I have tried in my way to be free
Sons of Anarchy – “Home”
Like a bird on a wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried in my way
to be free.
Those words of Leonard Cohen couldn’t be better suited for Sons of Anarchy if he had written them for the show. But it’s pretty awesome that they were sung by Katey Sagal, whose portrayal of Gemma is nothing short of extraordinary. Her performance last season was infamously Emmy-snubbed, but given more nuanced and, in a way, more compromising material this season,* she has made Gemma, who was something of a monster by “Na Tribioldi,” simultaneously an exiled queen of an outlaw gang, a loyal but helpless daughter, and a hoodwinked and betrayed grandmother, spouse, and mother.
Last night’s Sons continued the theme of last week, exploring the travails of the old ladies, the daughters of anarchy, in the gang. Gemma is lied to again and again about her grandson, while she has to face the devastating decision to turn her father over to a retirement home.** Tara, once again pushed away by Jax, finally finds herself owning up to the fact that her pledge to the Hippocratic Oath is dead in the water: “Is that old lady enough for you?” she rages, admitting the killing and…um…disposing of the caretaker. Mo is caught between the scheming of Jimmy O and Father Ashby in Belfast, neither side of whom seems to have a clear agenda with Abel other than keeping the knowledge of his expatriation as far as possible from the Sons.
There’s been some complaints about the pace of this season; a shootout with rednecks right out of Deliverance aside,*** this season so far has been more about laying some pieces in place and filling in some of the Irish backstory, and to that extent, I understand why viewers might be looking for a little more, well, anarchy. But on the other hand, what this slowdown has done has put the characters in a kind of helpless holding pattern, like Jax or Gemma, while some of the relationships between the characters, especially Jax, Clay, and Gemma, get deepened and in a certain sense, twisted. The bonds of family have been at stake from the beginning of this show, and while the murder of Donna and the rape of Gemma strained those bonds, they didn’t challenge the integrity of the Sons the way the events of this season have. The show has, most certainly, delayed in committing SAMCRO to the road, whether Vancouver or Belfast, and that’s been frustrating; but on the other hand, uprooting the Sons while refusing to give them a clear mission has highlighted their vulnerability more than even a car bomb in their parking lot could have. The conceit of this show, after all, is that the Sons are kings of Charming, and every trouble they have is directly related to that, whether it is an invasion of their home turf, or their attempts to venture out into the world of rival gangs. It’s only then, in the face of external threats, that internal fissures tend to be revealed. So it’s inevitable that an episode staged away from “Home” would show them facing their most serious internal troubles yet.
And that’s being reflected in their relationships this season. It might not, indeed, be the ideological conflict between Jax and Clay that brings about their showdown, but rather the helpless rage of a son striking out against those closest to him. Clay’s impotence has been shown this season far more starkly than before, as has Jax’s; but while Jax is a bomb waiting to go off, Clay can barely keep his hands on the grips of his bike. Can you have a more appropriate metaphor than Clay’s hand being literally tied to his bike so he can maintain control? And that Jax is the one to do the binding? As for Gemma: I’ve always thought the scar running down her chest was an apt metaphor for her being the exposed heart of this show. Torn between Jax and Clay, now lied to by both of them, the episode closed with her clutching her chest and falling to the ground.**** I suppose we have our answer about what Gemma would do when she found out about Abel. I always imagined a maniacal fury erupting; but this is a woman has suffered too much to do anything but drop to the ground lifeless. That’s a far cry from the woman who bashed her rival across the face with a skateboard; and it’s also a long ways from the violated woman who kept silent to protect the club she loved.
A club that, by the way, is going back to jail in two days.
*Obviously a rape is the very definition of “compromising;” what I mean is that her role this season has focused so far on more ambiguous and more quietly intimate material – her relationship with her parents on the one hand, and her confinement and murder of the caretaker on the other, an act shocking even to Clay and Jax.
**Hal Holbrook has been amazing, but his performance last night was superb – his pleas (“Take me home, please take me home”) sounded like the pitiful cries of a child. I don’t think I’ve ever fully grasped how agonizing the decision is that adults must make in our culture to commit their parents to assisted care, nor how much that must seem like treachery to the sufferer of dementia.
**** Second best line of the night to Tara’s “Is that old lady enough for you?”: Piney – “‘Cause we’re the good guys.”
****Another interesting Mad Men parallel!