This post provides a basic plot summary for the third season of Sons of Anarchy.
“Don’t be swayed by fear, or history, or the opinions of outsiders. Find your own truth, what leads you to the things you love,” Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) writes in a letter to his sons in the opening of the first episode of the sixth season of Sons of Anarchy, which returns to FX tonight at 10PM. Epistolary philosophical meditations are nothing new for Sons, which began with John Teller’s diary and has moved on to Jax’s own self-reflections. But this instruction carries particular weight this season, which series creator Kurt Sutter described as the beginning of “the third act of this morality play we’re doing” at the Television Critics Association Press tour this season.
Specifically, Sons of Anarchy finds Jax Teller finally attempting to get out of the gun business for real, and encountering difficulties in refocusing his efforts on pornography and the escort business. “Fear, or history, or the opinions of outsiders,” may mean one thing for a man who’s trying to disentangle himself from the criminal legacy established by his family. But those factors are all too relevant, if in a different way, to our national conversations about gun control and the treatment of sex work and sex workers.
That first plot line gets some juice from the news cycle, including the failed attempts to pass some sort of national gun control legislation in the wake of a series of devastating mass shootings, and from a particular facet of that discussion, Hollywood’s visual love affair with gun violence, and its financial relationships with the gun manufacturers from which the entertainment industry licenses the rights to depict certain weapons. It’s genuinely refreshing to see a show acknowledge that easy access to illegal guns can have dreadful consequences for the people who buy and sell those weapons, rather than simply reveling in yet another shootout. And one of the strongest elements of the sixth season of Sons is how many facets of the debate over the utility of guns Sutter manages to work into the season, whether the show is acknowledging the economic imperatives that drive our approaches to gun control, or characters are debating the use of guns for personal protection.
And while the Sons’ pornography business has been the source of trouble for the club before, those disputes mostly came in the form of personal rivalries with another pornographer, not from the work itself. This year, the question for Jax and company is how to distinguish themselves from–and shut down–another crew of pornographers who, as Jax explains to a local criminal boss near the ports, “are doing torture porn and rape deals, not being real clear with the talent,” which includes the much-put upon Lyla (Winter Ave Zoli), the widow of Jax’s best friend. The dispute comes as Jax is attempting to expand Nero’s (Jimmy Smits) Diosa franchise to the ports, and complicates his efforts to build out the escorting part of the business, which he hopes will provide a less fractious stream of revenue to the club in the future.
The questions of whether you can run gun and pornography and escorting businesses without causing harm to anyone, and if not, what levels of harm we’re willing to tolerate, are well worth discussing. And they’re conversations that, to different degrees, it’s proved difficult for us to have without hyperbole or pearl-clutching.
But the challenge for the sixth season of Sons of Anarchy is that the chickens are coming home to roost so fast for Jax and the Sons that it can be hard for storylines to breathe among the flying feathers. The show has two seasons left, which means that creator Kurt Sutter doesn’t necessarily have time to explore the blowback of the Sons’ guns and sex businesses in separate seasons. It would have been interesting to see Jax and company pivot away from guns to invest full-time in prostitution and pornography, only to see that line of work come back on them and characters they care about as well, an illustration of the difficulty of trying to live somewhere in between the fully licit business world and the criminal one.
Instead, with both of the Sons’ businesses in trouble at once, the show risks whiplash. In moments when Sons might benefit from one of the richly scored montages to give audiences to think about the impact of what they’ve just seen, the show pivots from the gun business to the prostitution business. The action and violence are frenetic, and while Kurt Sutter’s become known for his willingness to go grotesque, he’s got good, morally and politically serious ideas in this season, and they deserve better than to be obscured in gouts of blood from a gang members bleeding mouth or drowned in a torture pornographer’s filthy studio.
In particular, it would be nice to see Jax, who’s capable of being considered at length when he’s speaking to his sons in prose, reckon emotionally and morally with the impact his legacy business has had on the community the Sons once saw themselves as responsible for, rather than simply moving from logistical crisis to logistical crisis. If we’re meant to sympathize with someone who’s made part of his living for much of his adult life selling illegal weapons, and who has delayed getting out of that business for years on pragmatic grounds, Sons would do well to allow Jax some space to express guilt and grief, and to take some sort of responsibility for what the guns he sells have done, in a way Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association can’t allow themselves to do and still stay in business.
There were quite a few moments during the first three episodes of this season of Sons of Anarchy when I turned away from the screen and waited for the dreadful sounds coming through my headphones to stop before I was willing to look again. But there was nothing that actually scared me more than a conversation between Real IRA honcho Gaalan O’Shay (Timothy V. Murphy, with a nasty, knife-edge of a smile) and Jax when Gaalan offered a cold assessment of Americans’ attitudes towards guns, even in the wake of great tragedy.
“Some politician pledges vengeance and reform. Six months later, no one remembers. Just ride it out,” he explained. “Fear stokes the imagination. Everyone wants the deadliest gun. Double the price, KG-9s will sell themselves.” That’s terrifying because it’s true. And it’s a reminder that sometimes a cool head is more effective at eliciting emotion and insight than a fevered heart.