There’s not exactly a lot of plot in the stylized new teaser for the sixth season of Sons of Anarchy, but in particular, I like those meaningful looks that Tara and Gemma are giving each other at the edge of the frame:
One of the things I’ve always found interesting about Sons of Anarchy is that it has not just one woman married to a leading anti-hero, but two, and thus two very different perspectives on the show’s issues of class, violence, and gender roles. I don’t know that the show has always been consistent in developing Tara’s character or explaining why she would be attracted to Jax in the long-term, rather than simply in the first season when she’s dealing with a stalker, and he steps forward as a protective figure. But I’ve always thought that the show’s basic tragedy was rooted in Jax’s inability to let his wife support their family with her prestigious, high-paid work while he found a way to do something with his life other than fix cars and motorcycles, or commit increasingly sophisticated crimes. Jax is clearly not a dumb guy, and it would be interesting to see how his interest in the philosophy and governance issues in his father’s writing developed in a college classroom. But his inability to develop himself with Tara’s support, even if it’s only temporary, is a genuinely lost opportunity, and a very interesting advancement of some of the basic arguments anti-hero shows have made about how questions of masculinity play out through the attitudes their heroes display towards their wives and work.
An earlier version of that dynamic, in which anti-heroes haven’t wanted their wives to work at all, showed up in particular in The Sopranos episode “Whitecaps,” when Tony tried to excuse his cheating to Carmela by suggesting that he was more interested in women with careers than in what she had to offer as a housewife (a claim that has some limited basis in his attractions to Valentina, Svetlana, Gloria, and Dr. Melfi, if not in his long-term relationship with Irina). “Who the fuck wanted it like this? Who the fuck pissed and moaned of just the idea of me with a fucking real estate license?” Carmela asked him bitterly. “Who knew all this time you wanted Tracy and Hepburn? Well Tony, what about all the thousand other fucking pigs you had your dick in over the years? The strippers, the cocktail waitresses, were they all your best friends all of them too?”
In Mad Men, Don Draper sabotaged Betty’s attempts to return to acting in a commercial in the first season of the show, and covered up his role in keeping her in her gilded cage. He’s frequently been drawn to women with professions, be they as high powered as Rachel Menken’s work in her family’s department store, Bobbie Barrett’s management of her comedian husband’s career, or Faye Miller’s work as a consultant to advertising agencies, or in more traditional female professions like elementary school teaching, or unconventional jobs like art. But for the women he’s wanted to make things permanent with, Don’s chosen women in traditional homemaker roles. Megan was a secretary, a job Don sees as something different than a career, acting as a nanny when he proposed. When she pursues a career, starting, like Betty did, in commercials, Don visits her on set in a show of support, then immediately goes out and signals his sexual availability, and a season later, is sleeping with Sylvia, one of the only career-less women he’s dallied with, to get his fix of dependency. And ultimately, Don blows his relationship with Megan by reversing his decision to go to California, a choice that initially lead her to give up her existing job, and that now prevents her from pursuing new opportunities.
On Breaking Bad, Skyler White has generally worked in low-wage or intermittent occupations. When she and Walter met, she was a waitress. She’s occasionally sold short stories to publications, and pursued makeshift work like selling items on eBay that don’t quite add up to a full job. As people who think of Skyler as a cheater tend to forget, Ted Beneke hit on Skyler even though she was married during her first stint keeping his books, and she quit to avoid an awkward situation. When she returns to work, it’s in part because she believes that Walt can’t support their family, and the sense that he isn’t doing as well financially as he ought to be, given his genius, is a major source of Walt’s resentments. Skyler’s work laundering Walt’s money ends up being an acceptable compromise because she’s facilitating his ability to spend the money, but he remains the one making it, and because Skyler’s growing complicity ties her to Walt, making her incapable of leaving him. It’s an ugly compromise, one that turns Skyler’s previously underused head for business into the thing that’s used to demean, frighten, and humiliate her.
By the time we met Jimmy McNulty on The Wire, he and his wife were separated, and the show did perhaps the most nuanced job of any Golden Age drama of exploring McNulty’s attractions to women based on work, and his attempts to find a stable partner. When McNulty is trying to win Elena back, he teases her at the real estate office where she’s working by pulling up the skirt on a mannequin and caressing it, a gesture that has the potential to embarrass her, but ends up charming her anyway. He’s attracted to political consultant Theresa D’Agostino, and clearly would have been interested in pursuing a relationship with her, but in a reversal, finds out that she’s not interested in his brain, not in bed after sex, and not over dinner. McNulty doesn’t really get the chance to see how he’d respond to a power balance in a relationship where the woman was higher-paid and in a job with higher prestige because, probably rightly, D’Agostino knows herself and decides she’s not interested. When McNulty ends up with Beadie Russell, they work in part because, while he started out with more experience than she did, Beadie is more secure in herself and her sense of what she can do in the job: she may be less ambitious than McNulty, but she’s also less volatile.
Jax Teller, then, is an exception to the general rule, in that he’s man enough to love a woman who makes more money than he does, and whose job carries vastly more social prestige than his work brings, and to maintain that relationship into a marriage. What’s painful, though, is his and Tara’s inability to make choices about their relationship that might let them recognize the potential for happiness that lies before them. Whether it’s the damage to Tara’s hand, their inability to move away from Charming, or Tara’s need to prove her own loyalty to the club, to find her own way to be an Old Lady even if she maintains her career, their attachment to their very specific gender roles undermines them again and again. If in Mad Men and The Sopranos, anti-heroes had trouble with their wives working at all, Sons of Anarchy has expanded that gender trouble, and the debate about women, work, and power to women as well as the men who struggle to distinguish between loving their wives and wanting to control them.