TV Review: SONS OF ANARCHY Season 5 Premiere

Mike Moody dives into the fifth season of FX's motorcycle drama.

Sons of Anarchy is back, and show creator Kurt Sutter didn’t waste any time riding in low gear with this intense season premiere. Sutter, who wrote this episode, started twisting the knife in SAMCRO’s side seconds after Jax Teller and crew first sped across the screen. And the bloodletting only got worse as the show went on.

Some things have changed since last season – Jax is now club president, Gemma and Clay are on the outs, and a big pimpin’ Jimmy Smits is spilling charisma all over the screen – but many things have remained the same. Jax and the club are still tangled up in a messy deal involving the IRA, the Galindo cartel and the CIA, and SAMCRO is still struggling to keep its balance while sitting on a big stack of lies. And while Jax works to distance his club from its dangerous partners, a new threat is rising that feels more vicious and calculating than any other the club has faced before.

The new threat comes in the form of Oakland drug kingpin Damon Pope, played with unsettling detachment by Lost alum Harold Perrineau. What makes Pope potentially more dangerous than the other big bads SAMCRO has faced is his motive – he’s avenging the death of his daughter, the woman Tig accidentally killed at the end of last season in a clumsy and misguided retaliation attempt. Pope doesn’t want the Sons’ money, guns or territory; he wants bloody vengeance.

Tig got a hard taste of Pope’s brutality in a dark and disturbing scene in which he set Tig’s daughter on fire and forced him to watch. Kim Coates’ emotional performance in this scene as Tig reminded me of how great an actor he really is. Coates often underplays the role to great comic effect, but he was a storm of regret, emotion and rage here. It’s the rage and the need for retribution that will get Tig through his pain, and that’s exactly the kind of compelling tragedy Sons of Anarchy trades in.

With internal strife and a shaky deal threatening to crumble the club, and a powerful enemy approaching like a blaze of bullets, it’s probably an understatement to say the stakes are pretty damn high this season.

It’s a tough time for Jax to take the reins. Jax’s ascension from Clay’s veep to SAMCRO boss has been a long time coming, but will power, as it tends to do, corrupt the noble son? That question hangs heavy over this season premiere. It’s clear that Jax is well aware that the gavel can “turn shit around” or change and corrupt a man. He addressed the issue up at Piney’s memorial when talking to Opie, but ol’ Ope expressed a different concern – he doesn’t want to turn into Jax. “I’m not gonna to turn into Clay,” said Jax. Ope’s response: “’I’m more afraid I’m gonna to turn into you.”

Opie, the beardy, statuesque biker, who has always reminded me of a freshly showered James Hetfield, despises the lies, politics and deceit that are keeping SAMCRO from falling apart at the moment. Jax used to be that guy, the guy fighting to expose the truth at all costs; but now he’s the guy who’s convinced that sweeping dirt under the rug is the only way to keep his club whole. We side with Jax, because deceiving his brothers and keeping secrets seems to be his only choice at the moment, what with the CIA, the cartel and the IRA tightening their hands around SAMCRO’s throat. But despite the extenuating circumstances, the idea that Jax could slowly begin to turn to the dark side never quite leaves the air.

Clay looked pitiful here, slumping around the clubhouse and struggling to sit, stand and walk. He looks like the club’s resident elder, or the guy who sits at the end of the table and provides a link to the club’s past without influencing much of its future. But we know better – Clay is clearly working an angle, and he has the leverage to possibly pull off whatever he’s trying to do. He knows Jax is keeping things from the club, and it’s only a matter of time until he learns the truth and holds it over Jax’s head. And even though he promised Gemma he’d never implicate her in John Teller’s death, that promise sounded more like a threat.

Clay tried to account for his despicable actions in a quiet scene with Gemma. He talked about being a soldier and how killing Piney and orchestrating a hit on Tara was just part of “the mission.” He was blinded by his goal, he said. The truth, though, is that Clay was motivated by selfishness and greed -- two things that don’t belong in a motorcycle club founded on grand ideas of loyalty, brotherhood and trust. While it’s hard to think that Jax could emulate Clay’s betrayal, it’s not hard to see that Jax is going to have to get his hands dirty to protect himself, the club and his family. Jax is already betraying his brothers by keeping secrets, but how far will he go to keep those secrets?

The idea that SAMCRO is bad for the town of Charming, despite the club’s love for their home, is brought up again with references to a series of brutal home invasions. At first, the invasions sounded like Niner retaliation, but the final scene, in which Unser was beaten, seemed to pin the crimes on the Nomads. The club elected to induct a trio of Nomad brothers into the Charming circle, but it looks like at least one of these newbies, “Greg the Peg,” is puttin’ the hurt on Charming citizens.

Season 5 of Sutter’s “adrenalized soap opera” promises more secrets, lies, grit and blood. This was a compelling kick-off to the season, and it showed that ‘SOA’ can still stir up emotion and excitement even after four plus years on the air. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Are you ready for the ride?

Other thoughts:

- Jimmy Smits is a welcome presence here. He comes off cool and casual and charming as all hell … for a pimp anyway. He and Katey Segal have a nice chemistry, which is kinda surprising considering his explicit introduction. It should be fun watching him trade barbs with Gemma this season.

- Tara is looking and acting more like a hard “old lady” than ever before. She’s still working at the hospital, but her life is changing fast. I love the parallels the show makes between Tara’s trajectory and Gemma’s life. The fun comes in watching Tara act like a smarter and nobler version of Gemma.

- Killing Clay last season would have made sense, in an emotional way at least, but I’m glad Ron Perlman stuck around. He’s turning in great work here, especially in selling Clay’s painful physical transformation.