Charlie Hunnam (left), Katey Sagal, Drea de Matteo
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The Sons are back, and badder than ever!

Okay, while that statement may be technically true, it’s probably not the best way to set the tone for what is, all things considered, a pretty damn dour one hour and fifteen minutes (without commercials) of television. Jax is kicking ass and taking names, but his behavior isn’t something to cheer about. Picking up about ten days after last season left off, “Black Widower” finds everyone roughly where we left them, with a few notable exceptions. Jax starts off the episode in jail; Juice is hiding out in Wendy’s apartment; Gemma is watching Able and Thomas; the club is doing club things; and Tara is still dead. She even has a plot in the cemetery now, with a little sign. (I assume this is a placeholder until the real tombstone shows up, right? Right?)

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Sons Of Anarchy premieres tend to follow similar paths: a reintroduction to the characters’ lives, some minor intrigue that never gets all that out of hand, and then a shocking major event that serves to set the rest of the season on its course. This episode continues the trend, although the big surprise at the end fails to introduce a new threat. But then, it could be that’s the point. SAMCRO doesn’t need a new villain to face. They’ve got more than enough evil on their plate already.

Was there a musical montage?

Yup! Two, in fact, bookending the episode. Both of them served the same purpose as Sons’ montages have done since time immemorial. Here’s our ensemble; look at them doing a lot of mundane shit; here are some members of the ensemble who are not doing mundane shit; isn’t it ironic how their violence contrasts against the pretty music. That last trick is no longer an effective one, because the element of surprise is completely gone. These days, any time a sad, sweet song kicks in, you know that murder will be along shortly. The fact that the gimmick doesn’t work as well as it used to isn’t really the fault of this particular series, but it is something you’d think someone would’ve caught on to by now. But then, maybe it was never supposed to be ironic, not really. Maybe this, at its heart, is Sutter’s vision: horror and beauty without any clear distinction between the two.

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Which would make sense, since…

Was there horrific violence?

Yup! Although nothing as unpleasant as, say, a woman getting burned alive or a little boy preparing to shoot his classmates with a machine gun, “Black Widower” goes for the throat on a few occasions: first in the opening montage, which shows Jax beating the shit out of a jailhouse snitch; next during an attempt to avenge the death of another club’s pledges that ends up with three men and one woman dead; and then at the end, when Jax tortures and murders a Chinese gang-member he believes is responsible for Tara’s death. (There’s also a bit where Bobby tows a guy in a wheelchair behind his bike. This is played pretty much for laughs, although the funniest thing about it is the shitty CGI.)(It’s possible the CGI got improved at some point between the screener and the episode airing. Lemme know how it looked.)

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Horrific violence is part of how Sons works, and how it’s always worked, so that in and of itself isn’t something to get too worked up about. Anyone looking for stuff to squirm over can enjoy the shot of Jax laboriously carving a swastika into a man’s chest; there’s also a moment when he literally rubs salt into a guy’s wounds, which would be sort of funny if it wasn’t so awful. What makes this violence unsettling isn’t the optics so much as what’s driving it. Everything feels corrupted and tainted, to the point where it’s impossible to even pretend the SAMCRO boys are decent men anymore. Beating up a snitch is one thing; beating up a snitch to get in good with a group of neo-Nazis is something else. And that’s one of the prmiere’s more upbeat moments. The four people who get shot in a botched attempt at justice aren’t involved in anything. Sure, a reverend who’s watching two of his assistants in a three-way isn’t the most wholesome combination, but they’re murdered because Jax and the others fucked up, and no one in the club seems bothered about it at all. Jax even smirks a bit, like it’s all just some whacky fuck up.

But the worst is the final scene, with Jax torturing the gang-member. To cover her ass, Gemma has made up a story about the Chinese being involved with Tara’s murder, even going so far as to single this one poor bastard out during a porn party that’s supposed to encourage friendship among the various squabbling factions. This makes sense, at least from her perspective; by killing Tara, she’s put herself in an impossible situation, and the only way out of that situation that doesn’t involve turning herself over to the cops (or having Jax flat-out murder her) is to push the blame elsewhere. That she chose such a specific target, and that her decision ends up getting another (relatively innocent) person killed is, well, Gemma’s whole deal.

