[This is a review of Sons of Anarchy season 7, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS]
'Playing With Monsters' is a classic "busy" episode of Sons of Anarchy. There's a tremendous amount of stuff going on – there's a lot of talking, a lot of killing, and some pineapple upside-down cake as a precursor to a savage beating.
At any other point in time, this would feel like a typical episode of the series. But with the underlying pressure of this being the final season, the episode's desire to digress into an ancillary character father-daughter dispute that inevitably turns violent and depicts yet another act of violence against women, one questions whether or not the series needed a reminder of how bad the members of SAMCRO (and nearly everyone they deal with) can be at this particular point in time.
The episode certainly works as far as its thematic and titular depiction of the various kinds of monsters populating the series, especially as it pertains to all walks of life – i.e., even law enforcement isn't above being a little monstrous from time to time.
But as solid as these depictions are, one has to wonder what new information is gained on a character level? What is this telling the audience that they don’t already know.
'Playing With Monsters' is so adamant in its thematic appraisal of its characters that it even goes so far as to have young Able ask his grandma whether or not his daddy does bad things. This comes after the young boy witnesses the tail end of the aforementioned act of violence that Gemma was involved with. While the scene positions itself on the edge of an interesting question regarding the influence of the MC lifestyle on a child, the follow-up shifts the focus to a character who doesn't necessarily need such questions asked about him in such a blatant manner.
We get it - Jax is a complicated character with many complicated emotions influencing his (poorly informed) decisions at the moment. And Jax's actions throughout the episode already generate the kind of paradox Abel's questions about his daddy's day job seek to underline. Therefore, having a child ask whether or not his father does bad things, only to be reassured in the kind of uncomplicated language a child will appreciate, feels like another example of the heavy-handed, recursive path this series can sometimes become mired in.
In a way, it is the same with the various schemes Jax is undertaking in order to align SAMCRO with the clubs that will back his play against August Marks. The goal is to open the door for payback against Lin and his crew for their supposed involvement in Tara's murder. And all the double-crossing involving Charlie Barosky and his merry band of dirty cops and Oscar Ramos' (Ivo Nandi) Mayans makes for a series of entertaining but familiar scenes that ultimately feel removed from the emotional core of what the season seems to be aiming for.
Whatever other issues 'Playing With Monsters' might have, however, it offers a few developments with regard to Juice's storyline that offer some insight into the season as a whole.
For the most part, Juice's story is also familiar; it is ostensibly the same one that the series has been telling since season 4, but with slightly different circumstances. Juice is in trouble again, but this time it's serious. How do we know? Even sweet, lovable Chibs and his dad-like paunch refuse to listen to Juice's plea that the club take him back. Normally, so long as Juice was willing to put up with a savage beating or do something underhanded, his reinstatement to the MC would be a foregone conclusion. This time, however, it looks like Juice is really on the outs with his family.
And therein lies the episode's most interesting insight into the series, the setting, and the monsters that make it happen.
The idea of the MC operating as a family is nothing new; the men are constantly calling one another "brother" and it's clear it goes well beyond the figurative use of the word into something more literal. At the same time, though, there's not a single one of them that wouldn't hang his "brother" out to dry – in all the ways the phrase can mean something awful – if he acted against the best interests of the construct they all serve.
The construct, the club, the patch – all of it has been taken to such a near-mythical level that even when the members of the MC think of the club as a family, they can't (or won't see) how, when the chips are down, it is really every man for himself in service of a construct larger than himself.
It may be recursive in many regards, but what season 7 seems to be illustrating are the ways in which that construct will turn an ordinary man (or woman) into a monster, and how it will allow him to justify the awful things that they do through the creation of something greater than themselves. That idea is not too far removed from the depiction of Sheriff Jarry as yet another (potentially) corrupt cop in Charming, and it certainly demonstrates how someone as smart and seemingly aware as Jax Teller can continue to be deceived by someone like Gemma.
Say what you will about Gemma, but she, more than anyone else, is smart enough to recognize the importance of the club, and how the club can be used to further an individual's needs. And in the world of Sons of Anarchy, that is the kind of monster everyone should be looking out for.
Sons of Anarchy will continue next Tuesday with 'Poor Little Lambs' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Michael Becker/FX