Katey Sagal

We know Jax’s plan; now it’s time to watch him pull the pieces together. Well, we saw that last week too, but it’s a big plan. There are a lot of pieces. Unfortunately, where “Toil And Till” offered us a vision of just how far Jax has sunk in the wake of Tara’s death (it’s rock bottom, and the rocks are very, very angry), “Playing With Monsters” has no similar revelations. Everything just continues to slowly unfold, with all parties stuck in a holding pattern that, presumably, will change next week. Or maybe the week after that. Anyway, soon. Hand to god, this will all start mattering soon.

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It’s not that “Playing With Monsters” is dull, exactly. The hour opens with a scene from a porno shoot, for fuck’s sake (heh), and there’s some decent crossing and double-crossing throughout, as Jax works to find a way to deal with pressure from August Marks. August doesn’t buy Jax’s story that SAMCRO had nothing to do with the hit on the Chinese gun/drug deal, so Jax, being proactive, looks to the One-Niners to start pushing back against August. The Niners ask for a favor: a segment of the gang is rebelling, and Tyler wants Jax’s help putting them down. Which Jax does, through some tricky plotting involving Burowski, the Mayans’ gun shipment, and the Mayans themselves. Watching Jax (with a little help from his friends) negotiate the tricky waters of loyalty and betrayal in order to get what he wants demonstrates just how good he is at balancing various needs, and knowing what his options are; it also shows how low he’s sunk at this point, with no particular regard for the lives of anyone outside his immediate circle.

But the whole thing feels like busy work, a way to eat up an hour’s worth of running time on a plot that doesn’t really wind up anyplace different than where the hour started. Jax using another gang for his own fell purposes isn’t anything new, and there’s never much tension in wondering if all those will work out for him. Now that he’s lost any excuse to pretend he’s a good man, Jax’s willingness to exploit and manipulate the people around him has a certain refreshing clarity to it, but that clarity only goes so far. The fundamental tension in the character—that pressure between wanting to get out of the outlaw life, and the outlaw life being the only life he knew—is gone. He’s made his choice. The only thing left now is to wait for the inevitable shoe drop when he realizes all his rage has been focused in the wrong direction.

Okay, so I’m just repeating things I mentioned in the review of the season premiere, but this is still relevant. Where other shows with anti-hero protagonists used external villains to force their leads to make horrible choices, putting the lives in danger even as those leads continued to sell their souls piece by piece, all the damage we’ve seen so far on Sons has been caused by Jax and Gemma—and worse, there’s no balancing force working to keep them in check. Last season at least had Tara trying to talk sense into people, as jumbled and frustrating as her storyline was. Now she’s dead, and all that’s left is Unser and Nero, both of whom are in love with Gemma, and neither of whom have been much good in the “standing up to Jax” dept. And apart from them, who’s left? Wendy maybe. The season is certainly working to position her as a potential voice of reason, and to its credit, I think it’s working; it helps that Jax isn’t trying to inject her with drugs.

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This means there’s no real conflict so far, and without conflict, Sons tends to idle. While we won’t know for sure until the season’s over, plot-wise it doesn’t seem like all that much happens; and though it’s certainly not necessary that every hour offers some amazing, game-changing shock, you need some reason, whether it’s character development or a small, satisfying story, to keep watching. So what we get here is the story of Jax pitting one gang against another gang, and that’s not bad; a reminder of the toxic racial politics of the club; and a pretty much pointless last ditch effort by Juice to reach out to Chib. Oh, and one of the girl’s at the brothel has an abusive father who makes the mistake of hitting Gemma, and then makes the further mistake of pressing charges when Nero beats the shit out of him, which gives Jax an excuse to wail on him in the episode’s final scene. (Actually, we don’t really see the final confrontation, but I doubt Jax was offering the hand of friendship.)

None of this is painful to watch, and the episode moves along at a decent clip. And yet it’s hard to shake the feeling of how little of this matters. Juice’s brief conversation with Chibs is well-acted and heartbreaking in its way, but it offers nothing new for either character, and feels mostly like an echo of a scene we’ve watched a half a dozen times already. Juice is desperate to get back into the club; Chibs, who used to love him like a brother, now hates him for his actions; Juice has to run away again. I’m sure this is building towards Juice making some new, phenomenally stupid play (or else sacrificing himself in a way that helps the club and makes everyone feel bad and gets us another mournful montage), but right now, nothing’s really firing. None of this will matter until Juice either gets caught, or takes a definitive action. Three episodes into the season, and there’s no serious sign that Gemma’s crime is going to come out. I’m sure it will, somehow, but as the only major storyline that really matters at this point, it can’t sit on the back-burner forever.

That’s the problem, then. Jax getting his (horrifically misguided) revenge on Lin sets up a certain level of queasy uncertainty—how far is this going to go before he realizes he’s made a mistake? But that’s not enough to drive a season, and there really isn’t anything else with any bite to it. Jax has over-mastered his enemies to a man, and even his efforts to work around August don’t play like any real concern. He’s playing chess in a world full of well-armed checkers, and while it’s fun to see him trip everyone up, this can’t go on much longer. This season is clearly trying to play some kind of long game; even Jerry, who seemed half out of his mind with rage and grief last week, barely makes an appearance, showing up just long enough to remind us that he’s out there and that he knows what the Sons did, but not having any impact on, well, anything. Which makes this one of those “table-setting” episodes TV critics are always going on about, except the table is already set. The food is getting cold. Let’s hope things heat up soon.

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Stray observations:

  • Another nice scene: Chibs and the sheriff, hanging out. (Well, more than just hanging out, as Chibs gives her an envelope full of cash. Let’s keep those wheels greased.) Tommy Flanagan is one of the stronger actors on the show, and he and Annabeth Gish have an appealing, lived in chemistry together. It’s a bit like watching Gemma and Nero hang out, only without the subtext of “That woman is a horrorshow who will probably destroy your life whether she means to or not.”
  • Ah, “12 Inches A Slave,” Jax you rogue.
  • Jax’s plans have levels; he sends some One-Niners to attack Lin’s massage parlors around town, making sure they claim they’re working for August. For a guy who once tried everything in his power to prevent war, he’s definitely not doing that anymore.
  • Another nice touch: little Abel watches Nero beating the shit out of Gemma’s abuser, and it’s clearly meant to be an awkward, unsettling moment. The show has referenced the damage all this violence might do to young minds before, although it’s shown an unfortunate tendency to never follow through on these references.

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