We tend to judge great television by its deaths. Remember Silvio whacking Adriana as she crawled away on The Sopranos, or Gus straightening his tie just before collapsing on Breaking Bad, or every celebratory toast that lead up to Game of Thrones' Red Wedding? This is the stuff that classic episodes are made of. It's not just the shock of blood and splattered innards. It's the emotional double-bind it puts us through, knowing that we're excited to watch this tragedy (because, hey, it's good storytelling!), but we're also sick about losing these characters we've grown to love, or at least respect enough to let them adjust their Windsor knots before they go.
All of which raises the question: Tara (Maggie Siff) getting brained with a carving fork? That was not a great death.
Violence used to mean something on Sons of Anarchy. When Opie (Ryan Hurst) sacrificed himself, allowing his face to get bashed in with a lead pipe so that he could save his SAMCRO brothers, it was wrenching, especially since Jax (Charlie Hunnam) saw everything from the other side of the wall. In a way, Jax was a stand-in for viewers: He'd been strong-armed into watching his favorite person get brutalized, slowly and horrifically, knowing that there was nothing he could do to stop it. Lately, though, the show has been mistaking violence for real drama, unleashing cruelty on random characters we can't possibly care about yet (suicidal, throat-slitting father of that slain child, we hardly knew ye!) or jolting us with crass tearjerker twists (the school shooting in the season premiere felt especially manipulative). Yes, it was traumatic when Gemma (Katey Segal) was forced to have sex with Clay (Ron Perlman) while prison guards looked on, but that scene might've had more impact if Nero's (Jimmy Smits) half-sister hadn't put Gemma through something very similar once before. At this point, even seeing Clay bite the nose off a guard feels anti-climactic. Didn't we just see Otto (Kurt Sutter) bite off his own tongue? Will somebody please bite off my ears so that I don't have to hear anyone tear off a body part again?
Maybe Sons of Anarchy needed these grisly moments, just to break up the monotony. This season seemed to drift from one gang clash to the next (the Irish, the Chinese, the Mayans, the Iranian torture-porn peddlers) as Jax and his crew endlessly hashed out the finer details of ''going legit.'' Even Clay's death felt like a bureaucratic nightmare, too bound up in the details to actually get anything done. There was way too much talking before Jax actually shot him. First, Tara had to explain to Nero why this was happening, and Tig had to ask if SAMCRO should stick to the plan with all the witnesses around, and Jax had to ask Clay what he would've done in this situation. By the time Clay was actually dead, all the anticipation had burned off. The only real heartbreak came from watching Gemma's reaction to his death, that mix of guilt and regret and relief that a captivating performer like Segal captures so well.
At least Tara brought some much-needed action to SOA. Her fight to save her boys tapped into the show's most interesting themes: family, loyalty, and the consequences of being raised without a father. Tara grew up without one, and Jax obviously still struggles with his own daddy issues, so it makes sense that Tara would be willing to sacrifice so much to be a good mother to her kids. Her flip-flopping on the plea deal made for genuine suspense this season, so it's too bad that her death felt so senseless, and not just because she ended up with a fork in her skull. Why did Unser (Dayton Callie) give up so easily in preventing Gemma from leaving the house? He just trusted that she wasn't going to kill Tara? Why would Roosevelt (Rockmond Dunbar) leave Tara in the house by herself when there was a truck in the driveway? (Yes, it was Unser's truck, but wouldn't he at least check first?) And why was Tara still lying there when Patterson (CCH Pounder) walked in to find Jax holding his wife's body? Didn't Juice (Theo Rossi) think to dispose of the corpse when he was getting rid of the weapon? The whole thing felt a little too convenient.
Now, Jax will probably be in prison when next season begins. And with some of SOA's most compelling characters gone, the responsibility for bringing back a better SOA will land on Gemma. Jax still doesn't know how things went down with Tara, so he's likely heading toward one final confrontation with his mother. Let's hope there's at least one more epic showdown coming. Otherwise, stick a fork in Tara's head. I'm done. C