilous outcome awaiting her should Jax ever find out.
The once scruffy biker series may be on its way out, but it’s gained a certain measure of respectability with actors, if not Emmy voters, as the show has become a magnet for some recognizable names. The series continues to attract a roster of notable guest stars, both old (CCH Pounder, Peter Weller) and new (Ivo Nandi, Courtney Love, Marilyn Manson, Malcolm Jamal Warner) that detract—and distract—from the show’s endgame. Whatever Sons of Anarchy’s new pretensions may be, what emerges are two very primal parallel storylines: the inevitable confrontation between duplicitous mother and aspiring son, and the potential implosion of their beloved SAMCRO as the club maneuvers itself into an untenable position playing all of their rival gangs—black, Chinese, and Mexican—against each other in order to climb to the top, and on their bloody shoulders if necessary.
What also becomes obvious is how much of this emotionally stunted gang’s troubles derive from misunderstandings that some careful thought might have helped them avoid. The same way most of the episodes in the sitcom Three’s Company revolved around a miscommunication giving way to comic hijinks, Sons of Anarchy thrives on such blackly comic mix-ups. The season premiere alone places SAMCRO in three progressively darker, increasingly self-destructive set pieces sparked from confusion and ending with the gang indulging in some misguided retaliation. The first, somewhat amusing one involves the club finding a way to drag information out of a rival gang leader utilizing a motorcycle and a chain from a swing set. The second is another of SAMCRO’s typical rushes to judgment that begins as an audacious retaliatory strike over a perceived wrong to one of the club’s allies and turns into something exceedingly absurd: Their victims turn out to be nothing more than three corrupt pastors, albeit clergymen with some weird sexual proclivities, all involved in an illicit ménage à quatre, when the club bursts into their bedroom, guns blazing.
But it’s the last misunderstanding that’s the scariest one because of how it sets up Jax and the club for an eventual fall. Gemma serves up an ideal scapegoat to appease Jax’s arrogant lust for revenge after Tara’s death: a rival gang member blameless in Tara’s death. He’s an easy mark in Gemma’s eyes, and her selection of him demonstrates her facility in manipulating Jax by playing into his strongest desires to strengthen SAMCRO and his position atop of their hierarchy. Appealing to a prince’s hubris—now if that isn’t a signet of Shakespearean tragedy, I don’t know what is.