Annabeth Gish (left), Dayton Callie
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Well, that took a turn.

It was inevitable, really, that the shit would start hitting the fan at some point. This is not a show that can afford to spend too much time on quiet contemplation, mostly because “quiet contemplation” so often turns into “another mournful montage of characters going to bed or getting up from bed while Katey Sagal sings.” (And y’know, some of those montages can be really effective and powerful. Just not if we get one multiple times in a single episode.)

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Still: did everything have to get this bad quite this fast? The episode starts off simply enough, the main plot focusing on Jax and the boys trying to track down the wife of the reverend they murdered at the start of the season. At the time of the murders, I was surprised at how callous the club was over their crime—barging in on a man of God while he films three people having sex and shooting the bunch of them has a certain grim irony to it, but Jax and the rest acted as though the whole thing was just a nutty gag played on them by fate, and not a quadruple homicide brought about by their own carelessness. “Poor Little Lambs” goes a step further and has the reverend’s surviving stepson paint the dead man as a monster who married the stepson’s drug-addicted mother in order to exploit her ministry and land-holdings. Which, okay, that’s fine, but Jax and the others still shot four unarmed people and they’re still dicking around about it like they’re some kind of merry pranksters. Maybe this level of casual cruelty has always been a part of the club, and I’m just overreacting now; maybe we’re supposed to be judging them for their behavior all the while. (Although Chibs and Bobby, the usual voices of reason in the group, aren’t giving any sign that any of this is bad.) But it makes for some unpleasant cognitive dissonance.

That said, at least this was a plan that let Jax come out looking sort of not completely horrible. When he and the others find the reverend’s wife and son, the son shoots Tig full of buckshot, and there’s a short car chase that ends up with one car in a lake. But partly because they need the wife alive (the whole reason this got started was that August Marks wants the wife to sign off on a construction deal that will screw her over and make him a lot of cash), and partly because Jax seems a little bit calmer, there’s no actual body count. Jax even makes it a point to ensure the woman and her son’s safety, albeit after ensuring that she’ll go along with August’s wishes in order to further her own ends. For once, he’s not treating someone else’s life as a toy he can throw away if it pleases him to do so. It doesn’t make up for any of the choices he’s made, but it least makes him a little easier to give a damn about.

Then the SAMCRO boys meet up with a group of white power dipshits, and two cops get shot. Here are some straightforward consequences, obvious and undeniable. You play with assholes, you’re gonna get some splatter on you no matter how fast you move. (I promise this is the last time I will use that metaphor.) There’s a slight mitigation in the fact that Jax and his crew aren’t themselves directly responsible for the deaths, but they’re still connected, and while this development doesn’t necessarily call for a moral accounting of their choices, it at least puts them in a position where they’re practically affected by their malfeasance. And on a purely structural level, this introduces a clear, and very pressing, threat. One of those cops survived. She’s unconscious, and it’s possible she could still die, but her life (and the fact that she knows it was SAMCRO at the meet up) puts the club in a tight spot that’s going to force them to make some difficult decisions.

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Then things get worse, very quickly. Lin, having been informed (presumably) about the Sons’ betrayal (I’m assuming Jury spilled the beans), decides to retaliate. First, a van pulls up in front of the club’s ice cream shop and throws a grenade through the front window while Jax and the sheriff are having a chat. As retaliations go, this seems reasonable enough. But it doesn’t stop there. They have the Mayans’ guns (and killed the club member who was guarding the stock), which, given that the Jax and the others broke into Lin’s gun shipment earlier, again seems pretty reasonable. But then a group of Lin’s men go to the Nero’s club and kills a bunch of unarmed women, including Collete Janes, who came back for this season just long enough to make friends with Gemma, comfort Jax, and get herself shot.

