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. The previous posts in this series appear here and here.
While Sons of Anarchy is deeply immersed in a conversation about institutions, one of the things that distinguishes it from a show like The Wire is that it’s not equally interested in all of the interlocking institutions whose friction produces most of the show’s drama. The focus is always on the MC, and U.S. Attorneys, cops, and businessmen are only important when they wander into the frame that Kurt Sutter’s set up. That’s an interesting choice, and it means the show has, thus far, left a central question unaddressed: how do the citizens of Charming feel about the deal Police Chief Wayne Unser struck with SAMCRO? And about the presence of the MC in their midst in general?
We meet a fairly narrow band of Charming residents who have no formal involvement with the MC or their various rivals: in law enforcement, we’ve got Wayne Unser, David Hale, and Eli Roosevelt; in the business community, we’ve got Jacob Hale, Elliot Oswald, and Mrs. Roosevelt; and in the medical establishment, we have Margaret Murphy. In other words, we have no broad-based sense of how much the ordinary citizens of Charming interact with SAMCRO, or what they feel about their town’s entanglement with a deeply criminal enterprise. Do you bring you minivan to the MC’s shop if you’re a mom with engine trouble? Are you angry about crime on the fringes? Do you think the relationship is worth it to keep the drug trade away from your kids? And if it’ll create jobs and increase property values, would you support the development of Charming Heights?
The people whose perspectives we do have tend to to provide more personal insight than institutional narratives. We understand that Chief Unser is personally entangled with Gemma Teller Morrow, and that he benefits personally from his relationship with the Sons of Anarchy. But given the timing of the club’s founding and its formalized relationship with Charming law enforcement, it makes sense that Charming might have accepted SAMCRO’s protection as service cuts took a toll on California in the wake of the passage of Proposition 13, which severely limited California’s ability to raise additional tax revenue, in 1978. If Sutter does make a First Nine spinoff of Sons of Anarchy, it would be fascinating to explore how SAMCRO burrowed in to its position in Charming. It’s not just that decision that’s obscured: killing David Hale deprived the show of a legitimate counterweight to Unser’s understanding with the Sons and the opportunity to see a Charming native, who perhaps represents more mainstream citizens, work out a new relationship with SAMCRO. Eli Roosevelt’s arrival in Charming could have been an opportunity to see how the Sons responded to a law enforcement structure that wasn’t solely concerned with the crime rate in that one town. But Lincoln Potter’s arrival again derails the development of a new dynamic. I understand that having a single representative of a threat makes for more economical storytelling, but it does deny us the opportunity to see a show balanced between SAMCRO and the cops, and to fully explore the implications of that shifting relationship.
The business community are similarly stand-ins for positions rather than entirely developed individuals. Jeff Kober, who plays Jacob Hale, Jr., is a marvelous avatar of malevolence as a rapacious developer and mayoral candidate—he played Willow’s magical drug dealer Rack in the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But he’s not exactly a fully-developed character. We have no real sense of how he’s seen in the community, or how his father’s reputation reflects on him. And it doesn’t make sense that Lincoln Potter’s play to reveal that Hale’s partners in developing Charming Heights are sex toy manufacturers and pornographers would derail the project: if Charming has no problem with SAMCRO, do we really think they’d be turned off a major economic development just because some of the people involved are semi-unsavory? Not knowing the real temperature of your community may streamline your story, but it can lead you into logical inconsistency.
And it’s for that reason that Gemma’s relationship with Mrs. Roosevelt is so interesting: she’s perhaps the only genuine representative of Charming citizenry we get in the show. And we know that she is invested in at least one thing—the park. And in her exchange with Gemma, we get our first sense of the actual deals that Charming’s residents work out with the MC, the circumstances in which they’re willing to admit SAMCRO members into their midst as full residents. The price, it turns out, is fairly low—Clay can stand among the town fathers, the doctors and cops, if it’ll save the park. And that’s interesting to know: could SAMCRO lay down roots in Charming because the soil of the town is inherently a little devious? Or has the town got mean to match its protectors?
Certainly one person who’s gotten meaner over the course of the series, and better for it, is Margaret Murphy, who may be my favorite secondary character on Sons of Anarchy. Where she was once bullied by Gemma and beat up by Tara in an act of overcompensating-at-pretending-to-be-Gemma, Margaret’s stood up for herself—and become the one person who seems to be able to judge the Sons from outside and get away with it with her dignity, her life, and her career intact. When she slugs Tara after Gemma’s escape from the hospital on the grounds that no one will believe there was a struggle unless Tara has a black eye, it’s a witty way for her to get justice. But it doesn’t mean she has to give up her convictions, the punch is not a waystation on the journey to Old Ladydom. What it does mean is that she’s proven she’s tough enough to tell Tara what she thinks of what Charming is doing to her, to help her get out and to hell with what Gemma thinks of it, to reach a rapport with Gemma where, post-beating, Gemma can tell Margaret ” I flew my broomstick into a brick wall.” These two strong women know what they think of each other, and we’re at a point where Gemma’s taking more from Margaret than she’s dishing out in return. It would be fascinating to see these conversations writ large, and often. And perhaps with SAMCRO’s internal disputes settled, they’ll start to happen.