(This review contains SPOILERS for 'Sons of Anarchy' season 5)
Aside from being the leading source of actors most likely to star in the films of Guillermo del Toro, 'Sons of Anarchy' is notable for its incredibly graphic depictions of sex and violence and a very dark, premium cable tone that's been successfully transplanted onto a basic cable channel. While FX has recently become the heir apparent to HBO, in terms of having some of the best, most richly drawn dramas on television right now with 'Justified,' 'The Americans,' 'American Horror Story' (sort of) and 'The Bridge,' the network wouldn't be what it is without the shows that helped pave the way; namely, 'The Shield' and, of course, 'Sons of Anarchy.' It's also worth noting that both of those dark, violent series involved the creative input of Kurt Sutter – the latter being his sole creation, of course.
But from a critical standpoint 'Sons of Anarchy' is most notable for its staunch refusal to resolve storylines or to trim the expanding narrative fat that's been collecting under its road-worn cut for years now. In essence, this series has become burdened by its overly complicated mythology that's been attached to what is essentially a very straightforward and uncomplicated narrative. What's more, the start of every season just seems to lay down more asphalt for the boys of SAMCRO to noisily ride over, pulling everything that's come before along for the ride like some weekend warrior towing a trailer on his Honda Goldwing.
This was especially noticeable in the final half of season 4, where the intense build-up to an important climax was ultimately undone by yet another surprise, behind-the-scenes twist that not only kept the main narrative hurtling down the same path it always had been, but managed to complicate it further with the reveal that a couple of cartel boys (Danny Trejo and Benito Martinez) were actually super secret CIA operatives capable of blowing up RICO cases and other investigations against the club with the snap of a finger, while killing the enemies of Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) with impunity, so long as he remained firmly under their thumb.
While season 4 ended with much eye-rolling, most still came back and greeted the series with open arms once season 5 got underway. And, as usual, things started off with some intense violence that would set into motion the season's main narrative. In this case, that would be drug kingpin/real estate mogul/all-around murderous dude Damon Pope (Harold Perrineau), who sought revenge on the Sons for the death of his daughter, which happened as a result of Tig (Kim Coates) going off halfcocked (as Tig is wont to do) and seeking vengeance for a crime that never occurred.
As far as SoA Big Bads go, Pope benefited from having his legend established long before he ever appeared on-screen. And as a result, the somewhat diminutive stature of Perrineau – in comparison to that of the hulking Charlie Hunnam or Pope's number 2 man August Marks (Billy Brown) – gave off a slightly unsettling vibe that was augmented by his otherwise immutably composed temperament. What Pope had in mind for SAMCRO, then, was a hellish gauntlet of violence and obligation that sprang from his twisted sense of an eye for an eye. This led to a season-long fear that Tig would be given up to Pope as compensation for his crime against the kingpin, which was made all the more believable as Jax – now firmly at the head of the SAMCRO table – slowly began to lose sight of becoming the leader the Sons so desperately needed, for the leader that beat people to death with the world's strongest snow globe.
This transition was fashioned out of the calculated (from the writers' standpoint) death of Opie (Ryan Hurst), one of the most beloved members of the club, ostensibly due to the wicked machinates of – you guessed it! – Damon Pope. The trouble is, as emotionally affecting as Opie's death and its aftermath were, the manner in which the event actually transpired was another in a long list of events where the writers shackled their central character and excused him from the burden of choice. Unfortunately, in the writers' insistence to take major decisions out of Jax's hands – e.g., resolving his issues with Clay (in any form whatsoever) during any of what seems like a dozen reasonable opportunities, or, in this case, cause or prevent the death of one of his own – they have rendered their protagonist at best passive and at worst completely inert. Time and again, the series goes out of its way to keep Jax from commanding the narrative of which he is the center. Jax, as a character, only reacts, he does not dictate his own storyline, and after five seasons of this, the narrative of 'Sons of Anarchy' has begun to feel more and more like it's just spinning its wheels.
A sure sign of this comes from the sheer amount of characters the writers seem to run out of ideas and storylines for, and as a result they begin to feel stale and drag down the narrative. This has been the case with Gemma (Katey Sagal), who hasn't been an interesting piece of the storyline since season 2, and it's definitely the case with a few other members of SAMCRO as well – Opie being a prime example. For whatever reason, Opie was remanded to the dustbin of SoA history, while others continue to trudge on.
