Like Weeds and Mad Men—like Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and the Godfather of the cable antiheroes, The Sopranos—Sons of Anarchy is another long running series about a morally dubious subculture, in this case, bikers, as opposed to noncable TV’s continued fixation on morally salubrious subcultures, like doctors, lawyers, and twenty-year-old white people living in NYC apartments they shouldn’t afford.[i]
Sons of Anarchy began five years ago as a Hamlet on wheels. The Prince is Jax, short for Jackson, since being a Son is a big literal and metaphorical deal on the show. Last name Teller. And tell he does: his hopes and dreams, wishes and fears, loves and hates. Played by devilishly handsome Brit Charlie Hunnam, he’s a perfect female fantasy—the sensitive tough guy who just needs the right girl.
The Right Girl is Dr. Tara Knowles, a bad girl gone good gone bad, who seems to knowle everything about the human heart, but not her own. Her medical specialty is Anything That Anyone Needs a Doctor For. HamJax’s Claudius is Clay Morrow, whose clay morals take the motorcycle club deeper and deeper into harder and harder crimes: running guns, running coke, murder, and sporting a soul patch. Gertrude is Gemma; with mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage, Jax’s mother has jumped from mourning John Teller, Jax’s father, into marriage with Clay, John’s spiritual brother. But Jax has unearthed a cache of his father’s journals, much to Clay and Jemma’s chagrin, and through the magic of reading and voiceovers, his father’s ghost speaks from the grave to warn Jax to rebel against Clay.
This all made for excellent TV. We got to see Jax struggle, even falter, against his doubts, conscience, relationship with Tara, and American accent. And over the seasons, the backup bikers in the Sons have gone from sidemen and comic relief, a gang of jackbooted Rosencrantzs and Gildensterns, to round characters in their own rights. The flawed but honorable Bobby Elvis, the scarred and unintelligible Chibs, loose cannon with a good heart Tig, and especially perpetually incarcerated, self-sacrificing Otto (played by Sons creator Kurt Sutter): each developed backstories and pathos beneath their tattooed skins, lives and motivations beyond how well they serve or don’t serve the Melancholy Mane.
This journey is in keeping with contemporary notions of TV in the age of DVDs and On Demand. Thomas Doherty writes this in “Storied TV: Cable Is the New Novel”:
Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton, the series are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty. Episode per episode, in milieux that stretch from the ruthless geopolitics of a medieval off-world to the gender dynamics of a post-zombie apocalypse, the tide of action ebbs and flows in a meandering but forward direction, gaining momentum over the course of a season (now likely to be a mere 13 episodes), before congealing and erupting in a go-for-broke season finale.
In 2005, Stephen Johnson suggested much the same in his book Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, literally charting the way in which multiple plot threads have grown exponentially from 70s series Starsky and Hutch (one single, linear plot per episode) to Hill Street Blues (multiple threads in each episode) to the Sopranos. This last series, for Johnson and many other critics the most effective complex show to date, works like Hill Street Blues, but more so:
Each thread is more substantial. The show doesn’t offer a clear distinction between dominant and minor plots; each storyline carries its weight in the mix…. A single scene from The Sopranos will often connect to three different threads at the same time, layering one plot on another. And every single thread in this Sopranos episode builds on events from previous episodes, and continues on through the rest of the season and beyond. (69)
And yet, neither Doherty nor Johnson mentions that another TV genre has always used serial narrative, or employed multiple threads to “build on events from previous episodes, and continue on through the rest of the season and beyond,” or arc TV, to use Doherty’s phrase.
It’s the humble Soap Opera.
This tension, then, between creating a highbrow televisual novel—complexities! Nuances! Craft! Characterization!—and rehashing the lowbrow soap—with its cheap, tawdry thrills and ludicrous plot twists—is not mutually exclusive, but comes into sharp relief in Sons of Anarchy , especially in the ways in which the show has ratcheted up and escalated its requite quota of threats, sex, and violence each season. In the beginning, the big menaces were a rival biker gang, the Mayans, with their nefarious mustaches, and perhaps a stealth enemy in Clay, himself no slouch in badguy facial hair. But each season, the arc has gotten wider, and the dangers to our lovable bikers have dug in deeper. Over the past five years, the Feds, a county takeover of the local police department, Irish gun runners, a drug cartel, secret after unearthed secret, Jax’s near death on almost every episode, and most recently the threat of Damon Pope, a huge, rich, connected Cali crimelord, who, paraphrasing Jax and Bobby (from memory, sorry) “isn’t anything like anyone we’ve ever dealt with before. He could kill us with a snap of his fingers.”
Similarly, with the stakes raised, the sex and body parts have rivaled what we see on HBO, the recipient of an imaginary Nudie Award; and similarly, the level of violence has reached a new level of graphic in its own depictions of bodies (dismembered, etc.), with [SPOILER] Tig’s daughter shrieking as she’s burned to death in front of her father, who later cradles the charred corpse in his arms. Most importantly, we’ve bared witness to the brutal beating to death of a main character himself (revealed below), as the other Sons impotently look on.
Yes, other characters have died before. But at the risk of sounding callous, it wasn’t anyone we really cared about. This escalation becomes the downside to the serial narrative. SoA, each season, in true soap opera style, has to outdo the last, creating, as I suggested of Weeds a few weeks ago, a glut of both trauma and narrative from which the characters and the show itself cannot recover. I fear this season marks the beginning of the end. Not in the Jump the Shark way, which is still a great phrase to mark the precise moment when a show passes its prime. Maybe we can call it [SPOILER ALERT] “Killing Opie,” for the moment when a show becomes willing to sacrifice a major character on the alter of Higher Stakes (or higher ratings), as opposed to an essential narrative reason.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still enjoying SoA plenty. But how long can this arms race of sex and violence continue for Sons of Anarchy? Hamlet may seem interminable to high school students, but it doesn’t take five years to tell its story. The threats escalate, the thick plottens, [spoiler?] and it’s curtains, for the characters, of course, but also for the play itself, and for the audience. Ideally, life goes on for decades. Ideally, stories do not.
Time: 60 minutes
Comments: what other shows have killed a major character just, it seemed, to up the ante?
[i] Actually, cable loves them, too.