Charming is a small, quiet Californian town that’s kept small and quiet thanks to the Sons of Anarchy, an outlaw biker gang who block development efforts and keep drugs and gang violence off the streets in exchange for police immunity for their gun running operations. But underneath the veneer of brotherhood and loyalty to the town the Sons are a hotbed of internal politics and simmering tensions. The club’s founder died in a motorcycle accident, leaving his son Jax Teller as the second in command under Clay Morrow- his step-father and, unknown to Jax, the man who orchestrated his father’s death in an effort to wrest control of the Sons. When a violent encounter with a rival club forces Jax to step beyond his moral boundaries he begins to question his place in the Sons of Anarchy. The discovery of a manuscript written by his father lamenting the violent path the club has taken prompts ideas of rebellion that put him in conflict with Clay as external enemies begin to gather.
I’d love to uncritically recommend Sons of Anarchy. I’d love to heap praise on it with all sorts of adjectives like “engrossing” and “Shakespearean”. And that’s true to a large extent. There’s a lot to like here if you’re into well written inter-personal politicking and sweaty dudes in leather hugging each other manfully. There’s also a horrifying underbelly of misogyny and some of the most ham-fisted writing of women I’ve ever seen.
Let’s start with the positive. Sons of Anarchy takes sadistic glee in setting up its oil-soaked dominoes and then knocking them down. The show truly excels when it comes to gang politics on both the macro scale, as the show’s rival gangs, biker chapters and assorted ne’er-do-wells jockey for power, and the micro as individuals within those organizations furiously back stab each other and work at cross purposes while trying to maintain the illusion of loyalty. It’s a lot of plates to keep spinning at once and Sons of Anarchy keeps them all in momentum with a rare degree of skill. Motivations are always clear and believable, the actions of the characters are carefully contextualized within their emotional and mental state to avoid falling into the trap of having them do something just to drive the plot forward. The show delights in showing you just enough of the road ahead to be able to anticipate where the hideous 12-car pileup is going to take place, then throwing a sudden left turn into the plot when you least expect it, usually by having a character do exactly the right thing at the wrong moment to royally fuck everything up. It’s very rare to see a show build a lot of its most edge-of-your-seat episodes on coincidences and unfortunate happenstance without ever feeling contrived, but Sons of Anarchy manages it by having everything unravel due to that one overlooked flaw or missed detail- the phone that was left off at the worst possible moment, the act of personal revenge that comes along just at the right time to completely alter the course of a wider conflict. These butterfly-effect moments come thick and fast in both seasons and they’re agonizing and highly entertaining to behold.
These reversals of fate and shocking swerves work so well because they’re perpetrated by and inflicted on a mostly excellent cast of characters. Jax is ostensibly the protagonist but the series is really more of an ensemble, with each member of the Sons of Anarchy getting a hefty amount of screen time and their own part to play in the chaotic mess that the club finds itself in. These are greasy, scummy, unpleasant guys drowning in toxic masculinity and high-school swagger armed with a gun and a baseball bat and you’re probably not going to like any of them, but they’re interesting to watch. Clay Morrow is the stand-out, a leader who buys into the Sons of Anarchy ethos more heavily than anyone else while simultaneously not hesitating to subvert it for his own personal gain. His character excels thanks in large part to Ron Perlman, who already looks and sounds like he was raised on a diet of pure engine grease. Slapping a leather jacket on him and putting him on a motorbike really feels like a formality.
The weakest link here is actually Jax himself, largely due to Charlie Hunnam’s performance. He recites his lines in a high-pitched yet gravely monotone like a 16 year old on NyQuil and has trouble emoting anything other than a smirk, which makes it a tad difficult to buy him as a morally conflicted gang member. Eventually he seems to settle into the role and brings some of the nuance that the script is obviously trying to give Jax to the surface, but it takes until halfway through the second season for the character to stop feeling like a robot programmed to imitate a West Side Story character.