Naturally, these rare subtractions, coupled with an anemic supporting cast require the show to fill the void with some fresh blood, complete with their own unique, but tangentially related agendas. Thankfully, creating new personalities is a something 'Sons of Anarchy' does quite well. In the past, we've been given characters like Ethan Zobelle (Adam Arkin) and his henchman AJ Weston (Henry Rollins), and, more recently, the delightfully quirky Lincoln Potter (Ray McKinnon) and the commanding presence of Sheriff Eli Roosevelt (Rockmond Dunbar); all of whom have left a mark on the show in some form or another. In season 5, then, we are introduced to softhearted (literally) pimp Nero Padilla (Jimmy Smitts) and potential future destroyer of SAMCRO Lee Toric (the excellent Donal Logue). Both men manage to bring a sense of something new and exciting to the table, and (Toric, especially) the sense that real change could be ushered in as a result of their involvement.
Whether they do or don't doesn't really matter at this point, as in the context of season 5 they primarily function to provide an adequate distraction from the storylines that have continued to circle the drain, but refuse to go down; namely, Wendy Teller (Drea de Matteo) and her desire to be a mom to Abel; Gemma and Tara's (Maggie Siff) incessant infighting over where Gemma's grandbabies are going to live; and, of course, the ultimate fate of the dastardly Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) for the murder of Jax's father years prior.
Unsurprisingly, season 5 excelled in its avoidance of closure on any of these topics, choosing instead to complicate them further by sending two-thirds of them away to prison and giving the other one a bruising speedball to the shoulder. But the season also managed to play a fairly entertaining game with the will he, or won't he question regarding Jax's decision to hand Tig over to Damon Pope and the end result – though not entirely unexpected – did manage to deliver some much-needed tension in to an otherwise montage-heavy season finale.
All in all, season 5 can be seen as an adequate and mostly entertaining table-setting season; the first chapter in what is the series' third and final act. Entering into the final act comes with a considerable amount of relief, as 'Sons of Anarchy' has never suffered from a lack of objective, but rather from taking the same road to reach that destination too many times.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Sons of Anarchy' season 5 comes with three 50GB discs containing all 13 episodes and a several special features. There is a lengthy promotion for FX programming prior to the top menu on the first disc, but it can be skipped to jump directly to the top menu. The set comes packaged in an outer sleeve with unique artwork that isn't on the actual case and is visually very striking.
Although 'Sons of Anarchy' doesn't exactly have exciting cinematography, the 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer looks tremendous and is jam-packed with fine detail and vivid colors. Despite the show's bleak outlook, use of violence and incredibly dark humor, it is filmed on incredibly well lit sets and exterior sequences that primarily take place during the day. As such, the image's superb contrast plays a key role in making sure the series doesn't look washed out or that the picture runs too hot. When called for, blacks are deep and very strong, creating a great sense of depth whether you are looking at long shots of characters on motorcycles or simply hanging with Filthy Phil at the SAMCRO clubhouse. Additionally, though the characters primarily wear dark clothes underneath their ubiquitous cuts, there's still plenty of color everywhere else for the image to show off. Like the contrast, colors are incredibly bright and vivid, but never bloom to ridiculous levels or appear oversaturated. Fine detail is present in nearly every scene, allowing you to count the lines in Ron Perlman's incredible face, or all but feel the textures on every surface.
There are times, however, when the image experiences some soft focus and tends to look a little flat, especially when the characters are against a stark background such as a cloudless blue sky or blank wall. These instances are rare, thankfully, but they do take what is essentially a gorgeous image down a notch. Still, this transfer is very nice and does great justice to a series many fans are incredibly passionate about.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is as good as it has ever been with this series. As it should, the mix pays particular attention to making sure the actors' dialogue is presented in the best possible fashion and that it is balanced in such a way that musical cues and sound effects don't interfere, but rather augment what is transpiring on-screen. As such, the motorcycle sound effects are particularly great, as they rumble down the road and utilize the full spectrum of the sound field, moving from speaker to speaker and exhibiting tremendous directionality and a subtle, but noticeable amount of LFE for a little extra oomph.
Rear channels pick up an extraordinary amount of ambient and atmospheric noise, which creates a true sense of place and setting, especially during key moments like the wake at Teller Morrow and the various shootouts that occur throughout the season. This is a forceful and well-balanced audio track that excels in creating atmosphere and excitement when most necessary.
'Sons of Anarchy' certainly has a devoted fanbase, and its dominant ratings on FX are an excellent example of that fact. The show works for the most part on the strength of the performances by Charlie Hunnam and Ron Perlman, but it also holds an impressive appeal for its work as an ensemble. The series has its challenges; in that Sutter seems reluctant to resolve lingering plot threads before the seventh and final season, and so the audience is left with more and more plot being added to the narrative in an attempt to keep things fresh. But in doing so, this technique leads to an overstuffed, sometimes half-baked storyline that's desperately in need of some tightening up. This show is more or less critic-proof with its dyed-in-the-wool fans, and this Blu-ray release will likely be something right up their alley. For those who aren't terribly invested in this show, it's still worth a watch, but you may find its bursting-at-the-seams plot more tedious than tremendous. Season 5 will mostly resonate with the die-hard fans, but it's still worth a look.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.