I’ll be the first to admit that there are instances when Sons of Anarchy feels overwrought and ham-fisted; when it overshoots the target it sets for itself and devolves into soap-opera theatrics. Jax’s decision to forego Abel in Ireland and how that turned out in Season 3 is an example. Juice’s father issues from last season was another one. Storylines that dragged on and on but that could have been solved with one discussion.
And yet, for all that, when it is firing on all cylinders, Sons of Anarchy is one of the best “edge of your seat/what the hell will happen next?” shows on TV today. The tale of the outlaw motorcycle club from North California manages to build pressure from one episode of a season to another until there’s the natural explosion (often one of violence) to release it all. Show creator/writer Kurt Sutter is at his best though when these violent explosions act as both releases from tension and creators of further drama. That’s a damn rare trick to pull off. And he pulls it off in “Hands”.
The show tells the tale of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club – specifically, the founding chapter of the club based in fictional Charming, California. The club engages in illegal gun-running to make its money – buying guns from IRA sources and selling them to Oakland gangbangers – which brings it into direct conflict with federal authorities and rival motorcycle clubs. At the core of the club are Clay Morrow and Jackson “Jax” Teller, the President and Vice-President of the club. Clay is an old school biker and a man who believes in violence as the best solution for any problem. Jax, the son of former President John Morrow and Clay’s wife, Gemma, is far more thoughtful; seeking a peaceful coexistence between the club and the world around them. The existential questions are brought on to Jax by his new role as a father and he begins connecting with his dead father’s vision for what SAMCRO was meant to be. Jax is quite capable of violence though. Make no mistake there. His attempts at modernizing the club bring him into direct conflict with Clay and the other members of SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club – Redwood Original).
In fact, one of the aspects of the show that is so surprising is how it makes the violent, dangerous and criminal SAMCRO members into people you root for and worry about. In the four seasons we have seen them in action, the club members have killed, maimed, butchered and terrorized hundreds. They have beaten up women. They have killed their own friends and family members. They have delivered violence on a large scale across their hometown and across continents. And they have done it all in the name of keeping their happy, fun time club going as it always has. In a sense, we wish they could do it too. Life though never lets that happen and is always throwing conflict in the Sons’ path.
By the time of “Hands”, SAMCRO has begun running drugs for the Galindo drug cartel out of Mexico at the behest of Clay, who is looking for a big score for the club before old age forces him to step down. Jax has agreed to it in order to earn enough money to get himself, his wife and their kids out of Charming and away from SAMCRO. Jail has acted as a catalyst for Jax to recognize what he truly values. Unfortunately for them, the history of SAMCRO is the history of Charming and long-buried ghosts that have lingered in the fringes are returning. Most notably, Dr. Tara Knowles, Jax’s wife, has obtained the letters of John Teller, which detail his fears of potential assassination at the hands of his friend and club brother Clay and John’s wife, Gemma, whom John suspects is having an affair with Clay. Gemma, Jax’s mother, fears that Tara will reveal all of this to Jax and shares these fears with Clay. Clay’s solution to this problem: ask the Galindo cartel to take out Tara.
Though Clay tries to back out of it, drug cartels are even more ruthless than Clay Morrow and the hit is the ticking time bomb of this episode. Aware that Tara is on her way to a job interview at a hospital in Oregon, the Galindo cartel sends its hit squad out to intercept her. What they don’t know is that Jax and their two infant children are travelling with Tara. When the hitmen finally catch up with the Tellers at a picturesque picnic, the natural explosion of violence ensues. Jax is able to fight them off as they try to kidnap Tara, but damage is done as a van door smashes Tara’s right hand. For a surgeon whose main work is to repair the hearts of newborns and infants, the damage done to Tara’s hand is likely a career-ender. It also likely ends their preferred exit avenue, seeing as to how Tara is the legit employee with the career path. Being an outlaw biker just out of jail doesn’t give Jax lots of career options.
Not surprising, Tara finally unloads on Jax in one of the more emotional scenes of the show. That she has sacrificed her life, her children, her career and her future all at the feet of Jackson Teller and the Sons of Anarchy is a horrific realization for the once-independent career woman. Jax gets to follow that up with his best friend, Opie, unloading on him too when he reveals his long-held secret plans to get out of Charming and out of the Sons. Opie feels betrayed by the man he calls brother and who convinced him to return to SAMCRO when he wanted out – and which cost him his wife.
Like all great shows, Sons of Anarchy’s foundation is family. The outlaw bikers and the violence are the dressings which the show uses to attract viewers. But none of it would work if the underpinnings were girded to the drama and trauma of the emotional connections with the people who we call family. (It was the same for The Sopranos and it’s the same for Game of Thrones). The life and choices that Jackson, Clay, Gemma, Tara, Opie and the rest of the Sons make resonate and reverberate upon one another; often in a negative manner. They cannot find a way between what they want out of life and the mistakes they have made in the past. So they continue stumbling along, making new mistakes and creating a worse situation for all involved. And the denouement puts that on display.
Recognizing that the hit on Tara and Jax came from Clay, Gemma confronts her husband. In any marriage, a wife accusing a husband of a mob-style hit on a family would be fraught with danger. In the outlaw biker world they live, an “old lady” confronting her biker husband requires one response. And Clay, who throughout the series had shown himself totally devoted to Gemma, delivers one vicious beating to the woman with whom he has spent nearly two decades together. The dissolution of their union is painful to watch and it’s a credit to the show that they don’t make any sort of excuses for what is happening. Clay has entirely flipped and become a monster and his beating of Gemma opens up all sorts of doors for further carnage down the road. After all, Clay has now hurt the two women who matter most in Jax’s life.
The show itself wouldn’t work if it wasn’t held up by good acting and in this episode we get to see the best of Ron Perlman, Maggie Siff, Charlie Hunnam and, specially, Katey Sagal. Best known in the 80s as Peggy Bundy and in the 90s/00s as the voice of Leela, Sagal has spent the last four years chewing iron and spitting nails as the matriarch of the Sons. Gemma has been a victim of rape, a plotter of murder, a staunch defender of her family and a deliverer of violence. When she says that Clay “must die at the hands of a Son” it doesn’t sound like a woman distraught or broken after the man she loved – and betrayed her first husband for – has beaten her. If anything, it sounds as if she’s sounding the clarion call of vengeance, of burning rage focused upon a single target: the man she once loved.
“Hands” puts the best of Sons of Anarchy on display. And as the fifth season of the show begins on Tuesday, it’s nice to look back at the best it can offer and hope that last season’s flaws get ironed out and made into strengths this season. The Hamlet-meets-bikers tale that Kurt Sutter is weaving will likely have three more seasons at least. Here’s hoping for more hours like this one.