Yet that means Jax has just spent a considerable amount of time tearing apart a man who doesn’t deserve it. That’s not something you can just walk away from. At one point in the episode, Jax tells his fellow SAMCRO members that he’s no longer interested in fixating on trying to make the club legit. The Sons are all he has left, and he’ll do anything to protect them. So no more obsessing over morality or worrying about the future. It’s just doing the job at hand, and to his mind, the job at hand is cleaning up old debts and settling scores.

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The morality of Sons has always been up in the air, and this premiere seems to be suggesting that our heroes have once and for all decided to embrace their dark side. Maybe. Given how the show handled the school-shooting last season, and given its general disinterest in calling its leading man to account for his actions, it’s hard to know what to think of that ending. There’s no way Jax can redeem himself for this, not really. He can die saving someone else’s life, aaaaand that’s about it. It’s technically not his “fault,” since Gemma lied to him, but he still trusted her lie—and as the episode demonstrated earlier, it’s not as though he doesn’t know what happens when you kill first and ask questions later. I’m sure we’re supposed to be appalled by what has happened, and horrified at the reckoning soon to come. But it’s hard to get too worked up. We’ve been burned before. Divine retribution isn’t necessary, but while this is a darker turn, little of what happens in this first episode feels all that different from what came before it. The show is so trapped inside the worldview of its central characters that there’s no sense of perspective; just a slow trudge towards misery, punctuated by hugs and porn.

Is Gemma still crazy?

Probably. As ever, the show tries to use her self-awareness to present her as a tragic figure, which would work if there was any sense of her changing at all. Murdering Tara was a brutal, vile act, and in the scene, Katey Sagal suggested a level of desperation and madness that is quite possibly lurking just below Gemma’s surface at all times. And yet now she’s got everything back in order again. Talking to Juice, she explains how she’s the only person holding the family together, overlooking the fact that she’s the reason the family is torn apart. She shows a little bit of nervousness and guilt when Jax starts asking questions, or when Jax has her tell her story about the Chinese, but not all that much. It’s not a bad plan as villainous schemes go, and there should be tremendous tension between Gemma’s efforts to keep the truth hidden, and Jax’s rage and guilt over his dead wife. But nothing really sparks. Gemma is just the same as she always is—the furtive looks, the nervous-but-tough expression she puts on when confronting someone she thinks has a weaker position. Presumably this is going somewhere, but for now…

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Is any of this interesting?

Sometimes. Most of the scenes idle along, getting basic information across, or else getting bogged down in politicking and deal making—the same sort of politicking and deal-making that happens every other year. It’s familiar, and that makes it weirdly comforting, but it’s also getting tired. There are some bright spots here and there, but without any sense of narrative drive or novelty, nothing really connects. The elements are the same as they always are. There’s dudes in leather jackets getting really serious about shit. There are women wearing not much clothes and being porn stars. Charlie Hunnam does the “stare gravely ahead and speak in a low, threatening voice” shtick that he’s been doing for multiple seasons now. Unser keeps stumbling into trouble. Everybody’s worried about a bloodier future.

So what? What are the stakes at this point? With Tara gone, there’s no one sane left to root for, except maybe Unser, and he’s made his own bed. (Althought the fact that Juice is holding him captive is the most potentially exciting plot thread in the entire episode.) Jax’s kids are innocents, but they’re just names; the show has never bothered to use them as anything but an excuse for Jax to pretend he wants a different life. While it’s certainly possible to get invested in and worked up over the fate of monsters, Jax just doesn’t seem to be in a position of any danger at all; there’s no threat left that can take him out, at least none that we can see.

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The only story left to tell at this point is “Will Jax find out what Gemma did?” And that’s a good story, one that, in its way, we’ve been building to for most of the run of the show. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen immediately, though, and if it doesn’t, there needs to be something to fill the space until it does. Right now, there isn’t.

Stray observations:

  • Patterson did tell Unser that a new sheriff would be taking over Roosevelt’s job—a lady sheriff (or some sort of female law enforcement officer) to boot. Who knows, maybe Annabeth Gish can light a fire under this thing.
  • Jax’s White Power prison contact? None other than Marilyn Manson himself, looking about as much like a lizard as you’d expect.
  • Tension might be improved by a tighter running time. Just putting that out there.

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