You love the right things
Sons of Anarchy: “So”
If I were, for some reason, trying to decide which network on TV is offering the best shows right now, after the perfunctory bow to HBO, I would be hard pressed to decide between AMC and FX. Both have developed a clear style and “brand” – AMC, with its minimalist, patient, character-driven dramas (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and [I gather] Rubicon); while FX has taken the tone and much of the alumni of the extraordinary The Shield and brought us Justified and Sons of Anarchy (not to mention the hilarious nihilism of Louie and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). These are dark, violent shows about morally compromised, but deeply complex, characters; and even more interestingly, they are some of most politically compelling shows on TV.
In the last several years, a new crop of what we might call “red state” shows have appeared which have slowly rewritten the bicoastal, urban presumption of locale that TV has tended to share with Hollywood; along with Justified, with its willfully anachronistic gunslinger in rural Kentucky, we could include Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad, and Sons of Anarchy (perhaps True Blood, but its camp-Southern Gothic melange has its heart elsewhere, I think). The rules here are a bit loose, but what these shows share is a consistent tendency to portray settings in towns or cities far removed from the cosmopolitan cultural hubs of NYC, LA, or Chicago, and delve into the lives and communities of people who exist in an entirely different world from much of what we see onscreen. SoA does, of course, take place in California, but culturally it’s a million miles from Los Angeles, and like Breaking Bad or Sopranos, it examines communities formed on the basis of inherent contradictions; and its drama is propelled by characters’ attempts to hold families together when payment comes due for a way of life born of violence.
The irony and paradox of SoA is that SAMCRO, the club itself, is anything but anarchic. In the time-honored tradition of cinematic crime families, the clearly defined ethical and social norms of the club are strictly hierarchical, fundamentally loyalty and honor-driven, and they carefully differentiate between those “in the game” and innocents (think of the immortal Omar from The Wire: “a man’s gotta have a code”). But from the first season, a slow rupture has been splitting the club; the explicitly Shakespearean first season portrayed Jax slowly working towards a different vision for the club then stepfather Clay, one more idealistic and coherent than Clay’s ruthlessly pragmatic gun-running. The most fascinating element of this was Jax’s discovery of his dead father’s journal; a picture has slowly emerged that his father realized from early on that the direction of the club could only lead to ruin, and that that realization cost him his life.
We’ve never really got a lot of backstory there, and the rift between Clay and Jax last season over the murder of Donna took a necessary back seat to presenting a unified front to Zobelle’s white supremacist threat. The fascinating dynamics of that season – SAMCRO’S “postracial” attempt to preserve the calm of Charming against Zobelle’s attempted takeover of the town drug trade – organized around the need to preserve the club. But, as the explosive finale last year revealed, the latent chaos the Sons harbor in their name is inescapable and we found Jax’s son kidnapped, Half-Sack dead, Gemma on the run – all while their enemy was soundly defeated.
By now, we know that this show, in the tradition of The Godfather, Sopranos, and Michael Mann’s amazing Heat, is at heart a show about family (which is why, last season, Clay could hurry home from blowing up a meth lab to make up with Gemma after a marital squabble, and why this bizarre juxtaposition made perfect sense), and like all of those shows, this means that its moral fabric, and character dynamic, are driven by its women. In Gemma and Tara, Katey Sagal and Maggie Siff have created two incredibly compelling characters, both now fully committed to the club and to their men, Clay and Jax, and both now uncomfortably bound together by these commitments. So when we open this season with Clay and Gemma separated while Gemma is in hiding, and Jax and Tara watching their relationship fall apart after Abel’s kidnapping, we have the immediate sense that SAMCRO is at the verge of completely dissolving.
Tara’s decision last year to stay with Jax, and to take upon herself the moral compromise that meant in committing to the Sons, paid off last night: Jax, wild with grief, tried to push her away, only to have a fierce Tara refuse his attempt to self-destruct in isolation. On the other hand, Gemma’s increasing megalomania – her murder of Polly last season by self-appointed divine right – now finds her seeking comfort from her father. Gemma’s bizarre, and twisted, flirtation with religion last season isn’t over yet, it appears, since we now know she’s a preacher’s kid. This makes sense on so many levels – the dedication of the club to its ideal, its charter, its democractic process, all have the mythos of religion. If Gemma is anything to SAMCRO, she is something approaching a priestess.
The most promising part of last night’s amazing episode, to my mind, was the lingering shot of John Teller on SAMCRO’s hall of fame, and Jax’s visit to his grave – explicitly calling back to the last episode of season 1, when Jax started down a road somewhere between reform and insurrection. I’m hoping we get more of JT’s real vision for the club (the show has coasted on inspirational vagaries so far), his mysterious death, and Clay and Gemma’s role in his death. As the last shot of Jax beating the gunman into the pavement showed, his “love of the right things” is at stake this season as the club continues to be beset on all sides by the forces they themselves have unleashed. The choice of song – Richard Thompson’s “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me” – hints that revelations about Jax and his father – both his dead father and his adopted father – will be explosive; and it also suggests, ominously, that Abel’s life and well-being (with all the significance of his name) is very much at stake in whether or not Jax returns to his quest for something more enlightened for SAMCRO, or whether he takes Clay’s road of retribution.
What is certain is that it will be violent, bloody, and tragic. Hale’s death was a clear signal of this – I liked this character, and even if his attempt to end the alliance of the Charming police and SAMCRO was quixotic, so is the club’s presumption that they can keep Charming out of the line of fire. Donna, Sack, Abel, and the unnamed boy last night shot in the driveby: there’s always an innocent to take a bullet.