This is a big, shocking moment, on a show where “big, shocking moments” are pretty routine. So credit where it’s due, I didn’t Jax’s revenge plan would turn this sour this fast; I certainly didn’t think we’d end up with a bunch of dead women whose greatest crime was making SAMCRO money and being vulnerable. And at this point, it’s probably not worth getting too upset at how Sutter and his writers’ obsession with narrative sadism can warp storylines in ways that make them impossible to effectively resolve. Suffering is the medium Sutter has chosen to work in, so I suppose it would be best to take this all at face value. Jax pushed the wrong man, and now he’s once again forced to deal with results he didn’t see coming, but should have been better prepared for. This is pretty standard revenge tragedy logic.

And yet… and yet. For one thing, there’s an uncomfortable amount of equivocation here. Consciously or not, the episode seems to go out of its way to suggest that, as bad as Jax has been, the people he goes after are always worse, so deep down, he isn’t that bad of a guy at all. Nobody got killed when Jax sent some guys to rough up Lin’s massage parlors, but Lin doesn’t have Jax’s moral compass; even though Jax started this whole mess because of Gemma’s lies, Lin is now the bad guy, and that, to an uncomfortable extent, seems to exculpate Jax of his sins. Sure, our boy went too far, but someone clearly needs to take Lin out, and whatever Jax does next, he’s a righteous angel of vengeance. He started this on a false pretense, but now he has a real reason to wade in. It’s not a huge flaw, but it’s unsettling, because it muddles the tragedy of this season. At first, it looked like we were dealing with a man giving in to his demons in the worst possible way. While that’s still true (he is technically responsible for the deaths), now he’s been given a green light to kill the shit out of the people who he never should’ve been targeting in the first place. The time to make peace has long past.

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But all right, ignore that. There’s a certain level of moralizing going on, and I’ll freely admit that I’ve struggled with that on this show for years now; it’s not ever going to change. Even putting aside the shift, though, there’s still the unfortunate fact that this Horrible Shocking Twist, while unexpected, doesn’t register all that high on the old emotional radar, at least not with this show. We’ve seen pretty much everything by now. The only thing left that could maybe mean something is if Abel got killed (which Gemma may or may not have been setting up when she said he was “his father’s son.”), although it’s not like we haven’t done dead kids before. Dark, horrifying acts of violence can serve an important narrative purpose; they shake up a status quo, raise stakes, heighten suspense. But at this point, what are the stakes? What’s our rooting interest? Some of the ensemble is pleasant enough (Chibs burgeoning relationship with the sheriff is both unexpected and sweet; Tig finding a romantic connection with Venus was pretty expected but also sweet), and I’m mildly curious as to how high the body count will rise before the end. But the soul is gone, bled out over the seasons through countless ragged wounds. I’m glad things are happening. But I’ll be even gladder when they stop.

Stray observations:

  • Marilyn Manson is back again, talking in code like all the cool kids do. (The reveal that he was only using code because he misses his dogs was maybe the funniest joke in the whole episode.) Courtney Love also made her first appearance, as a teacher at Abel’s new fancy pre-school. She was fine, although she didn’t get a chance to do much more than play straight man to Gemma’s routine, um, feistiness.
  • Gemma is still having conversations with “Tara.” It’s almost endearing, and far more believable than Juice’s apparent descent into madness. Admittedly, the show has been building up Juice as unstable for a while now, but his big monologue about being unable to handle being alone (all the voices in his head make him something something) was laughably melodramatic. It seems fairly obvious that the writers are setting him up to do something big, violent, and stupid fairly soon, probably some kind of self-sacrifice in order to help the club, but until that happens, his scenes aren’t exactly vital.
  • Also, don’t really care about Nero and Gemma’s relationship problems. He pulled away from her, and now he’s complaining that she’s too distant. Well, murdering an innocent person in a fit of misguided rage will make it harder for you to focus on romance, this is true.
  • “Althea? I guess your folks were hoping for a black baby.” Oh Gemma. Gemma, Gemma, Gemma.

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