I listen to a lot of podcasts. So, the final 10 minutes of Sons of Anarchy premiere episode, “Straw”, were vaguely spoiled for me. Everyone on Talking TV and Firewall & Iceberg would only go as far as saying something major happens. I expected we would finally get the death of Clay Morrow or perhaps Tara would be raped, major events but keeping in the violent vocabulary of Sons of Anarchy. I did not fathom that I’d witness a school shooting. It was a quick and sudden affair. The whole sequence had a voyeuristic quality to it as the camera simply tracked the shooter, a young student, as he entered the building. Setting up shop on a draped window. With sounds of screams, gunfire, soon after and finally the splattering of blood.
Having the camera frame up on a window is what really did it. There is always an unwritten amount of omniscience and voyeurism that comes with watching film and television. It’s only when the frame is used to frame another thing that we become aware of it. In this case it was used to deeply unsettle. It succeeded mightily at it. This is most definitely the worst violence perpetrated on Sons of Anarchy. I might complain about how the usage of aggression and bullets is a boring and overused way of handling situations by the Sons, those normally come with some pretext and reason. This was a seemingly random act of violence, which makes it the worst. It is hollow. Meant only to unsettle.
The Sons of Anarchy are terrible people. Yes, they are roguish anti heroes but Sutter and Co. have done a good job pointing out how far out these individuals are. Most of these narrative choices though fall in line with sexual perversion or malice. Little has actually been made of the business of the Sons: gun running. They are a bunch of pack mules who get their guns from terrorist groups, and then sell or mule their wares for much bigger fish. What happens to the guns after they have been dropped off or sold has never been shown. Until now. This kind of follow through implies a greater world and consequence that could jump me back into the show. It’s also a subject I don’t believe Kurt Sutter is able to handle.
Before the above happened it would not be hard to describe “Straw” as anything more than just another episode of Sons of Anarchy. In the context of a season premier where there will likely be viewership increase (the shows premier’s and ratings in general have grown steadily), that is expected and feels “right”. It’s what any executive or showrunner would want and “Straw”, barring the last 10 minutes, is a very good sample of what a new viewer should expect from Sons of Anarchy. As someone who has seen all prior episodes it has left me rather numb to the pulpy darkly humored and violent machinations of the club. “Straw” features Tigg drowning a man in a bathtub of urine and then urinating on his corpse for good measure. That didn’t even get me to bat an eye, just another day in Stockton/Southern California.
The titular Sons find themselves and Nero’s crew running up against some ultra perverted fellow pornographers. Lyla had taken a job with them to do what she believed to be some simulated torture and other extremely rough acts. As it turns out she found herself involved in literal torture porn. Returning to the Sons a battered woman. Ever the morally astute and conscious type they react like they always do. Come in guns drawn swinging it around and acting thuggish. And keeping in Sons tradition it all goes wrong for them, with the cops rolling up on the joint and arresting them.
Only they are not taken downtown. Instead they are taken to the feet of a now retired but still crooked cop played by Peter Weller. Weller’s character runs the docks and does not take kindly to two gangs rolling up on his turf without so much as a courtesy call. Weller is an interesting presence on screen and his character fits the type already seen on Sons. Familiarity aside it is doubtful that others could have sold a line like “Persia hasn’t been a country since 637 AD. They’re called Iranians.” half as well. This whole situation being one big misunderstanding Weller warms up to Jax and Nero enough and puts them in contact with a local madame who is looking to run a legitimate brothel. Just the kind of upstanding business Jax and Nero would love to get involved with. Even if Nero is wary of expansion and going deeper...despite having jumped back into his gang life a season earlier.
The action involving the Sons might have been a bit rote. This can not be said for what Tara, played by Maggie Siff, is going through. Tara is far removed from her element as an inmate. All her social niceties and normalcy (in comparison to the insanity surrounding her) are useless on the inside. Ever since her hand was maimed Tara has slowly started becoming more and more unhinged which is the ultimate fate of her equivalent character in Hamlet. Isolated Tara is forced to become something she hates. She needs to be a hard women like Gemma. Her cathartic beat down of the women who made the mistake of taking her blanket notwithstanding. Tara in prison and isolated from everyone could be interesting. If anything it will allow the directors to focus on Siff’s eyes, who tell the story. At times there is a vacancy about them and others you see her maternal soul come through.
Someone else who is isolated from everyone (literally) is Clay Morrow. For all the pomp of Mr. Pope’s high priced insurance policy it still hasn’t taken care of his assumed killer. It has all the appearance that it would, had it not been for the intervention of U.S. Marshal (retired) Lee Toric (Donal Logue). Toric is the brother to the nurse Otto gruesomely murdered last season. Toric has taken it upon himself to finally kill the Sons of Anarchy. No case or agency to back him up or hold him back. Just plain old fashion revenge. Episode director Paris Barclay frames Toric with some veiled religious imagery. First in his meeting with Clay he is almost engulfed in bright light making him appear angelic, he is Clay’s guardian angel. Later on he assumes the position of the cross naked in some kind of euphoric high after shooting himself up with something. Lee is no angel to Tara however. Bluntly stating that he only wishes to use her to turn on Jax and the club.
There is a lot to unpack in “Straw”. It setups of arcs for Bobby Elvis who finds himself removed from the Sons after resigning as VP and Juice who now must make good with his brothers. I’d say it makes good use of its 90 minute run time but the run time also gives the episode a meandering pace. In television you have the 30 and 60 minute block of time in which to spin your yarn. Run times like 90 minutes are a sign of importance and specialty. The luster is lost when it involves Sons of Anarchy. Last season featured multiple seemingly unending 90 minute episodes that just didn’t feel like they need to be that long. Editing is truly an art form and it’s one that Sons really could use. Otherwise it’ll just be a bloated violent mess (which it already is).