Don't read on unless you've seen Season 5, Episode 3 of FX's "Sons of Anarchy," entitled "Laying Pipe."
I hadn't planned on writing weekly review of any show this fall -- it's just too busy for me to commit to that -- but my hope is to write about individual episodes of various shows that stand out in one way or another, and "Laying Pipe" qualifies.
The title is another example of "Sons of Anarchy's" pitch-black humor at work: Opie was, of course, killed with a length of pipe, but the term also refers to the ways in which TV shows sets up future plots and machinations. No doubt what happened in this week's hour will resonate down the line, perhaps with more deaths down the road. (What, am I stupid? Of course there will be more deaths to come, and without question the prison guard will be one of them.)
But the future's already here, in a way: We saw the effects of Opie's death in this hour. We saw Jax die a little more, we saw the light go out in his eyes even more. We saw his hardness and his misery grow until they were fused into one driven mass of pain and determination.
I was very, very hard on "Sons of Anarchy" in my Season 5 review, and I stand by what I wrote in it, but the Opie-Jax storyline in "Laying Pipe" is the kind of thing that both gives me hope and makes me crazy. It gives me hope that "SOA" is still capable of telling stories that are not so bedazzled with external manipulations and nonsensical plot gyrations that the characters seem like innocent bystanders in the middle of an overcaffeinated snarl of story threads.
My God, in that cell, Charlie Hunnam did such a fine job of selling the Rico-Ireland-cartel nonsense that I almost bought it myself. And overall, in "Laying Pipe," it really helped that the Jax-Opie-Tig-Chibs storyline was economical and focused. There was a clarity of purpose to the story that the first two episodes -- concerned as they were with re-establishing the old stories, jamming in new ones and adding moments of ultraviolence -- lacked.
But in "Laying Pipe," we had Jax and Opie, two friends who have been through so much together, losing each other in the most painful way possible. Hunnam and Ryan Hurst have always been great together, and the loss of Hurst is going to be a great blow to the show. Of course, I'm not arguing that the show shouldn't kill off key characters -- Season 4 was ultimately such a misfire because it gave us a bunch of reasons that Clay should die, then the show didn't kill him off. (I'm glad Opie and I are in agreement about that.)
But this is Jax's journey, and who is Jax without Opie -- even an angry, bitter Opie -- by his side?
And what makes me crazy? The fact that the show still has certain melodramatic tics and go-to maneuvers that feel increasingly played out. One example: "SOA" has turned Gemma into a cartoon character, and that makes me sad, because Katey Sagal is a capable of so much more than the kind of material that she's being given these days. "SOA's" female characters don't really have arcs; their stories -- such as they are -- fit in around those of the men. The women are who the show needs them to be that season or that week, and thus their personalities go through strange or inexplicable shifts all the time. Quite often "SOA" doesn't even know what to do with them, so it gives them terrible stories like Tara's abduction in Season 3 or Gemma's general tendency to keep secrets and start trouble ... well, just because.
These days, Gemma exists to stir up sh*t in the "SOA" universe, and that's about it. The stuff with Jax's kids, the stuff with Clay's prostitute (hello, Ashley Tisdale!) -- I mean, she's just a hair-pulling, one-note character these days, and Stern Tara isn't much better. It's a testament to both these actresses that they made their characters work as long as they did, but I've just grown increasingly tired of their repetitive fights and shrill shenanigans. Isn't it interesting to contemplate the fact that the show's finest season gave Gemma a prominent and well-conceived storyline? Ah, Season 2, those were the days.
But back to Opie, who was the real focus here. Here's a possibly interesting fact: Before I watched the episode, I knew that someone was going to die in "Laying Pipe," and I knew it was going to be Opie. But it didn't matter. His death still had an impact, thanks to great performances and thanks to the kind of impassioned restraint that "SOA" can still pull off on occasion. The second most memorable moment in the episode was Jax turning away from the window where Opie was being beaten, as total silence descended. There were no words or music that could convey the heartbreak of that moment.
I'm actually glad I knew that Opie was going to be the one who died; it made me appreciate Hurst's performance all the more. I think Opie decided early on in that episode, around the time of his confrontation in the cell with Jax, that he would be the one to sacrifice himself. He had nothing left to live for -- what kind of father would he be to his kids, as broken as he was by this point? And this death would give two people (Opie and Jax) some kind of awful relief.
The most memorable moment, of course, was Opie, smiling/grimacing at Jax just before the end. Opie chose his death. Well, "SOA" chose his death, because there was really no way that Clay, Opie and Jax could sit around that table this season.
But the manner of Opie's death gave him a last shred of dignity and nobility in a world running short of both of those things. Opie's last act was to relieve his friend of the burden of choosing which club member would die.
The look on his face reminded us that Opie, unlike Jax, is free.