"Heavy is the head that wears the crown," goes the old saying. And as Jax Teller, antihero of FX's Sons of Anarchy and new president of the titular motorcycle club, will discover this season, it's heavier still with two new influences whispering in his ears.
Fresh off its most watched season, the oft-described Hamlet-on-Harleys will likely get another boost from Dexter/NYPD Blue vet Jimmy Smits and Lost/Oz alum Harold Perrineau, who both join for lengthy stints in Season 5 as a dubious ally and a formidable enemy, respectively.
Smits plays Nero Padilla, a self-described "companionator" (read: pimp), former gang-banger and counselor for the newly crowned Jax (Charlie Hunnam). Creator Kurt Sutter says Nero is a new breed of character for the series, the mentor who might not have his protégé's best interests at heart: "We try to live in the gray on the show — you're not quite sure who to root for or who to hate."
Unlike most characters in the Sons universe, Nero's connection to the club begins solely through Gemma (Katey Sagal), whose marriage to ex-club president Clay (Ron Perlman) imploded at the end of last season. "Nero is a repercussion of some of Gemma's denial behavior," explains Sagal.
Despite the potentially fatal fallout from Clay — Perlman warns that, whatever Clay's endgame is, "he cannot live without Gemma" — she and Nero find themselves in a budding relationship. "All of the characters are trying to find footholds," Smits says. "Nero in his way facilitates that for both Gemma and Jax."
Perrineau's character, ex-drug lord Damon Pope, "falls into a more archetypal pattern on the show," Sutter says. Pope begins the season as one of the more terrifying antagonists the club has seen, and with good reason: The club was responsible for his daughter's death last season. "You don't cross Damon Pope," says Perrineau. "At the end of the day, it's really just a problem."
One Son learns that the hard way in the premiere, when he winds up on the receiving end of Pope's wrath. Perrineau says Pope's vengeance is one of the most jaw-droppingly awful moments he's ever played — and that's saying something. "I've been on an island trapped, I've been in jail with guys who [perform sex acts] to get smack. I thought, 'Nothing's going to surprise me.'" He laughs. "The very first episode, I was like, 'Ohhh...augh.'"
And yet, for a show whose bread and butter is blood and mayhem, the word most often associated with its making is surprising: fun. Smits, Perrineau, Sagal, Perlman and Sutter himself all use it, which may be why so many other big (and unexpected) names will pop up this season, including Community cutup Joel McHale and High School Musical grad Ashley Tisdale. "It's one of those things where the more popular the show gets, these fans pop out of the woodwork," explains Sutter. And now that the show is entering its final phase, wannabe guest stars had better get while the getting is good.
Sutter's current plan is to ride off into the sunset after seven seasons, but if he has a definitive ending in mind, he's not telling. Even Sagal, his real-life wife, doesn't know what's to come. "I keep asking, 'What's going on?' But he won't give it up," she says.
Perlman, similarly in the dark, jokes, "All I can tell you is, if we are following the structure of Hamlet, no one ends up alive." Ah, well. Such is the life of a Son.
Sons of Anarchy premieres Tuesday at 10/9c on FX.