The price of power sits heavy on the shaggy head of Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the prince-turned-leader of a troubled biker kingdom on FX's Sons of Anarchy, wrapping its fifth and best-yet season tonight with a super-sized 90-minute finale (10/9c). A few weeks ago, in a moment worthy of this series' Shakespearian ambitions, Jax told his disgraced, dethroned evil stepfather Clay (Ron Perlman): "I'm tired of being crushed under the weight of greedy men who believe in nothing."
In last week's episode, amid the violent showdowns and gunfights as Jax attempts to extricate his club from various drug and gun-running rabbit holes, he confides to his lieutenant, who has thwarted Jax's efforts to put Clay down for good: "You can't sit in this chair without being a savage." Substitute horses for hogs and swords for sidearms, and you'd almost think you were in Game of Thrones territory.
Jax is no saint, let's be clear. His final act in the penultimate episode was to assault his ex-junkie ex (and mother of his first-born son), forcibly injecting her with a speedball to keep her at arm's length from his family. Savage? Absolutely. But not without consequences, which is what sets apart current-day Sons from its earlier years, which seemed to celebrate the unruly gang's cowboy criminal antics with less attention to the corrosive side effects.
Bloody tragedy, outrageous betrayals and exhumed skeletons from the founding fathers' dark past have shaken and broken the club beyond repair this season. No wonder so many are looking for a way out, none more desperately than Jax's wife Tara (Maggie Siff), who pleads to Jax in a climactic moment tonight: "If we stay here, we'll end up like the two people we hate most," referring to Clay and his former "old lady" Gemma (Katey Sagal), who's at the center of this family circle's twisted web of deceit.
A lot happens in this typically grisly and twisty finale, which both literally and figuratively could have been titled "The Dogs of War." Actual title: "J'ai Obtenu Cette," which roughly translates from the French to "I got this," a callback to the last words spoken by Jax's beloved friend Opie, whose jailhouse murder was one of the season's most pivotally wrenching events. If this makes you think payback of various sorts is on the menu, you wouldn't be mistaken. (But I bet you'll never guess who spends much of the episode speaking French.)
"I'm just a mechanic looking out for my family," Jax tells a suspicious associate, insisting rather disingenuously that he's no mastermind, after another momentous caper goes down. The plot mechanics may go for baroque on Sons of Anarchy, but the epic and often losing battle to preserve one's soul amid the mayhem couldn't be more searing and primal. As an observer wryly declares after one of this episode's most lurid actions: "Way to commit."
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LAND SHARKS: Who let the sharks out of their Friday night cage? As my colleague Stephen Battaglio recently wrote, ABC's Shark Tank is the stealth sleeper of network reality-show hits this season, quietly amassing an impressive audience on Fridays with its enjoyable and often aspirational spectacle of eager entrepreneurs and visionaries pitching their business plan to a panel of opinionated and often bluntly skeptical moguls, in hopes that someone will invest in their get-rich-eventually schemes.
"Is Christmas going to come early?" muses "shark" Daymond John in tonight's holiday special (8/7c), which is being seen as a test run for a possible move to a weeknight, maybe even Tuesdays, where Shark Tank's audience could grow. Is it worth your own investment of time? You could certainly do worse. The most engaging segment is the most obviously holiday-themed, in which Scott "Scotty Claus" Martin stands in front of the sharks, with Santa cap on head, to present his "Living Christmas Company," which delivers and rents live (not dying) Christmas trees to customers, retrieving them after the holiday season and storing them until the next year. The most famous of the sharks, Mark Cuban, responds well to this "convenience with a conscience" pitch, but can Scott drop his nice-guy act long enough to get down to serious number-crunching business? "I'm on the Shark Tank," Scott reminds them. "This isn't the guppy pond."
That much becomes clear in another segment, where Daymond John reminds an overly aggressive fashion wannabe: "Life is a cruel teacher. She loves to give you the test first and the lesson later." The lesson of Shark Tank: Be prepared, have the numbers to back you up, and when all else fails, bring cake or fudge.
THE PARENT RAP: As I recently wrote in one of my magazine review columns, what's most impressive about the current — and for me, the finest — season of NBC's Parenthood (10:01/9:01c) is that for all of the heaviness of the ongoing storyline about Kristina (the superb Monica Potter) fighting cancer, it hasn't lost its light touch when it matters. We live for moments like last week, when Kristina danced with her son (Max Burkholder) before sending him off against his will to a school dance, a grace note of joy amid the sadness. This week, there's even comedy afoot in the Braverman house, when sister-in-law Julia (Erika Christensen) shows up unexpectedly to get tips from her parenting "guru" only to find Kristina stoned (takes the edge off her chemo treatments). The advice that follows, about how to motivate a problematic child, is hilariously real and touching.
It more than makes up for some of the more tiresome subplots which take the show into the trickier realm of situation dramedy: say, anything involving Sarah's bone-headed decision to skip a romantic weekend getaway with her fiancé Mark to accompany her grumpy boss to Los Angeles. "I'm sure you're a great employee. You're just a lousy fiancée," says Mark, and as usual, he's right.
MORE TUESDAY TV HIGHLIGHTS: Guest-star alert: That Girl Marlo Thomas appears as a Hollywood realtor-to-the-stars on NBC's The New Normal (9:31/8:31c), also featuring Saturday Night Live's Cheri Oteri as a professional baby-proofer who causes friction between David and Bryan. The holiday twist: Who knew that eggnog would make Jane (Ellen Barkin) suddenly nice? ... On ABC's Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 (9:31/8:31c), James "the Beek" is paired with the worst pro-dancer ever (Missi Pyle) on Dancing With the Stars. Celebrity cameo: Dean Cain, playing himself. ... In an example of trying to be all things to all people, CBS opens the night with the annual showing of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (8/7c) and closes with another tradition: The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show (10/9c). Hermey, what are you still doing up, you naughty elf?