Charlie Hunnam Charlie Hunnam

There's a new face at the head of the table this season on Sons of Anarchy.

After Clay (Ron Perlman) killed Piney (William Lucking), put a hit out on Tara (Maggie Siff) and beat his wife Gemma (Katey Sagal) to a bloody pulp in an effort to protect his secrets, Jax (Charlie Hunnam) ousted his stepfather from the president's seat. But it's going to be far from a cushy job.

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Jax has the immediate threat of retaliation from Damon Pope (guest star Harold Perrineau), whose daughter was accidentally killed by Tig (Kim Coates) last season. Soon enough, both Jax and Pope will land in bed with Neron "Nero" Padilla (Jimmy Smits), a Latino gangster who becomes a dangerous mentor for Jax. But ultimately, creator Kurt Sutter tells that Season 5 will be the year that Jax stops taking advice and begins making his own tough decisions.

Read on to see what Sutter has to say about Jax's journey, what kind of condition Clay will be in this season, and whether or not Jax and Opie (Ryan Hurst) will bury the hatchet. Plus: How much new footage will the Comic-Con crowd see this weekend?

Got anything special planned for Comic-Con this weekend?
Kurt Sutter:
We actually have a full hour this year. I think the plan is to show the teaser for Episode 1, which is about five or six minutes. Then we'll probably do some kind of swag giveaway and then Q & A.

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What was the most important idea for you as you were crafting this season?
Thematically, I like the idea of what happens when one president inherits another president's mess. For me it was about Jax really deciding the type of leader that he will become and being faced with the challenges of that job. Thematically Is he going to become J.T., his father? Or is he forced to become a leader like Clay? Does the nature of the outlaw world force you to be that sort of Machiavellian kind of guy who ultimately has to do things behind the club's back to protect the club? The flip side of that is: If you don't become Clay, are you then perceived as weak? Are you forced to become J.T., who ultimately got overwhelmed by it all?

What's the most immediate problem Jax has to deal with?
We begin the season with the pressure that we left off with last year. We threw in the death of Damon Pope's daughter. That ignites early on in the first episode. We see the ramifications of that and Damon Pope's response to that. Pope obviously starts out as this very strong antagonist and will remain so for a while. The interesting thing that happens with Pope and Jax is they're forced to get in bed with this guy Nero as a result of their misstep.

You're referring to the character Jimmy Smits is playing, right?
Sutter: Yeah. In a lot of ways [Nero] becomes not a mentor, but this influence for Jax. I like the notion of having these two outside influences in Jax's life this year. One is Jimmy Smits' character, who is an outlaw by nature. His whole philosophy is "Make the money and get out. You can't have both. You can't live the normal life and be part of the outlaw world." Then you have Damon Pope, the other guy whispering in Jax's ear, saying, "No, you absolutely can have both. You can be a notorious outlaw and live the life and have everything that you need, and I'm proof of that." I just like the idea of having these two godfather-like figures that are outside of the club. Sometimes we can only be influenced by those outside forces, because we need the distance that they provide.

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But Jax probably doesn't need to follow either one. Is this the season that Jax might finally cut his own path?
I think so. When I pitched [the show] to the network, I thought Jax was a different kind of character for FX because he was a much younger leading man. He wasn't a Vic Mackey or the Denis Leary character in Rescue Me. Those guys were men who had made their decisions and were living in the consequences of those decisions. [Jax] was the guy who hadn't decided what kind of man he's going to become yet. This is the first season where we really see him being in a position where he has to start making some of those decisions. You can't be the guy that is being spontaneous and reacting and figuring it out. Now, you have to know who you are and put that into action. Any good leader takes the counsel of the wise people in his circle, but ultimately, Jax will make those decisions that will define who he is as a leader this season.

Whose counsel will Jax seek in the club? Last we saw, his right-hand man Opie was no longer at his side.
Sutter: We see Jax really create his inner circle as early as the premiere episode. And Opie will definitely be part of that. I think we'll see in Episode 2 the beginning of that relationship being repaired. As always on this show, it is done through extreme circumstances, but Opie will make an attempt to be back in Jax's life. I just felt like it would have been too neat and too convenient for Opie, after everything that happened to him, to sort of take a seat at that table at the end of last season. I needed him to earn it a little bit and put him in orbit for an episode or so. And that's what we've done.

