Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve watched all four seasons of Sons of Anarchy. And while shotgunning the show’s episodes may not be for the faint of heart (so much grotesque violence!), it’s given me a lot to think about with the show. So every day this week, I’ll be considering another aspect of life in Charming, California.
Since you’re probably not one of the (very few) people who are watching Enlightened, HBO’s excellent, if uncomfortable show about a corporate drone who has a breakdown, followed by an epiphany, and begins living out her principals in all sorts of hilariously awkward ways, you probably don’t get the joke in the title of this blog post. But the Enlightened episode “Consider Helen” was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen on television in a while: a quiet day spent with the mother of the main character, who is grappling with private and unresolved griefs her daughter is too self-involved to acknowledge or understand. All of which is a long way of saying that until that episode of television, and until I started watching Sons of Anarchy, I don’t think I realized how thirsty I was for the perspectives of older women on television. Enough with the women who are meant to reflect me now or in ten years. I want a sense of the women I’ll become, the grand crones and the quiet ones, too.
One of the things I appreciate most about Sons of Anarchy is the way Gemma is allowed to have specifically female problems, and to have those problems treated as if they’re on a level with the hurts and angers of Jax, Clay, and the other members of the club. When, in the first season, when Cherry shows up in Charming after sleeping with Clay, and Gemma breaks her nose with a skateboard, the show could have decided to treat Gemma as ridiculous, as if she’s overreacting. Instead, we get that very funny scene of her and Clay hollering at each other in jail, Gemma refusing to be bailed out. Both halves of this late-middle aged couple are acting as if they’re teenagers. They are equals in their absurdity, both permitted to feel overpowered by their reactions to each other.
Similarly, after Gemma is raped (a plot that I think is handled better than almost anything else in the series), Sons of Anarchy deals with her sexual anxieties respectfully and in a way that insists that rape victims shouldn’t be treated as marked by their experiences. It’s terribly, terribly sad to hear Gemma tell Tara that “Clay’s never gonna… want to be inside something that’s been ripped up like me…Love don’t mean shit. Men need to own their pussy. His has been violated. He’ll find another. It’s what they do.” But the show insists she’s still wanted, first in Tig’s advances towards her in the wake of the attack—Sons of Anarchy probably spends more dialogue insisting that Gemma is attractive than any other individual character—and in her eventual reconciliation with Clay.
It’s tremendously moving to see Clay exceed her expectations of him, not just having sex with her again but seducing her, clearing off her office desk and declaring as only Ron Perlman can, “I want my wife.” Her hurt and recovery are couched in the language of ownership: neither Charming nor the MC are exactly feminist paradises. But even when Gemma puts off telling Clay and Jax about the fact that she was attacked to avoid hurting them and destabilizing the club, both of the men in her life make her recovery a priority when she finally does tell them. Later in the series, she may be marginalized as just an Old Lady, beaten for daring to step beyond that role, but at least in that moment, her husband and her son can elevate her recovery.
In that same season, when Luann Delaney, Gemma’s best friend, is beaten to death in her pornography studio, it’s another fascinating example of how a group of men and women deal with the same event differently. While the members of SAMCRO are buzzing with talk of retaliation, Gemma’s grieving. Her shattering the plate that holds their dinner is simultaneously a domestic revenge for their callousness—she’s the bad housewife ensuring they don’t get to eat—and a refocusing of their attention away from masculine posturing towards her genuine loss. Luann is not a profit center or an Old Lady to Gemma—she is Gemma’s closest companion, and being her equal means she’s the one who can truly appreciate Luann’s loss.
Sons of Anarchy also privileges the private and the domestic when Gemma goes on the lam, and ends up coming to terms with the fact that her father needs to be in assisted living. While Clay and Jax are dealing with a far more operatic emergency, the kidnapping of Abel and the breakdown in relations with their Irish gunrunning connection, the show gives as much weight and time to Gemma’s experience of a vastly more common problem. Her terror at her father wandering off (in an attempt, as it turns out, to commit suicide) is just as real as Jax’s screams of agony on the dock as Abel is taken away from him. Watching Gemma leave her distraught father at his new care facility is shattering. It may not be as evil as murder, but it shatters her. Whether creator Kurt Sutter intended it or not, this sequence is a critique of the show’s violent action sequences: you don’t need to castrate a rapist or shiv a prison guard to cut your readers to the quick, to provide them with an emotion so strong they want to turn away.
And it’s fitting that the show explores Gemma cutting ties to the last part of her life before she became an Old Lady precisely at the moment that, after several seasons of painting her as a queen, Sons of Anarchy begins to explore the extent to which Gemma is a limited woman. Because while she’s clever, conniving, and sexually powerfully, Gemma isn’t educated like Tara is. She doesn’t have a formal position of power with an organization or a community, like Margaret does. And she doesn’t have an independent source of income, like Lyla. Without those resources, Gemma’s hugely vulnerable when her powers of persuasion fail. Watching her shrink before Magaret’s judgement, a woman she once felt free to threaten and coerce, reinforced for me how far Gemma had fallen and how vulnerable she felt almost as much as watching Clay beat her did. Perhaps, in the fourth season of the show, it’s stupid of Gemma to believe that she can restrain a raging, wounded Clay, but we’re given very little evidence that her powers, be they sexual or moral appeals (Katey Sagal really could play a Roman wife in Shakespeare) have failed her before. And when they do, she recognizes it.
What will be interesting for Season 5, I think, is how Gemma fares now that she and Clay have been deposed and are estranged from each other. Tara may insist that she’s smarter than Gemma, that she owns Jax because she knows him best, but neither woman could convince him to kill his adoptive father. And Tara can only truly take Gemma’s place once her hand has been ruined, and she believes her ability to escape is compromised. Becoming the Queen of Charming carries some power with it. But being the power behind the throne makes you much more vulnerable than conquering an independent empire.