This post discusses plot points from the September 17 episode of Sons of Anarchy.
It’s not at all surprising that last week’s season six premiere of Sons of Anarchy, which ended with an elementary-school-aged boy shooting up his Catholic school with a KG-9 that the Sons imported illegally, proved controversial. Someone writing through the Facebook account of Victoria Leigh Soto, a first grade teacher who was killed while protecting her students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, addressed series creator Kurt Sutter, saying “The fact that you would take what happened in our school and use it as a plot line for your show is DISGUSTING.” The Parents Television Council used the episode, which also featured a showdown between the Sons of Anarchy and a group of torture pornographers, to continue their call to unbundle cable. Sutter’s response was that he felt that the plot line, which he’s suggested is a long-gestating and logical conclusion to his tragic opera, was a necessary way to continue what’s seemed to be a flagging debate over gun control. “Painful memories,” he tweeted, “keep the scab off and the conversation current.”
The mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC on Monday suggests that the real world is doing just fine at pulling that scab off without Sutter’s contribution. And in other remarks, Sutter’s been more measured, suggesting that ” I am not a social guru, I am not a guy with an agenda politically, socially, morally, financially.…My job is to engage, entertain and perhaps make you think.” But whatever position he’s coming from, Sons of Anarchy has positioned itself as an interesting test of how to balance social messaging, frenetic storytelling, and the integrity of your characters. I wrote last week that the biggest question for Sons‘ sixth season, and for the success of Sutter’s message, would simply be how “the shooting will fit in between what seems like a brewing war between some combination of Jax, Tara, Wendy, and Gemma over Jax’s boys, Clay’s struggles to stay alive in police custody, the Sons’ unfinished business with Damon Pope’s crew, the expansion of their prostitution business, and Bobby Elvis’ decision to light out for Nomad country.” The answers started to emerge this week, and they’re uneven, on questions of both emotions and logistics.
First, there’s simply the question of how the characters react to the news of the shooting, which for Gemma and Nero arrives via Nero’s cousin Arcadio (Dave Navarro), who is the boyfriend of the shooter’s mother–and the owner of the gun used in the killing. “The shit at that school yesterday?…That was Matthew. The one shot everybody up,” Arcadio explains, calmer than I’d expect given the legal and moral ramifications of his careless management of an illegal gun. “It was my KG-9, mano.” Arcadio isn’t the only one whose reaction seems cooler than might be warranted by the situation. Nero’s first move is to apologize to Gemma, explaining “I love him. But that dude. That dude. He’s always been the guy getting pulled out the fire. I’m sorry about all of that,” as if Arcadio was bearing nuisance news, rather than word of catastrophe. The reaction gets weirder from there. It’s understandable that Tara’s homecoming is a big deal, but it seems supremely odd that Gemma thinks the news can wait until Nero shows up, given the wrong Jax has enabled, and the existential threat the school shooting poses to the future of the club. That pause seems like it might have been better served with Jax’s reaction than Gemma’s delay.
Sons of Anarchy is an exceptionally plot-heavy show, and the fact that the Sons imported and sold the gun that was used in the shooting is a massive logistical problem for Jax and the club. But I think Sutter might have made a more significant impact here if he’d given Jax time and space to grieve, and to be genuinely out of control, and then to demonstrate how repulsive it was for Jax to put those emotions aside and to take the actions that will allow him to avoid being held accountable for his role in the shooting. Jax has had his Walter White moments before, framing Clay for Damon Pope’s murder, and most grotesquely, injecting his ex-wife Wendy with heroin in an attempt to destroy her sobriety and to keep her from seeking custody of their son together. And while Sons of Anarchy is willing to be blunt in its statements of right and wrong in a way that Breaking Bad is not, the show would benefit from something Breaking Bad uses quite effectively, brief pauses and acting that communicate that Jax’s choices are decisions he makes that say something about him as a person, rather than simple, animal reactions to overpowering circumstances. Jax has agency, and in this episode he uses it to kill a drug-addicted woman who’s hysterical over the evil her son’s done and mourning his loss anyway.
In other words, Sons‘ embrace of logistics as a response to the shooting on the part of the criminals involved doesn’t quite seem like the moral reckoning that Sutter intended. But Sutter’s decision to think through the way the response to the shooting would unfold among law enforcement officers and gun runners produces some of the most chilling, effective moments of the season.
