Shiny Shelf

Sons of Anarchy Complete Seasons 1 & 2 DVD

By Stephen Lavington on 22 June 2010

‘Sons of Anarchy’ takes a bold step in solving the perennial puzzle of how to create high stakes drama where power-plays can lead to life or death in the heavily regulated and policed, relatively safe setting of contemporary America.

The majority of shows faced with this problem take the obvious approach and choose their characters from the worlds of crime and law-enforcement. Kurt Sutter, the creator of ‘Sons’, has toyed with this before as a writer for ‘The Shield’, a cop-show where a special police unit frequently operated¬† outside the law.

‘Sons’ takes this idea one step further, effectively building a feudal kingdom in rural California in the form of Charming, a small-town where local authority has been usurped by the ‘Sons of Anarchy’ motorcycle gang.

With this as a canvas, the second ambitious step has been in the broad strokes of the plot: ‘Sons’ does not just opt for a straightforwardly gritty crime show, but basically looks to do Shakespeare in the context of biker leathers and tricked out Harleys. The big idea is lifted from ‘Hamlet’ with the Club President (Ron Perlman’s Clay Morrow) having taken over from his predecessor in rather dodgy circumstances – inheriting his “old lady” and her son as part of the deal.

The son (Jax) is pure Danish prince in his conflicting loyalties but considerably more decisive (and much handier with a 9mm automatic to boot); he inherits his father’s legacy not through an avenging ghost but through a manuscript that lays out how the Sons went wrong.

The show’s two biggest hitters are Ron Perlman and Katy Sagal – the Claudius and Gertrude of the piece. I have a particular affection for Perlman, based on his gift for portraying the most brutish of characters with a smooth charisma and managing to combine a grotesque, almost ape-like looming menace with something approaching suaveness. As Clay he’s an epic blend of strategising CEO and thuggish biker chieftain.

In keeping with the Shakespearean flavour, Sagal’s Gemma Morrow takes her main cues from Lady Macbeth. In a show that has matriarchy and motherhood as a key theme, there is huge weight on her to deliver and she does so in spades.

It takes maybe three episodes to get over the fact that Captain Leela/Peggy Bundy is now a middle-aged biker chick, but Sagal rivets with a compelling, fiery and hugely rewarding performance for perhaps the show’s most complex character, one who is mother, wife, widow, vulnerable, ruthless, and sexually provocative all in one package.

In addition, while not quite filling the Dennis Waterman role of writing the feem choon and singing the feem choon, she does contribute a mean cover of ‘Ruby Tuesday’ to one of the later episodes.

Charlie Hunnam supplies the federally mandated Brit-actor-in-American-role as Jax, and he’s more Joseph Fiennes in ‘Flashforward’ than Michelle Ryan in ‘Bionic Woman’ (this, by the way, is a good thing). He’s the nominal protagonist and audience identification figure, torn between his idealistic father’s ghost and the pragmatism of Clay. However there is a watery wimpiness to him (even when dishing out a beating) and, ultimately, as the good guy he’s less interesting than his mother and step-father.

However, despite the dominating presence of Sagal and Perlman, the cast as a whole are very strong. There’s a likeably disparate cluster of outlaws in the Sons’ ranks. There’s also the obligatory strait-laced former girlfriend for Jax and a nice take on the law enforcement officers of Charming – one a priggishly self-righteous foe of the MC, the other weary and corrupt – who avoid descending into flat stereotypes.

The Sons’ opponents have been particularly well-crafted, not just in the day-to-day political rivalries (see below) but also in the “big bads” for each season. One of the problems with having the bad guys as central characters is that their enemies have to be drawn as even worse.

‘Dexter’ overcame a similar problem (as did the final season of ‘Deadwood’ with the diabolical Hearst) and ‘Sons’ does likewise, though is – perhaps unavoidably – reliant on the audience’s natural sympathy for characters with so much screen-time rather than presenting a genuinely challenging case for their brand of morality.

This is key to understanding ‘Sons’. For a show that makes morality such a core concept (in a nutshell the defining struggle is between Jax and Clay for the soul of the club), very little is demanded of the audience.

This is not ‘The Wire’, where we contrast the pragmatic criminality of ‘bad guy’ working-man Frank Sobotka with the inhuman bureaucracy and petty vindictiveness of the ‘good guy’ law enforcement that goes after him. Nor is it ‘The Sopranos’, where an audience is forced to confront their affection for the monstrous figure of Tony Soprano.

‘Sons’ is purer narrative drama, and the viewer consumes it in a more detached way – rooting for the ‘Sons’ without becoming truly invested emotionally.

In an absolute dramatic sense, this might be seen as limitation but in the context of ‘Sons’ it works. Despite the bravura performances at its head and despite the good investment in ongoing character development, ‘Sons’ is a show about the motorcycle club as an entity at least as much as its members.

The characters constantly agonize about what is best “for the MC”, the struggle between Jax and Clay is over control of the MC, Jax’s father leaves a manuscript about his dream of what the MC should become. It is a show about the troubles and tribulations of a savage, primitive institution.

A lot of the symbolism is rooted in the lore of motorcycle gangs: for instance the gang is often (initially confusingly) referred to as SAMCRO – “Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood original” i.e. the founding chapter of the Sons of Anarchy MC.

However, all of this is really important only as exotic backdrop. The sort of multi-faceted stories that are told could equally be applied to the noble houses of the Wars of the Roses or to the city-states of Renaissance Italy or clashing corporations in 1980s Manhattan.

This is reflected in the complex web of politics that serves as wider backdrop. The “Sons” buy arms from Irish terrorists. They sell to inner city gang The One-Niners. They also sell, on occasion, to rival hispanic MC, the Mayans with whom they frequently fight. The white supremacist Nords provide a further faction, and there is constant double-dealing, treachery and violent struggles for supremacy.

‘Sons’ is a show that rewards the long haul. It is more forgiving than ‘The Wire’ for casual viewers, but is also not afraid to stick closely to its own continuity at the risk of alienating those watching. Season 2 is currently being broadcast in the UK on Bravo, with Season 1 repeats showing on Five USA. Season 3 will follow in the US this autumn.

It is well worth going back to the beginning (Season 1 is already available on DVD, with Season 2 to follow in August) and getting the whole of what is (currently) a rich, satisfying story with a unique setting.

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By Stephen Lavington

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