Although it’s not a particularly good episode of television, ‘Straw’ is an interesting – if heavy-handed – opening to what Sutter considers the final act (consisting of this season, and next’s) of his ‘morality play’. Showing us its characters in the aftermath of season’s 5 conclusion, the episode builds toward the predictable closing montage, where the literal ‘final straws’ break on many of its integral characters. For some (like Tig, Nero, and Tara), these present intriguing possibilities for their characters – but for others like Clay, feels more like the show giving their character motivations they really shouldn’t have. And what connects it all together – an angry boy’s journey from home to a fateful day at school – ultimately doesn’t work, being a way-too-graphic representation of its season’s themes.
It’s why it took me so long to write this review: I needed some time to digest the construction of this episode and what it’s supposed to mean for its characters. When the episode opens, there’s a clear juxtaposition made between Jax and this child (the son of Dave Navarro’s goofy character), who are both writing in their journals. It’s a brief image, but one that sets the foundation for the rest of the episode, the camera eerily hanging on this blonde child with a black eye, as he somehow appears everywhere from the middle of Charming, to the Stockton ports where newcomer Charlie Barosky (a crooked former cop running porn through the ports).
In a way, the child represents each of these characters reaching their tipping point: whether its characters like Tig and Lee reeling from the death of family members, or Tara pushing Jax away as she deals with her impending felony charges, the silent child is embedded through the episode to represent the growing anger inside all of these characters in their difficult life situations. And once ‘Straw’ has firmly established the what, wheres, and hows of season six (which opens a week after s5 ends), it spends the rest of the 90-minute premiere pushing these characters deeper and deeper into the anger and isolation they’ve either seeked solace in (Tara, Lee, Tig, Juice) or have found themselves trapped in (Otto and Clay being the two most obvious examples here).
But once the boy sits down with his notebook full of violent, angry images and pulls out a fully automatic handgun, the whole metaphor falls apart and becomes the shock-ridden melodrama that writer Kurt Sutter unfortunately likes to play to. In an episode that already features on and off-screen torture porn, Otto getting raped, and Tig drowning a man in a vat of piss, the climatic moment of the episode comes in an overtly-written school shooting, featuring a too-calm child walking into a school and opening fire (the camera lingers outside the window for a few seconds as gunfire rings out and blood splatters against the window, otherwise sparing us from the horrific imagery we’re all too familiar with reading about over the past 20 years).
Is it really necessary?
With the gun running business left unmentioned for the entire hour, it seems a very weird time to try and make a point about gangsters and their guns, and how the career choices of some destroy the lives of others. It’s certainly not an unfamiliar theme to the show, but this quiet, metaphorical story thread that explodes into a gruesome school shooting seems like a step too far, even for Sons of Anarchy. Had the kid gone to school and beat a kid with a lead pipe, the metaphor remains the same, without the shock factor that screams for attention without having a real point to make: everything from the cuts on the kid’s arm to the sick drawings and “Pop goes the weasel” scribblings screams easy ‘angry kid’ cliche, severing the connection it makes in the opening scene when it suggests that Jax and this child are on similar journeys.
By this token, Jax having sex with Colette makes no sense: is this how Jax reacts when the ‘final straw’ (his lawyer telling him that Tara doesn’t want him at her hearing… something that I still don’t understand) breaks on his back? He goes out and cheats on his wife…. again??? While she’s trying to fight off people in lockup? Seriously – the worst part about this is that it takes an all-too-familiar misogynistic route, suggesting to us that Jax was pushed into cheating on his wife because she didn’t want him at a hearing. It’s been a fucking week and he’s already banging some new madame he just met?
Of course, this is a show that beats, tortures, and otherwise undermines women at just about every turn: the one character who gets more than this is Gemma, who just seems to be living in a dream world, ignoring the obvious degradation of the club around her. For a woman who once preached how important an old lady is to keeping a club together, she seems fairly content just waiting for Clay to die, watching Jax go down the same road his father and step-father have taken. She also doesn’t seem to be happy with Nero, an interesting turn of events for a character I actually find myself caring about (Nero, of course) – a nice turn of direction for Gemma’s character, although it mostly brings her back to being the unsatisfied queen bitch she was back in late season two/early season three.
Unfortunately, Jax has all but forgotten about the rotten shit she’s done, even though he gives her Scrunched Jax Angry Face in their only brief scene together, questioning her threat to Tara in Nero’s office. Of course she didn’t turn her in (turns out it was a very convincing Lee, who has an awful lot of pull for an ex-U.S. Marshal with a heroin addiction), but during their argument, there isn’t the same impatient, barely-contained fury we’ve seen Jax struggle with around his manipulative mother for a long time.
