One of the themes that Kurt Sutter's been developing over the last four seasons of Sons of Anarchy is that it's hard to climb out of the ruts that our forebears wore into our lives and hearts. And one of the cleverest ways that Sutter's done this is by basically structuring the show to mirror the wearying, repetitive process of striving for something new and falling short. So every season is basically shaped like this:-- The characters are struggling with one or more pre-existing situations set up in the last episodes of the prior season.
-- One of these situations suddenly escalates owing to a development in the first episode of the season.
-- A SAMCRO bystander is gravely affected by a player in the escalated situation.
-- The remainder of the season shows the club dealing with long-running problems and the new, exclusive-to-the-season foe.
-- The solution to the exclusive-to-the-season conflict sets up the next catastrophic event and the next victim in the next season.
With that in mind: The show starts with Jax channeling his father by writing down his hopes and dreams for Abel and Thomas. He then leads the club on an arms run, right into the Antagoniste Du Season's ambush. Oakland gangster Damon Pope, as it turns out, is super-pissed that any of the Sons are upright and breathing in the wake of his daughter's death, and announces the first prong of his attack against the club by setting his guys on the club and their truck, starting off the season with a big, fiery bang.
Jax deals with the club's longstanding deals -- guns with the Irish, drugs with the CIA -- in a surprisingly competent manner, while Roosevelt comes by the clubhouse and establishes that there's been a wave of home invasions targeting SAMCRO-adjacent people.
Meanwhile, Gemma decides to get over Clay by getting under someone else. Specifically, she gets under Nero, a former gangbanger who now runs an escort outcall service conveniently located on the outskirts of Charming and yet never referenced until now.
After Gemma makes the walk of shame home, she has a sad little conversation with Clay (who is totally milking the lion-in-winter act, by the way) that more or less sets up the idea that Gemma and Clay are going to be spending much of the season screwing with each other. I think we need a forum thread to launch the betting pool on how many episodes it's going to be before these two have angry, arthritic hate sex.
Speaking of Clay, he 'fesses up to the club about killing Piney. Well, he admits that he killed Piney, but his narrative bears no resemblance to what actually happened. Then Clay tearily claims that he lied about it for the club, because he so cared about making sure the Irish deal went through, and tells everyone that Opie did the shooting. (You can imagine the expression on Tig's face here as he realizes that once again, he's murdered an innocent woman because Clay's a lying liar who lies.) Jax and Clay then meet privately and each puts the other on notice: I know you're up to something.
Finally Gemma's day hits bottom when she discovers that Tara -- who may as well get a tattoo reading "Gemma 2.0" -- has performed an end run regarding the kids' daycare and tells Gemma that she has no intention of allowing Gemma alone time with the kids. Gemma's spiral down is going to be long, slow and erratic this season; this is one woman who will not be willing to turn into the biker equivalent of the Queen Mum.
We have a few scenes establishing what a hardass Pope is -- say goodbye to the One-Niners' Laroy, as he's now naught but a bag of bloody pulp, and say goodbye to a few nameless One-Niners who get shot just to make a point about how casually homicidal Pope is.
Then we see that Pope's not that casual about murder at all. He takes it very seriously, and very personally: A cop on his payroll picks up Dawn Traeger -- remember, Margeaux with an X -- and uses her to lure Tig to Oakland. There, the cop and one of Pope's right-hand thugs physically constrain Tig and force him to watch as they douse Dawn with gasoline and set her on fire.
(By the way, Kim Coates knocks it out of the park as a man who, having murdered plenty of other people's daughters, is forced to reckon with all that pain he caused when he watches his baby burn to death because of him. Alas, Kim Coates will never get an Emmy nod for this.)
Worth recalling: Approximately five minutes into the first episode of the first season, a policeman on the SAMCRO payroll opens a metal locker in a just-burned-down stash house and reveals two young women who have been burned to death. (We find out later Tig had been sleeping with them.) That discovery sets off this exchange:
CLAY: (waves his piece) Two in the back of the head, quick and painless.
JAX: It ain't easy being king.
CLAY: You remember that.
Five years on, Jax is SAMCRO's president and more women have burned to death on his watch. One wonders if this season, Jax'll remember that it ain't easy to be king.
Previously on Sons of Anarchy...
If you're just tuning in now because you heard that Charlie Hunnam peels for his art every week, I'm sorry, you're just going to have to settle for Jimmy Smits. And you are probably wondering what's going on with all these clothed people. May I suggest reading this recap of the first two seasons, this recap of the third season, and the following paragraph? The rest of you, skip ahead.
Last season on Sons of Anarchy: The club members who had gone to jail at the end of season three were released to the custody of a musical montage. They quickly figured out that things had changed in their short absence: Tara had already had her baby by Jax Teller; the new sheriff, Roosevelt, had no truck with a town full of racist bikers; Opie had finally decided to make an honest woman of his porn-star girlfriend, and they had the most awesome biker wedding.
Oh, and Clay decided that since he and Gemma hadn't really been keeping up on their 401(k) contributions, he'd finance their retirement by dragging the entire club into running drugs for a Mexican cartel whose idea of employee incentivism was to randomly decapitate people. Jax, naturally, goes for it. He tells Tara that this is because he also wants to retire and leave the biker life behind, but he is afraid to do so unless he is clutching a security blanket woven with several hundred thousand dollar bills.
Of course Tara swallows this fiction, quite possibly because she's addled from the sleep deprivation that attends raising two children under age four while also maintaining a high-flying surgical career and attempting to keep Gemma penned within the boundaries of polite civilization.
(pause for rueful laughter here)
Gemma, however, is going to get the ball rolling on the events that will ultimately turn everyone inside out: she learns that Tara has damning letters that Maureen (John Teller's Emergency Backup Old Lady) sent to Jax, freaks out all over Clay, and he decides that since Tara knows Clay and Gemma killed John Teller, she's got to die. In the course of Clay's quest to kill Tara, he contracts for her killing, but the attempted abduction is botched, leaving Tara with a broken hand. Remember, this is a woman who was a surgeon.
Clay also kills Piney. Opie finds out, goes to kill Clay, misses the shot and Clay lies to everyone else and claims the One-Niners did it out of pique over the drug running. Naturally, this sends Tig out on a mission to avenge his father figure/BFF and Tig manages to kill the daughter of a prominent gangster, because if you want to make sure the wife or girlfriend of a gangster dies by accident, Tig's your guy.