Brief spoilers for last night’s Sons of Anarchy below:
Sons of Anarchy has always been a show built around two compelling, successful, but in the long term incompatible, stories. There’s one about Jax and Clay and Gemma and the original conflicts over SAMCRO’s goals and methods that led to Jax’s father’s murder by Clay. There’s another about a motorcycle club—led by Clay with Jax at his side—banding together to defend its territory and protect its own from outside enemies.
Put another way: the Sons, as constructed, are a criminal organization, and Clay—though the show’s morality is complicated—is essentially its villain. Yet a lot of the show’s appeal in its first three seasons has been built on viewers’ cheering for SAMCRO and for Clay and Jax as a kick-ass unit.
For much of its existence, SOA has made this possible by giving the Sons one external enemy after another to temporarily supersede its internal struggles. Jax is this close to having it out with Clay—but wait! It’s Stahl / Zobelle / the Irish / etc.! Gotta put the Hamlet stuff on the back burner for now!
It worked, often powerfully, but at some point SOA had to choose which kind of show it was going to be. In last night’s “Hands,” it chose—dramatically and, I hope, irrevocably.
There doesn’t seem to be much of a credible way that the series can turn back, first from Clay’s decision (now discovered by Gemma) to have Tara killed for what (he believes) she knows about John Teller’s letters, then from his brutal beatdown of Gemma after she confronts him with the truth. (Though the beatdown may have been superfluous: the real point of no return was when he dismissed her as nothing more than “an old lady” who bewitched him with her “tight pussy” into killing John.)
I’ll leave the point-by-point plot breakdown to others, but along with some unsurprisingly riveting work by Katey Sagal, “Hands” was a great showcase for Ron Perlman, who took his character over the edge brazenly, as if to taunt us with the question of why we ever sympathized with him in the first place.
SOA still has a long way to go, and I don’t see it suddenly simplifying into everyone-against-Clay; the relationships within the club are complicated, and there’s still the question of how Gemma’s declaration (that Clay must die “by the hand of the son”) will work. Also, let’s not forget, one fight with Clay does not render Gemma innocent in John’s murder in the first place, another issue the show will eventually have to address with Jax.
I don’t know if Clay’s endgame will play out over the rest of this season or into next year. But what we saw in “Hands” makes me very excited for SOA’s future—as long as the show doesn’t set up another reason to bring him back from the point of no return. Complicated-ally Clay is gone. Long—or short as the case may be—live bad-guy Clay.