But Gemma’s always going to be an enigma that fits the character mold the narrative needs her to fit: as I mentioned last season, the importance of plot over character continues to grow, even though there are a few moments that stop for some fantastic character moments. Tig and Nero are chief among these, one clearly losing control after his daughter’s death last season, while the latter watches his son get a plastic gun as a gift, and wonders what the hell he’s doing to his family and his life (his reluctance to expand the whore business also reminds us how reluctant Nero was to getting pushed back into gangster life last season). Of course, the show’s going to have to find more to do in the time between now and the end of the season (where Nero will most likely die, ala Carlito’s Way… though this is pure speculation on my part, of course), because him making passive-aggressive comments to Jax and Gemma can only go on for so long, before his credibility as an intelligent, decisive businessman start to crumble away.
There are plenty of moments in ‘Straw’ that work: Tig and Nero’s building realizations, Tara’s independence in prison – but these never really find the connection they want built around the metaphor of this young, angry boy (for example, would seeing gen pop really be the final ‘straw’ for Clay turning rat?). That’s not to say some of the bigger plots don’t have interesting bits about characters built into them: but there are too many moments where the characters of SoA are in service of the plots around them (and not the other way around, as great television should be constructed), leading to a lot of head-scratching decisions and turns of events in the episode’s final third. One thing is clear: Sons of Anarchy appears to be heading to some dark, dark places this season – I just hope they find a way to give this darkness true resonance with its world and characters, instead of relying on shock factor and plot twists for the sake of melodrama. ‘Straw’ suggests a bit of the former and a lot of the latter; here’s to hoping the formula gets straightened out in upcoming weeks.
Other thoughts/observations (bear with me, I’ve got a lot):
– during a press event this summer, Sutter noted that this school shooting plot is something the show wanted to do for awhile, and that it “is truly the catalyst for the final act of our morality play. It sets everything in motion for this season that will ultimately lead to the end that then will bring us into the final season and what I see as the ultimate comeuppance of everything in terms of the series.” (credit to Alan Sepinwall at HitFix for that quote).
In this light, the ending of ‘Straw’ certainly appears to be something of importance: but how much? Is this showing us that Jax’s children will inevitably end up like him? Is this some generalized indictment against guns, or the club’s business running them? If the latter is the case, then it makes Lyla’s beating by an Iranian pornographer make a little more sense. Unfortunately, the both feel like more of the same: shocking moments that will inevitably lead to convolutions down the road. Here’s hoping it turns out different.
– why does Marks care about Tig being killed? Pope is dead, and now he has all the power. Feels unnecessary.
– Samaire Armstrong plays the fuckbuddy/girlfriend/wife/something of Dave Navarro’s character, the parental unit for our fateful blond child. If anything, it’ll be nice to see some Samaire on the small screen again.
– how did that pornographer know Tig had a daughter? I can accept it because what it leads to is interesting, but that moment felt inauthentic.
– Chibs is now VP, and Happy Sgt. in Arms. Tig is apparently cool with this, though I’d expect this to crop up later this season.
– Bobby is trying to reform the folded Nomad division…. why does this matter, exactly, except that he’s still alive in the SoA world?
– what the fuck happened to Eli?
– Jax is seen wearing an ‘In Memory of “Opie”‘ patch on his cut.
– think Jax’s attraction to Colette has anything to do with mommy problems? He seems to get turned on watching her make the bed and undress him like a child.
– Tig watches the body slowly drown in the ocean, a very telling image of the feelings Tig has himself right now. He’s on the edge of being completely enveloped in his own darkness, a sign that his time on the show may be coming to an end this year.
– Let’s torture Lyla some more, because she won’t let a man help her! How pleasant, right?
– Lee has three ex-wives and a heroin problem, two pieces of information his character really didn’t need to have. Seems to weaken his stance as a powerful ex-lawman, being debilitated by a huge, very easy-to-manipulate drug habit.
– Gemma: “you’ve grabbed my tits, so don’t call me ma’am anymore.”
– Lee, to Tara: “I’ve no interest in helping you. I want to use you.” BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT ALL NON-GEMMA WOMEN ARE WORTH ON THIS SHOW.
– Let’s not call Unser ‘Uncle Touchy’; it’s fucking creepy.
– Gemma: “I don’t want to know myself.” …. ok?
– I still can’t believe that Clay pussies out to give up his MC. This has the stink of “long, long con” written all over it.