Season 5 of Sons of Anarchy begins with Jackson "Jax" Teller (Charlie Hunnam) passing on to his children the single most important thing his father ever granted him: knowledge. As Jax scribbles away in his pocket-sized notebook, wistfully recounting the ways riding equates freedom and matter-of-factly listing what in life may imbue a man with strength, it becomes clear that heavy, indeed, is the head that wears the crown.
Not much time has passed since 'To Be, Act 2' placed Jax (somewhat reluctantly) at the head of SAMCRO. Enough time, perhaps, for bruises to fade and for wounds to begin mending - but, on the whole, the MC remains unaware just how fractured it really is. As a result, Jax finds himself at the bottom of a very large pile of problems that have names like: the IRA, CIA, Galindo Cartel and, thanks to the hotheaded driving skills of Tig (Kim Coates), the Niners now have a full-on vendetta with the Sons.
But if season 5 is, as Kurt Sutter suggested, the beginning of Sons of Anarchy's third act, then 'Sovereign' is truly the beginning of the end. Time and again, it's been made clear that Jax was always intended to ascend to the throne, but the kingdom he currently overlooks is not the one J.T. Teller had wished for his son. SAMCRO should not have been delivered to Jax in such disarray, and because of that, the first order of business is just maintaining the club's grip on whatever it has left, while avoiding the plummet into oblivion. So for the time being, circumstances mean that it's going to be business as usual for SAMCRO – with unsanctioned Niners hits on the club's guns and cocaine shipments thrown in for good measure.
Jax works to convince everyone (even himself) that this is progression – things are headed in a new direction. But really, SAMCRO and all of those caught in the club's wake are simply in a holding pattern until things miraculously turn around or become even more perilous. Jax, and now his new VP - the recently released Bobby Munson (Mark Boone Junior) - are the only one's really in the know, and even that's a dubious assessment, considering what little actual knowledge anyone has about their own situation on this show. Sure, Jax has been empowered to act by the realization of what Clay (Ron Perlman) did to his father, and by finding out the CIA's sponsoring Romeo Parada (Danny Trejo) and the Galindo Cartel, but he still remains in the dark about his mother's role in J.T.'s death and just how badly Damon Pope (Harold Perrineau) wants to see him dead.
And if Jax is making decisions based on too little of the right information, Opie (Ryan Hurst) has ostensibly stepped away from SAMCRO after finding out the truth about Piney's death and being unable to do anything about it for "the good of the club." As Opie puts it, he's not afraid of Jax turning into Clay, he's afraid of seeing himself turn into Jax: Someone compelled to time and again put his life on the line for a club more or less responsible for the destruction of his family. Opie's always been something of a wildcard when it comes to the MC. He sees the door as swinging both ways, beckoning him to come and go, as his emotional tangents grow as wild and unruly as his hair – which, if he's not careful is going to result in Opie being taken out by some Bigfoot enthusiast the next time he heads up to Piney's cabin.
Others, too, are motivated to convey a sense of progression, but to what ends remains unknown. Tara (Maggie Siff) unceremoniously prepares to train her replacement at the hospital, while a broken down Clay strikes a genial, penitent tone with his soon-to-be ex-wife and the club, confessing to Piney's murder, but (yup, you guessed it) lying about the circumstances leading to his filling the old man's chest with buckshot. Gemma (Katey Sagal), meanwhile, wakes up in the bedroom of Nero Padilla (Jimmy Smits), only to find out he's a pimp – or as Nero calls it, a "companionator" – and that he's taken with Gemma enough to offer a temporary hiding place for Jax and Chibs (Tommy Flanagan) once things begin to get dicey.
Since the boys of SAMCRO have been engaging in more than their usual MC shenanigans as of late, it means that, in addition to being under the watchful eye of Eli Roosevelt (Rockmond Dunbar), they've been designated enemy no. 1 by Damon Pope (Harold Perrineau, Lost) and his right hand man, August Marks (Billy Brown, Dexter). What's most interesting is watching how Pope conducts his business, and how that is in stark contrast to the way SAMCRO handles things like personnel changes and revenge. While the Sons are reluctant to remove anyone (they put Clay's future with the club up to a vote), and tend to handle disputes with guns blazing, Pope doesn't even have so much as a three-strike policy for his employees – as in the case of Laroy, and then Darnell, it's one mistake and most of you ends up decomposing in a rail yard pit. Moreover, Pope has a two-part plan for revenge against the Sons that depicts him as a far more calculating entity than the various gangs or individuals SAMCRO has dealt with in the past.
As far as Pope's nefarious plans to illustrate he's not an individual to be trifled with, well, it may go down in Sons of Anarchy history as the most gruesome act of violence perpetrated by a single character. Part one of Pope's plan entails watching Tig suffer as his daughter Dawn (Rachel Miner) is burned alive, while he remains shackled and helpless, mere feet away. Meanwhile, part two has Jax and Chibs going down for the highway shooting involving the Niners that took place at the end of season 4. Though it's not a decisive strike against the club (Jax and Chibs go into hiding and Tig manages to kill Pope's crooked cop and cleaner), the message is undoubtedly clear and season 5 is off to a dark and certainly dangerous start.
The drama in the premiere is strong, and presents the series with some interesting new characters and an unassuming, yet terrifying, villain in Harold Perrineau's Damon Pope. Yet there's evidence that much of the storytelling still hinges on the same deus ex machina approach of seasons past. Instead of springing the influence of the CIA on the viewer at the last minute, the entity looks to be a constant throughout the season, and the supposed god-like omniscience the CIA wields is dangerously close to becoming not only a guiding force, but also an easy get-out-of-jail-free card for Jax and the rest of SAMCRO.
Right now, it's good to see that the status quo has been shaken a little, but for the most part not too much has changed. After last season's somewhat divisive season finale, it would have been more impressive to see Sons of Anarchy take larger risks and present its characters with situations they won't get a last minute reprieve from. It's early in the season and there's plenty of conflict to come, so hopes are high that some more powerful storytelling is on the horizon.
Sons of Anarchy continues next Tuesday with 'Authority Vested' @10pm on FX.