The characters are a big part of what makes Sons of Anarchy fun but they were also the first big stumbling block in the series for me. These are pretty despicable people. They do some nasty stuff. They work with drug dealers and terrorists and arm criminals for a living. In the first season a disgraced former Son transgresses the esoteric, almost ecclesiastical rules governing the lives of club members and is punished in the most horrific way possible (it involves a blow torch), an act that many of his former “brothers” clearly have trouble witnessing but seem not to disagree with on a fundamental level. There’s nothing wrong with watching despicable people do despicable things and gain enjoyment from it, but everyone involved has to be aware that that’s what they’re doing and I’m really not sure Sons of Anarchy has that awareness. Part of this show- the part that delights in showing the Sons riding off to extract manful vengeance on their enemies while rock music blares in the background- clearly thinks these guys are awesome, and just as clearly wants you to think they’re awesome as well.
I’ve been putting it off, but now is probably the best time to talk about the part of Sons of Anarchy that pretty much ruins the show: women. There are a few women of importance in this series (as in like five) and in portraying their stories Sons of Anarchy goes for a tricky plot swerve only to break through the crash barrier and sail straight off a cliff.
Women inhabit a very specific role in the world of this show. They exist to stand proudly by their men in all circumstances, providing sex whenever it’s desired and watching tearfully as they drive off into the sunset to get shot settling a petty grudge. Their role is separate and distinctly not equal. They are “healers” and “fierce mothers” so the men-folk can have a shoulder to cry on when their big important man-feelings get hurt. This would be fine is it was presented as merely being the patriarchal role that the club forces on any women who interact with it, but the show seems to tacitly approve of the idea that women are unreliable and shouldn’t be let near anything important by portraying them all as shrieking harpies ruled by their emotions. If at any point two women are alone together on screen there’s an 85% chance that they will spit at, fight, insult and back-stab each other. Over what? Why, jealousy of course! Don’t you know that the instant two women lock eyes on each other they’ll immediately start to fight over the nearest man?
I’m not joking. Women in Sons of Anarchy are constantly at each other’s throats, seemingly only moment from peeling off their skin and revealing the howling feminine-emotion fueled demon lurking just under the surface. Unless of course they’ve been transformed by the healing power of rape, in which case they start making friends with other women and develop a caring, nurturing side and go to church and realize that their purpose in life is to look after The Boys and no I’m not making any of this up, that literally happens. I’m not mis-interpreting anything here, we’re told flat-out that being kidnapped and gang raped makes a character “wiser, stronger, more compassionate”.
I’m not saying it would be either desirable or realistic to portray a victim of this kind of sexual violence as permanently broken by the experience, but the simplistic one-to-one assertion that being raped not only makes her a better person but a better woman specifically turns my stomach. It is very hard to look at the events of the second season and not come away with the idea that we’re supposed to believe the rape was overall a good thing, particularly since it’s precisely this event that prompts everyone to bury the hatchets and come together for survival just as the club is about to fall apart.
Well, that’s not true. The second season ultimately ends on a tragic cliff-hanger just as the first season did. Luckily the writers don’t need to end their misogyny streak though, because there’s a handy woman to blame everything on! Stahl, a hard-nosed FBI agent out to wreck the Sons’ shit, is presented at first as being a tough, no-nonsense badass and more than a match for Jax and his bike bros. Before long the curtain falls away and she’s revealed as a cowardly, over-emotional incompetent who manages to inadvertently cause both of the big end-season plot upheavals by fucking things up. The show takes an alarming delight in portraying her being beaten up, humiliated, intimidated and terrified into hysterical sobbing when someone points a gun at her. In the most galling twist of the entire two seasons Clay Morrow’s biggest sin ends up getting lumped onto her, a moral sleight of hand that both the characters and the show appear to tacitly endorse.
I think I’ve made my point. Sons of Anarchy is misogynistic and proud of it. Even though I did enjoy it and even though I’ll praise it for genuinely excellent writing, I’m really not sure I care to continue watching it.
To end this on a more light-hearted note I was both amused and exasperated to see the Sons working with the Real IRA. Except this is the Hollywood IRA, who are a vast international organization comprising roughly 40% of the population of Northern Ireland, stalwart zealots who grew up in houses made out of car bombs and were taught the secret crafts of terrorism from their fanatical parents. Needless to say we’re also supposed to think they’re kind of awesome as well (by contrast Clay briefly considers buying guns from a Hamas operative when their relationship with the IRA sours, which Jax for some reason is horrified by). I’m told the characters go to Belfast in the next season, which might be enough to get me to watch for the lulz.