The article below contains spoilers through the most recent season of "Sons of Anarchy."
"J'ai Obtenu Cette," last night’s propulsive season finale of "Sons of Anarchy," was a good indicator of why the fifth year of the FX motorcycle gang drama has been the show’s best since its first. This season, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) finally assumed control of the Sons and was able to start implementing his vision for a new direction for the club, something easier said than done. This was also the first season in which Jax’s bad blood with his mother Gemma Teller Morrow (Katey Sagal) and, more notably, her husband Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) has been most actively dealt with. There was also the welcome presence of a parade of talented character actors like Danny Trejo and Donal Logue and a couple of shocking and impactful reversals of fortune. But more than anything else, the show’s characters have finally starting thinking about what they need to do to stop themselves from stagnating in Charming, CA, and repeating their own mistakes.
External conflicts made seasons two and three about turf wars and missing children, distracting from that central turmoil. But season four finally left the show’s characters in a place where they had to make some big moves to change what the Sons stood for. That meant that Jax finally had to act on what he found in his dead father’s journal in season one and in the love letters that were discovered in season three and then hidden for the majority of season four.
The show’s main protagonists have at long last started to deal with the history and drama underlying their organization rather than being constantly forced to act on the results of whatever gang war subplot du jour is at hand. The internal conflict between Jax and Clay has finally been foregrounded and, as one of the Sons directly suggested at the beginning of season five, being president of the club was boung to bring a change in Jax’s character. Gemma, Clay and Jax’s wife Tara Knowles-Teller (Maggie Siff) have been changing with him, and that means they’re still trying to decide which compromises really need to be made.
"To Be, Act 2," season four’s finale, left Jax in charge after he decisively ousted Clay from the president’s chair, leading to an obvious but necessary visual juxtaposition that put Jax and Tara in exactly the same pose as Gemma and Jax’s dead father John Teller had sat in years before. But Jax is only in the seat of power because Clay screwed up so many times, like when he killed Piney (William Lucking) in the season four episode "Family Recipe."
At the start of this season, all of the not-so-subtle intimations of Clay’s loss of power and his status as a “wounded animal” were apparent, as when he tried to mount his motorcycle but wound up falling over on his side before he could leave the garage. That kind of blocky character-defining moment is forgivable given where Clay’s character arc has taken him. Clay’s scheming has become almost a symbol for the amoral, opaque decisions that have steered the Sons away from the path that we’re constantly told John Teller never wanted the club to go down, one that showrunner Kurt Sutter has illustrated with back-stabbings and double/triple crosses that have left several of the club’s members dead, sometimes directly at the hands of their brothers in arms.
It was gratifying to see Sutter start this season by showing Clay lying to Sons members, as when he told Juice Ortiz (Theo Rossi) and the other club members that he needed to keep using his oxygen tank longer than his doctor said it was necessary for. Clay’s opportunism was apparent even before his half-assed attempt to undermine Jax's authority with the break-ins subplot.
While losing his membership was inevitable, the resolution of Clay’s domestic troubles with Gemma was a great way to demonstrate that, even if he continued to make a habit of dissembling to the people he supposedly cared about most, he’d at least partially convinced himself that he wanted to change. But the people who'd decide whether or not he'd have a chance to were the loved ones that he’d pissed off in many different not-so-subtle ways over the course of the last four years (with last season’s murder and wife-beating combination as real clinchers).
The changes Jax has had to make have been even more drastic. Unable to hide his anger with Clay, Jax had to diplomatically keep all the different warring gangs happy while deciding how best to dispose of his stepfather. He's also had to figure out a way to get the club out of being the Galindo cartel’s coke mules, a set-up that, more than selling weapons or supporting prostitution, was a bridge too far for Jax and pretty much all of the club’s other members. So he tried to get into business with Gemma’s new lover, Nero Padille (Jimmy Smits), making a deal that would make the club’s business more about pimping out women than selling drugs, a move that illustrated the ways in which the club’s amoral decisions are made out of self-interest.
It was the constant cartel feuding, not the money, that ultimately made the partnership with the Galindo problematic. The club’s moral objections to drug-running, ones that were touted in the last three seasons, were plainly shown to be flexible by season four. It provided an unethical precedent for what Jax tried to do later in season five by selling two of his members out to the season’s latest villain, high-connected drug kingpin Damon Pope ("Lost" star Harold Perrineau).
The first time Jax sold out one of the Sons to appease Pope, he had the excuse of being up against a wall. But when he did it a second time, it became easy to believe that Jax had become so desperate to shack up with anybody that would help him get rid of Clay that he’d destroy his own club. This is, after all, a character that throughout much of season four was talking about abandoning the Sons and starting over with Tara and his three children.
Jax’s more morally ambiguous decisions in this season, like when he tried to keep his former junky ex-wife Wendy (Drea de Matteo) from their son by injecting her with a speedball, also indirectly revealed that Sutter is happy to exploit his characters’ worse tendencies to produce a more sensational story. The heady changes that John Teller’s letters allude to, the kind that Jax continues to dream he can implement for the club, have still never been discussed beyond a basic disinterest in working with self-interested men.
Jax has effectively become one of those men even if he endangers club members like Tig Trager (Kim Coates) and Opie Winston (Ryan Hurst) for the greater good. While he's finally thinking bigger than he used to, his vision for the club still isn’t expansive enough for him to look like more than just a more sympathetic tyrant. Sons’s member Bobby Munson (Mark Boone Junior) even said this to Jax in last night’s finale, telling him that he’s more like Clay than Jax is willing to admit.
At least the finale thankfully left both Gemma and Tara in positions of power. The resolution of Gemma’s self-destructive story arc was particularly satisfying because she’s become more than just an accessory to Clay’s actions. Now Gemma (and presumably soon Tara) will be making more than just reactive decisions about who heads up her family and how the club is run.
Gemma’s suicidal tendencies earlier in the season and her refusal to stop seeing Nero just because Jax said it would be bad for business made her a more than nominally strong character. And her clear-eyed betrayal of Clay last night was enough to suggest that, even if Clay will likely return next season (he’s not dead yet, after all), she’s not going to go back to being just an "old lady" any time soon. With a stronger definition of who the core characters are, and a promising cast of new supporting characters — here's looking forward to seeing more of Logue’s vengeful baddy Lee Toric — "Sons of Anarchy" is finally decisively back on-track.