After Season 1 of Sons of Anarchy laid out the backbone of the series in its debut, subsequent season premieres found themselves defined by specific moments. The gang rape of Gemma in Season 2 still stands out as some of the most brutal television I've watched. Season 3's opener took its time before a van full of trigger-happy thugs unloaded on Half Sack's wake and Jax made some dude taste pavement. Last season, a joyous wedding was capped by a shower of bullets in lieu of throwing rice, because that's the kind of stuff that happens at a biker wedding.
There's a common thread to a Sons premiere, and it's marked with considerable violence after many minutes of stage-setting, refamiliarizing the audience with the life of SAMCRO, and attempting to iron out the show's incredibly complex storylines. Tonight's "Sovereign" sticks very close to that model, which is a comforting feeling for longtime fans even if it doesn't offer anything terribly new except for new ways to show people suffering. Yes, an innocent woman being burned alive in a pit full of corpses was comforting. Sons of Anarchy is back, baby!
But before we get to that good stuff we need to look at what happened before. It's now more evident than ever that the Season 4 finale was just as interested in setting things up for Season 5 as it was with closing up Season 4. This year's bad guy* appears to be Damon Pope, played by that guy (Harold Perrineau) whose Lost dialogue was 75-percent "Waaaaaaalt!" The advantage of essentially starting this storyline last season is that we can get right down to the business of burning an innocent woman alive in a pit full of corpses. The disadvantage, well, the Season 4 finale was definitely the lowlight of an otherwise stellar season of Sons of Anarchy.
(* "bad guy" is obviously relative in this series, but if you've made it to Season 5 then you are probably more or less okay with SAMCRO's less-than-legal extracurriculars.)
So it wasn't long before we got an idea of how this Pope fella operates. The way this guy runs things, he makes the other Pope look like a prankster. It was his daughter that was manslaughtered by Tig in what can only be described as a rage-fueled-but-brain-absent decision in last season's finale, and Pope's not going to let that slide. He went after SAMCRO and cleaned up his own staff in the process, murdering Leroy (Tig's intended target) by chopping him into pieces, shooting his lieutenant Darnell in the head pretty much just to send a message (he went to the Gus Fring school of thuggery, apparently), and pouring gasoline on Tig's daughter Dawn (does that mean no more Rachel Miner?) for the aforementioned human BBQ. (If you want to get technical about it, it was actually Pope's right-hand man August Marks that did most of the killing under orders from Pope so Pope can keep his hands clean.)
But aside from his horrible actions, does Pope really give us the bad guy we want in this season? There's no doubt he's dangerous and his crew is a formidable opponent, but Pope himself lacks the charisma of past Sons of Anarchy villains. Lincoln Potter was fascinating because he was a chocolate-milk-drinking weirdo, Ethan Zobelle had the whole super-smart white-power thing going on, but Pope, apart from a penchant for human flambé, seems pretty run of the mill by baddie standards and will need to build a legacy of hatred through vicious actions instead of interesting character quirks and a commanding presence. Pope doesn't seem like a hardcore gangster yet to me, he seems like an actor playing a hardcore gangster. It's not a good start for Pope when I'm more scared of his buddy August than I am of him.
That will likely change when Pope finds out what Tig did. Instead of going quietly off to jail, Tig strangled an Oakland detective on Pope's payroll and killed the cleaner that was there to scrape Dawn off the sides of the pit. This is Tig at his unhinged best. Love this guy, and love Kim Coates' performance through that whole scene.
Elsewhere, the club is in shambles as Jax deals with all sorts of fallout and desperately tries to Scotch tape SAMCRO together. Clay, or the ghost of Clay, is haunting the headquarters looking more like a monster than the ferocious villain he was last season. It's satisfying that he's become the new Piney, burdened with tubes in his nose and unable to ride with the kids, but the guy still deserves a million papercuts and a lemon juice bath. I applaud the effort to repair his broken image, especially his confession at the table and his attempts to talk to Gemma, but after what he did last season, he's beyond repair in my eyes even though I had to reprimand myself for feeling sympathy for him for a millisecond there. He doesn't seem like a threat to Jax at the moment, and I think that makes him especially dangerous. His balls may be cut off, but his claws aren't.
Gemma, meanwhile, was a broken woman from Clay's dickishness and was spiraling down into a world of Jack Daniels for breakfast and drunken sex with strangers for fourth meal. But she still has a long ways to fall because she's holding the biggest secret (her involvement in JT's murder) now that the truth is out about Clay. And if I were her, I wouldn't feel too confident that Clay is holding that secret with her.
There's definitely a feeling of regime change here, with Clay and Gemma shells of their former selves and Jax and Tara doing everything but pose for a photograph in the shape of young Clay and Gemma (like they did at the end of Season 4). Clay's grip on power is non-existent, and Gemma, once a perfect example of strength, is at the weakest point we've ever seen her. It's obvious she and Tara are going to scratch each others' eyes out at some point this season, but the question will be how Clay finds his way back into the swing of things, because there is no way he can be done.
And what of Opie? The gentle giant said he's done with the club, even putting a "For Sale" sign on
his Piney's bike. Ouch. But the real dagger came when he told Jax "I'm more afraid I'm going to turn into you." Double ouch! And you know what? He's right. Though Jax had the best for the club in mind, it wasn't the best for his BFF Opie. With Clay, the man who murdered Piney, still at the table because Jax needs him there to keep the CIA partnership going, there's no room for Opie.
It's a good start to Season 5 as the tenuous game of Jenga started at the end of Season 4 continues in Season 5 with all new levels built on top. But everything is one sneeze away from falling down, and when it does come down, it's Jax who is going to get crushed underneath.
– What is up with the new SAMCRO members from Nomad? We were led to believe that they busted into Wayne's apartment at the end there and roughed him up, but why? Is Clay orchestrating something we don't know about and ordered them to beat the crap out of Wayne? Who else would want Wayne beat up?
– I imagine the conversation between Jimmy Smits and Kurt Sutter about casting Smits as Nero Padilla went something like this... Kurt: "Well, when we first see Padilla, he's banging Gemma from behind in a sea of naked escorts, drugs, and booze, and— " Smits: "I'll take it!"
– I'm a big fan of Nero so far ("I'm a companionator. I bring folks together, I'm all about the love."), which obviously means he's going to end up being a huge pain in the ass.
– I'm really glad the CIA storyline wasn't that prominent in the premiere. I'm okay with it being used as a way to keep Clay alive and in the picture, but the more it stays in the background, the better.