Television’s Finest Schlock: Sons of Anarchy’s Episode ‘One One Six’ Is So Damn Shakespearean

Is it possible to follow up a school shooting episode with lines from Sonnet 116? You’re damn right it is.

Prashant Gupta/FX

Sons of Anarchy is so damn Shakespearean. Just when I think the show can’t get any raunchier, someone starts spouting the bard, and I’m overcome.

“Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks/But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”

These lines from Sonnet 116 were uttered by ex–U.S. marshal Lee Toric in Tuesday night’s episode, as he stood on the dark side of a two-way mirror. On the other side were Clay Morrow and his wife, Gemma Teller, a couple for whom love has long been synonymous with doom.

Here’s Clay—who’s in jail, mind you, because Gemma framed him for murder: “You were always an amazing old lady. You always kept me on task. You always kept me strong ... I never loved anyone the way I loved you. And I know you feel the same.”

And here’s Gemma: “You don’t know shit about what I feel.”

You might be wondering how I can stomach a show with this kind of dialogue. Sometimes I ask myself the same question. Sons of Anarchy has been called shallow, schlocky, and meandering. They’re fair criticisms, but dammit if it isn’t the best schlock on TV.

Part of it is because the acting is actually very good. Clay is played by Ron Perlman, and though it took me a while to get over the fact that he’s the guy from Beauty and the Beast, he’s grown on me. The man is dark, so dark that on the rare occasions he does smile, I cringe. I honestly couldn’t say whether he was going to rat out SAMCRO, as he told Toric he would, because his poker face is so completely convincing.

Gemma, played by Katey Sagal (who, I heard on Fresh Air, was once a backup singer for Bette Midler!?), with her heart-surgery scar and trashy highlights, is the baddest, sexiest old lady in Charming. In many ways, she’s the soul of the show, her love for her son Jax and her grandsons, for Clay and now for Nero (played astoundingly by Jimmy Smits), dooming them all. It was Gemma who connived with Clay to kill Jax’s father, then married Clay, your modern-day Claudius. Neither of them feels bad about that, by the way.

Back to Sonnet 116. The poem is about the constancy of love, which endures “even to the edge of doom”—a place where every character in Sons of Anarchy resides. Someone is always about to get killed, or about to get hauled off on RICO charges, or about to get caught sleeping with hookers, or about to move to Oregon and escape thug life for good. Sometimes they fall off that edge, but most of the time, they’re merely teetering.

And what pushes them to that edge? Greed, sure. There’s a lot of money in gunrunning. But more often, it’s love. See: Gemma and Clay. Tara’s devotion to Jax landed her in jail. Chibs apparently loves Juice so much, that after Juice nearly flips on the club to the cops, Chibs has to beat the shit out of him before they can hug again. (“I gotta get right with this,” says Chibs, before taking off his rings. “I love you,” replies Juice. Hm.) Toric’s whole vendetta against SAMCRO is driven by the loss of his sister, who was stabbed to death with a cross by Otto Delaney. Let’s not forget Tig, who drowned a man in a bathtub of urine last week because he’s still mourning the murder of his daughter. Say what?

So yes, this is schlock of the highest order. But that’s love, people! You can’t tell me you’ve never done stupid, stupid things for love. I have, but they’re too embarrassing to recount here. And maybe that’s another reason the show, for all its epic absurdity (a phrase I’m stealing from creator Kurt Sutter), still strikes a chord for fans like me.

It’s why I’m sticking with it, even after it hit us over the head with last week’s school shooting. So far, that event has been handled in classic Sons of Anarchy style: no remorse, just covering of asses. See what happens when Nero’s cousin Arcadio interrupts his morning sex with Gemma (schlock!) to tell him the inconvenient news that the kid who went on a shooting rampage at a Catholic school—that was his girlfriend’s son. And the gun? It was his. Bad news for Nero’s crew and for SAMCRO. But Nero loves Arcadio, so he’s got his back. And Gemma’s got Nero’s back. Never mind the slaughter of innocents—this crew loves each other to pieces, bodies of dead children be damned.

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Later in the episode, Arcadio gets shot in the head (by Nero, who loves him THAT much) while defending his old lady from being shot by his own crew. She dies anyway, and the tragic couple/plot device is buried in plastic together.

Finally, there’s Jax and Tara, and a really confusing twist. If I’m not mistaken, Tara is secretly filing for divorce—but not because she doesn’t love him! Because if she goes to jail (which she might, since she’s facing charges of assisting in a murder), she’ll be so scared for her sons’ safety growing up in SAMCRO’s world, that she wants to make sure they’re given to someone else to be raised. That person is Wendy Case, Jax’s ex-girlfriend and a recovering junkie. Wendy’s kind of a crazy choice, in my opinion, but I guess beggars can’t be choosers.

The episode ends with the first depressing sex scene in Sons of Anarchy history. Tara cries, but not happy tears. Jax looks pained, but not in a good way. Is he thinking of that slut Colette, whom he had sex with last week while Tara was rotting in jail? He better not be. That could doom us all.