Sons has always existed in a place somewhere between Breaking Bad and The Wire on a continuity of how interested the shows are in the functioning of institutions. Ultimately, Breaking Bad is only really interested in the peculiar institution that is the White family, sketching in its drug cartels and Neo-Nazi exterminating crews with broad, pulpy strokes. The Wire, by contrast, is all about institutions. Sons is interested in both, in part because the members of its families are tied up, often fatally, in the operations of a larger institution that began with idealistic goals but has been fatally compromised by, in the manner of The Wire, the fact that it’s made up of human beings. And Sons has been at its best when it explores the relationship of the institution of the motorcycle club to a larger ecosystem like the Charming police department.
The school shooting’s trapped the Sons in between two institutions and their representatives, each more powerful than the MC, and with more experience in handling these sorts of tragedies. Representing law enforcement is Tyne Patterson (C.C.H. Pounder), a district attorney for whom the case represents an opportunity. “First thing they’re going to want to know is how the hell an 11-year-old got a hold of an illegal automatic weapon. If we could tie that disaster to a Mexican street gang, the whole thing’ll be a lot neater,” she suggests to members of the joint law enforcement team. But Lee Toric offers her a better opportunity, a chance to prosecute the Sons and roll up a major gun-running operation. “You want these guys dead, don’t you?” Patterson tells Toric, tartly and accurately. “Yeah,” Lee tells her bluntly. “And you want out of this bullshit county. And this win puts your resume on the map. Coast to coast.” It’s a deeply cynical scene, but it captures the way some local law enforcement officers seize on mass shootings as an opportunity to burnish their own reputations, a phenomenon captured in devastating detail by Dave Cullen in his deeply reported book Columbine.
But that self-interest may actually produce a proper result: Lee Toric is a psychopath, but he’s not wrong that the Sons have done enormous damage, and it would be a good thing for the greater Charming area if they were rolled up and put away for good. In a way, the idea of holding a major illegal gun distributor responsible, rather than a couple of the people who were involved in the purchase of weapons, as was the case in Columbine, is the most idealistic thing Sutter’s ever proposed in Sons.
What’s really terrifying is another expression of self-interest that’s far more realistic, Galen’s explanation to Jax of how to keep the gun trade going. It doesn’t say much for Jax that it took the use of one his wares to commit mass murder to force him to finally get out of the gun business. But Galen’s view of the world is far colder than that, and it’s a stark explication of the real rationale behind the National Rifle Association’s bluster. In the exchange between them, they’re both right. “That shit grips the public. Whips everyone up,” Jax insists, as would anyone who’s paid any attention to the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting. But Galen’s even more correct to shrug that “Some politician pledges vengeance and reform. Six months later, no one remembers. Just ride it out.” It’s true, as Jax suggests that “Part of that reform usually means finding a scapegoat,” like the people who helped Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold buy the guns they were too young to legally purchase. And it takes exceptionally cold ice water in your veins to read the market as Galen does, likely accurately. “We’ve got a surplus of KG-9s. I’m going to ship them all out to you,” he tells Jax, refusing to let him out of the business. “Fear stokes the imagination. Everyone wants the deadliest gun. Double the price, KG-9s will sell themselves. Looks like we all have something to gain from this tragedy.”
Capitalism in The Wire was embodied by The Greek, a man who was indifferent to the cogs he incorporated into his various businesses. If one became too troublesome to him, he would happily replace that person with a less-troublesome moving part, the whole machine grinding relentlessly onward. Galen operates in a different, but equally troubling way: he isn’t content to replace Jax and the Sons with more willing partners. He wants to compel Jax’s continuing participation in the gun business. It’s a more ravenous vision of capitalism than even The Wire‘s, in which death or imprisonment could let you opt out, one that demands that everyone commit to their involvement, no matter how horrified they are by the results of their work.
It is, as Ally Lowe puts it to Tara, “a culture of violence.” Sons of Anarchy is dead right about some of the mechanics that make that culture operate. What it needs now is to find a balance between the mechanical workings of that culture, and the emotions involved in surrendering to it, embracing it, or raging against it.