Is there anything you love so much, you’d protect it, no matter the cost; the damage it did to you?
A town called Charming controlled and protected by a gang that calls itself a ‘club’. It’s a beautiful irony that solicits the substance of one of television’s most awesome series. Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy follows the life and times of an outlaw motorcycle club – the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original or SAMCRO for short – that has dealings with a superfluity of (interchangeable) ally and rival gangs and is immersed in a deluge of illegal activity including arson, gunrunning, murder, kidnapping, drugs, blackmail and porn. Four seasons on (with seven envisioned and six certain), Sons of Anarchy is clay in the hands of a group of talented artists who are moulding the series into a mythology that exposes the bloody, misshapen core of the human condition.
Sutter has created a show that boasts an intriguing synthesis of severe hyper realism and fiction that is pulpy to the max – the result is an extreme context that serves as a platform for a human drama that is blatantly agonising and vividly gut-wrenching. The show’s passions are raw and the tension is compelling, working from the inside out – relationships drive the show’s energy and the plot serves to antagonise these relationships. It’s a show about family and how life – racism, patriarchy, misogyny, chauvinism, abuse, corruption – affect family; family in its entire context, family by blood and by brotherhood. Sons poses moral questions rather than issuing answers and certainties, and so it provokes rather than instructs. The show is based on the premise that people are complicated and life is very rarely elementary.
Jax (Jackson) Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the show’s protagonist, exists at the heart of a gripping moral dilemma. Son of the club’s (now deceased) co-founding member John Teller, Jax has grown up in the club but struggles with its lawless sense of misdirection. The axis around which the story revolves is; Jax’s allegiance to the club. Involved in the club’s violence and crime, and yet consumed by his father’s vision for a bona fide botherhood (a family), Jax is plagued by self-doubt and questions the club that has informed his very existence.
This leads to headstrong confrontation between Jax and club-president/surrogate father Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), who is a symbol – a physical manifestation – of SAMCRO; as the show progresses and Clay’s moral fibre disintegrates, so too does that of the club. As current VP and future club-president Jax wishes to invoke change and when this becomes probably impossible, he wishes to extricate himself. But SAMCRO is in his blood and his soul is entwined with that of the club. Personified and existing as a character in its own right, the club will not let Jax leave in spite of his best efforts. Sons ponders Jax’s ability to exist according to the moral code laid out by his father, to which he subscribes, in the midst of a climate of reckless degeneracy that is both emotionally and physically debilitating. Embroiled in an existential struggle to establish his principles and his identity, JAX brawls against the ideology of SAMCRO in an all-consuming battle for his soul, and the soul of his club. Ultimately he chooses to act with a means to an end (a better end for both the club and Jax); does this mitigate any choices or decisions – the show contemplates?
Jax’s love-hate relationship with SAMCRO is complicated by the love he has for his brothers in the club. Intrinsic to the biker club culture is a real sense of camaraderie, which embodies the soul of SAMCRO in Sutter’s story. And yet amidst this camaraderie is an insane labyrinth of lies and deceit. The club is at war with many an external enemy – the local police, the FBI, white supremacists, Mayans, Mexicans, the RIRA, African-Americans, Russians – but no fight is so poignant and as destructive than that which rages among the members of the club itself. Bloodshed, betrayal, hypocrisy – it’s all there. The brotherhood that exists for the protection of its members is inescapably destructive. The club functions according to a unique set of principles that are external to those that govern society; it has forged a world in which men kill each other’s families, fuck each other’s wives and sit next to one another under the banner of friendship. And make no mistake; the friendship is as real as it is fickle.
And what’s a show without a love story? Especially one embroiled in tragedy. Whilst club chaos reigns, Jax negotiates a true romance with Doctor Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff) – Jax’s high school sweetheart – who has re-emerged on the scene after escaping Charming and SAMCRO years ago. But first loves die hard and Tara and Jax are unavoidably attracted. One of the show’s most interesting themes is the notion of fate. Just as Jax appears to be fated to be president of SAMCRO, his relationship with Tara is destined. The star crossed lovers, no matter how bruised and battered their relationship, cannot be forced apart by Life and its grandiose complexities. Not in a sappy Romeo and Juliet kind-of-way but in an unforgiving, perturbing, harsh reality kind-of-way. Their love is bitter-sweet; it’s as sorrowful as it is beautiful. Jax and Tara are victims of situation but by no means denizens of martyrdom.
As one of the show’s strongest female characters, Tara is pitted against Jax’s mom – SAMCRO’s matriarch; Gemma Teller (John Teller’s ‘old lady’ and now Clay Morrow’s ‘old lady’). Each woman, passionate about Jax, wields a feminine power to be reckoned with. Highly educated Tara bears a strength that is amplified by Jax’s love for her. She lives by a strong ethical code that is repeatedly challenged by the lecherous, debaucherous circumference enveloping the SAMCRO way of life. Gemma (Katey Sagal) is street-wise, fierce, intrusive, manipulative and violently protective. She has spent years forging her role within SAMCRO and, after a rough start with Tara, teaches Jax’s girl a thing or two about how to be a biker’s ‘old lady’.
Tara and Gemma’s volatile presence in the show elicits some important themes surrounding the role of women in society, and the role of women in a sub-culture like a motorcycle club. Rape, abuse, porn, prostitution and infidelity all find their way into the life of SAMCRO, which has an interestingly ambiguous attitude toward all of the aforementioned. The distinctly different manner in which Gemma and Tara engage with the violence, disrespect and bigotry doled out by the club ethos is social commentary at its most acute. Hard-ass Gemma surrenders to the biker creed whilst Tara learns to understand it but fights it nonetheless.
SAMCRO comprises violent, criminal men who are revealed to be not all that bad. In fact; antihero these men might be – Jax in particular. They murder in the name of the game, use evil to fight greater evil, and then go home to their families who cherish them with boisterous love and adoration. It’s a fascinating portrayal of the human condition, which is a strange, tormented, convoluted amalgamation of good and bad. The characters are never static – they regress, progress and are difficult to gauge. Surprises are constant and the show, without fail, calls on viewers to interrogate their assumptions with a critical voice.
Sons of Anarchy takes a while to find its groove but once that first season kicks in, the show is unstoppable. The tension escalates and the characters demand not only attention but investment. Sons of Anarchy is a story-teller’s tale; it’s about relationship, humanity (and the lack thereof). It’s irreverent, funny, disturbing and magnificently scripted. It’s a well-built, charismatic series that challenges perception and invokes discomfort. Whilst forcing thought and conjuring emotion it entertains…
…and isn’t that what television is all about?