"How ‘Sons Of Anarchy’ Missed Out On Joining The Pantheon Of Golden Age Television Shows"
This post discusses plot points from the October 8 episode of Sons of Anarchy. Given the way this season has progressed, I’m going to hold off on recapping it for the rest of the year, and revisit it at the end of the season.
It says something about what Sons of Anarchy is at its best and worst that while a bomb planted by the Irish exploded at the end of this episode, the shrapnel had much less of an impact on me than the sight of Gemma Teller Morrow’s face as she was raped all over again by the prison guards who gave her a choice: have sex with the husband she’s come to despise, or be sexually assaulted by one of the guards. I genuinely believe that Kurt Sutter, Sons‘ creator, wants to tell a story about how hard it is to extract yourself from the gun business, and more broadly, about how exceptionally difficult it is to extricate yourself from a violent culture. But as much as this episode was an improvement and shows what Sons is going to be able to do now that it’s shed some troublesome characters and slimmed down its plot obligations, it was also an illustration that Sons has its own fascination with loud bangs and flashes that prevents it from being as wise about the institutional causes and cultural roots of violence as its ambitions suggest it would like to be.
In its second, and best season, Gemma’s rape by white supremacists who were attempting to gain a financial foothold in Charming was the spine of the show. Her emotional reaction to the attack was prioritized. Her attempt to keep the news from Clay and Jax was treated with respect and as a demonstration both of her power as an operator and of how preoccupied her husband and son were. And when Clay and Jax learned that Gemma had been raped, their reaction illustrated the gulf between what they’d come to expect from the world, and what she had. The show never quite stretched connective tissue between Gemma’s conduct and the way she’d been conditioned by the club. We’ve never seen Gemma as a Crow Eater, and in the world of the show, she’s often someone who deals out violent punishments to women affiliated with the club who are seen as transgressing in some way, particularly Ima.
Katey Sagal does similarly impressive work this week. There’s real contempt in her voice when, after Clay insists that “I’m going to kill both of them,” vowing to kill the guards who abused them, Gemma tells him “No, you’re not. Jax needs you. You’re no good to us in the hole or dead.” She knows that Clay won’t actually be in a position to kill the men, and that even if he did, his actions would be impulsive and stupid. Gemma’s the one who can think strategically for the club, even when she’s been terribly abused. But later, when Lyla asks “What can I make you, sweetheart,” and Gemma tells her, “Three hours younger,” you can see how exhausting it must all be, to be subject to this sort of manipulation and violence when you know you’re smarter than the men who put you in this position.
But Sons doesn’t have the oxygen to make that argument in any greater detail, or to make any of the coordinating arguments go with it. There’s a really powerful story to be told about the way Gemma’s set herself up in opposition to Tara and Wendy, who are trying to argue that the motorcycle club perpetuates a culture of violence, even though Gemma’s been both a victim and instrument of that culture. Similarly, Sons has an exceptionally grim view of the American prison system, and may be blunter about the epidemic of prison rape and the way it’s ignored or facilitated by staff than any other show on television. But the show doesn’t really connect prison culture to the culture the Sons perpetuate on the outside except in an instrumental way. And to tie all three together, Sons could be an even more fascinating show if it had the attention to really spare to Tara, Jax’s wife, someone who was initially supposed to be his way out of the MC, but who’s ended up drawn so deeply into MC business that she’s going to prison, where she will have to become a more violent person to survive.
As Gemma, Sagal, and Sutter, who is her husband, have created a character who, at times, has been one of the greatest women on television. Gemma has terrific range. To a greater extent than Skyler White, Carmela Soprano, or Kima Greggs, she’s allowed to be sexual, violent, sentimental, and bad. She has friendships like her long-running tie to Wayne Unser, and interests that are separate from those of the men in the show. If she’d been the main character of Sons of Anarchy, then I think the show might well be in contention for a place in the drama pantheon.
Instead, we’re stuck with Jax, with the Irish, and the fact that Sons has most of its plot mechanics–the gun business–in one place even as its strongest themes are playing out in its undernourished domestic drama. It’s never made much sense why the Sons’ connection to the Irish has persisted as long as it has except for reasons of plot necessity, and Sons has never bothered to explain what the Real IRA’s cause, if anything, meant to any of the Sons, now living or dead. The show might have drawn a thematic parallel between the operations of the Real IRA and the actions of the Sons as, under first Clay and now Jax, the MC became a less democratic and more violent operation committed largely to its own survival as the highest good. But once again, that might require Sons to cast a gimlet eye in the direction of Jax Teller and his club, to recognize their impact on the community in which they live, and to acknowledge their thuggishness and cruelty, telling viewers clearly that a cut doesn’t provide the same license to excuse the impacts of your heroes’ actions that a superhero’s cape and tights do.
“You gave my guy a gun, and my old lady’s kid used it to wipe out a classroom,” Nero told Jax bluntly towards the beginning of this episode. Jax’s reaction, given how far the school shooting has receded in the show’s priorities, is telling. “You’re putting that on me?” he demands, a question that’s almost sociopathic in its denial of responsibility. “I’m putting that on both of us,” Nero tells him. But almost immediately, the conversation moves on to other things, including Jax’s magnanimity in letting Nero have sex with his mother.
If there’s a reason that Sons of Anarchy hasn’t ascended into the pantheon of great American television shows, this small scene and so many others like it are the reasons why. The show has a fascinating thematic range, richer than many of its potential peers. And again and again, Sons has proven too in love with its main characters to draw those themes to their logical, and immensely painful conclusions.