I’m sure there are many examples to be cited, especially in recent basic and pay cable history, but at the moment I can’t recall another series in which a main character went as far as ruthless SAMCRO president Clay Morrow did in this week’s jaw-dropping episode of FX’s biker drama “Sons of Anarchy.”
The characters on this show aren’t necessarily good guys; in fact, even the good guys on the canvas (supportive wives, local police, federal agents) tend to do bad things. Most of them are members of a small-town outlaw motorcycle club that’s into gun-running, drug-running, pornography and a host of other colorful activities, so one would think that well into the series’ fourth season there is nothing left for any of them to do that would be so shocking as to crack its very foundation.
That’s the point of this column, written before watching the screener for next week’s episode, one of the most eagerly anticipated episodes of any series this year: Where does “Sons of Anarchy” go from here? Going forward, it cannot be the same show it has been since the start. Television history is filled with series that were riding high when they suddenly lost their way, took one risk too many or otherwise misjudged their audiences, derailing themselves creatively and never managing to recover. I don’t believe this will happen to “Sons” – series creator and executive producer Kurt Sutter is too smart for that. But for the life of me I can’t imagine what comes next – or next season.
Basic cable series often feature complex central characters that do shocking things without hurting their show. Corrupt detective Vic Mackey murdered a cop in cold blood on the very first episode of FX’s “The Shield,” which ran for seven successful seasons. (Mackey finally paid for his multitude of sins in the show’s final episode.) Terminally ill chemistry professor turned drug-lord-in-denial Walter White in AMC’s “Breaking Bad” has made multiple bad decisions and terrible choices that have put everyone around him in mortal danger, including his wife and children. But in recent episodes of “Sons,” Clay has done so many truly reprehensible things there can be no redemption or any turning back -- not by the code the characters live by. If he is to continue with the show, it would seemingly have to be as a villainous outcast.
What did Clay do that was so over-the-top detestable? In the span of two episodes, he murdered SAMCRO elder and trusted advisor Piney Winston in cold blood. Then he put out a professional hit on his stepson’s wife Tara, a woman who has already gone through hell simply because she is associated with his all-important club. (The hit was botched, but not before Tara’s hand was smashed, in all likelihood ending her career as a surgeon). But what truly destroyed the character (for me, anyway) was the explosive confrontation about Tara’s ordeal that he had with his wife Gemma. Clay beat her to a pulp, throwing her around and then pounding her face with a closed fist. (Tough-as-nails Gemma, it must be noted, put up a damn good fight.)
I have to think that the characters on “Sons” will no longer be believable if they don’t decide to kill or otherwise dismantle Clay after what he has done. Certainly, his quick-tempered stepson Jax will lose his sh*t when he learns what Clay did to his wife and his mother, not to mention Piney, the father of Jax’s best friend Opie.
As for viewers, television audiences can forgive many things, including murder and rape (just look at the enduring popularity of rapists turned anti-heroes Luke Spencer and Todd Manning on “General Hospital” and “One Life to Live.”) That said, I can only wonder how will they react to what may be the most brutal depiction of spousal abuse in the history of series television.
This turn of events has me thinking about the nerve-frying finale of the fourth season of HBO’s “The Sopranos,” in which Tony and Carmela’s grievously strained marriage finally blew apart. Their legendary fight was one of the most suffocating scenes in television history; so intense, in fact, that viewers felt as though they were trapped in the room with the characters, horrified by what they were seeing and hearing yet unable to stop it or get away from it. At the confrontation’s most intense moment, Carmela was up against a wall as an enraged Tony balled up his fist, pulled back and threw a menacing punch. But he pounded the wall next to Carmela’s face. The impact was extraordinary. The marriage was over. But the character was not destroyed.
I can’t say the same for Clay. However this plays out, it will call for the performances of their careers by the actors who play Clay, Gemma and Jax: Ron Perlman, Katey Sagal and Charlie Hunnam, respectively.