How much time has passed when Season 5 begins?
What I didn't want to do is Clay in the hospital for a month. Basically, it is like three, four weeks [later]. We'll see Clay actually out of the hospital and getting back on his feet a little bit. I didn't want to just keep playing hospital scenes.

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What kind of place is Clay in? Is he licking his wounds or will he try to reclaim what he's lost?
I think it is a little bit of both. He's in a very physically debilitated state. The guy took a bullet to the lung, and we'll see the ramifications of that. He is not up to speed. He is a little bit broken physically and emotionally. Where we go with Clay this season, we're still kind of figuring out. At the end of the day, I think Clay is a guy who can't deny who he is. Whether or not we'll see that phoenix rise from the ashes this season or next season, I'm not sure. But he is who he is.

You said at the end of last season that losing the club presidency was worse for Clay than if Jax had killed him. Is he really going to just stand by and watch?
Clay is not made of stone. I think he is impacted by all that sh-- that happened, especially the stuff with Gemma. At the end of the day I think his love for Gemma and his connection to Gemma was the thing that really humanized Clay. Gemma was his touchstone and with Gemma gone, I think that is the biggest hole for Clay. That his relationship unraveled is as devastating to him as losing his patch or losing his seat as president.

At the very least, we'll see a Clay that is broken and somewhat contrite and remorseful the first half of the season. And yes, one could argue that's just Clay spinning a web to a certain extent. There is probably a gray area and one could argue that Clay has an agenda for everything. But I think it would be too simple to suggest that he was a guy who had no compassion. I think all the stuff he feels in the beginning of the season is very real, especially the stuff with Gemma. Losing her was a devastating blow to him.

And how is Gemma holding up?
This season is the first time we see Gemma lost. With Clay losing the seat at the head of that table and with her feeling estranged from Jax and Tara ... all the things that define Gemma [and] give her some sense of purpose have been yanked out from underneath her. What happens when a person like Gemma has that [happen]? To me, she reverts back to that 14-year-old girl that ran away from home and ran back to Charming when she was a kid. I think that we're going to see a Gemma that is really struggling with that lack of control and perhaps acting out to a certain extent.

Gemma is at the center of the teaser trailer for the new season, which seems pretty powerful, metaphorically speaking. Is Gemma the root of Jax's problems?
Suttter: Obviously, I think it speaks to this season in the sense that you have Jax and Tara and Gemma who are intrinsically involved in this family dynamic. It's about Jax going through those barriers and over the edge. It's about watching this guy and wanting to save him from making those mistakes. The two women in his life are trying to help him and stop him, and the idea is perhaps it is Gemma and her need to protect or control that is ultimately what causes him to spin out. [But] they show me these things afterwards, so it is not like I have big creative discussions about what they mean. But I like it because Gemma represents the family, the thing that ultimately causes Jax to literally go off the deep end.

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Speaking of Tara, is she fully committed to this lifestyle at this point?
Sutter: Tara's dilemma up to this point was always, "Am I in or am I out?" I think she's really made the decision last season that she is in. Her dilemma this season is, "OK, I'm in, and how do I rectify that? How do I be true to this world? How do I serve Jax as his queen? How do I help the club? How do I do the things that an old lady is supposed to do and still be true to myself, and is that possible? Can I still be Dr. Tara Knowles and the matriarch of a motorcycle club?" I didn't want to suddenly in the course of four weeks have Tara turn into Gemma. [But] we will see her definitely make more Gemma-like choices. We'll see her struggle with her own impulse and then the realization of what it is that she signed up for.

In terms of other loose threads, how much does the Galindo cartel story play into this season?
It is definitely present. It's the state of [the club's] business right now, and it is a priority. They are selling the big guns to the Mexicans and they are running the coke, so it is definitely the business they're in and the business that Jax wants to get out of. Danny Trejo is back probably for about four or five episodes. The fact that the CIA has this leverage over them, and is forcing Jax to keep Clay engaged is all very much on Jax's plate.

Ashley Tisdale is guest-starring this season. WTF?
[Laughs] I just love a little bit of the absurdist casting. We kind of did it for the first time with Stephen King. We did it last year with [David] Hasselhoff. I like to throw in one of those each season, and we had this opportunity for this high-priced escort whose whole hook is that she looks like a Disney girl. I thought, "Who better to play that role than a Disney girl?" I've known her family actually for a while, so she was very excited to do it. Not that I'm trying to tap into the iCarly crowd, but she was delightful.

Sons of Anarchy's fifth season premieres this September on FX.