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.
Given how much of the fourth season of Sons of Anarchy was about the financial vulnerabilities of, in particular, Clay and Jax, I started thinking a lot about how SAMCRO could function more effectively as an organization. Could the club start a fake pension fund as a way to explain the accumulation of its illict profits as legitimate proceeds of the auto body shop? Could it pay for the education of the club’s mechanics so they could get certification that would make them employable elsewhere? There are upsides and downsides to any potential solutions in terms of how much attention from law enforcement.
But in the end, I realized, the club will never give members the tools that would make it easier to leave. The Sons of Anarchy are a lot like the Republican Party: the MC is increasingly a vehicle for angry, white people to see their grievances legitimated even as it provides them with very little in the way of tangible benefit.
So much of the tension in season four is driven by the fact that, despite the large profits the club sometimes turns on deals, their members live rather financially precarious lives. Clay is drawn to the deal with the cartel even though it involves moving drugs, something that’s absolutely beyond what the club previously defined as the pale, in part because he sees the end of his ability to ride and work with his hands and doesn’t have a nest egg. Jax mires himself in Charming because, as he explains to Tara, he’s an only-decent mechanics with few other prospects for an honest, steady job outside the club, but he can’t accomodate himself to the prospect of living mainly on his wife’s income. As a viewer, it’s hugely frustrating to see Jax insist on an arrangement that places his children and his fiancee in continual danger for the sake of his pride, and that really seems to act as a bridge to a plot arc that renders Tara unable to support him, to provide a financial incentive for them to leave town. But I understand Jax’s desire to be able to support his family even as I’m angry at his insistence in boxing himself in to a dreadful situation.
The thing is, the club provides other things for Jax and Clay, and not all of them are jobs or collections of letters on philosophies of anarchist governance. It’s given both men positions of authority not just within the club, but in Charming itself—being part of SAMCRO gives them standing that without money or formal education, they’d be unlikely to achieve by other means. It gives them a sense of identity that’s written directly into their skin and can be used to negotiate their relationships with other people and other groups. And it gives them justification to pursue their grievances without restraint: if someone offends them, they’re free to pluck that person out. Those cognitive tools for identifying themselves and justifying even their worst behavior are powerful enough that even though the club is actively detrimental to their long-term financial security, their relationships to their families, and even their safety, people like Opie, Clay, and Jax are willing to stick with it. That loyalty is a testament as much to the poverty of opportunities for them elsewhere as it is to the power of the club.