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The Appeal of Anarchy – Geek Girl Navigating the World
One of my favorite shows on television, and one of the two shows that I try to ensure that I don’t miss, is “Sons of Anarchy.” I never intended to get so hooked on it. I kept seeing the ads for it and, from what I could gather it was going to be Ron Perlman and Katey Sagal on motorcycles. That wasn’t a concept that I had serious issues with, mind you, but I started watching the show with almost zero expectations. I like motorcycles. I like both of those actors. I figured it was probably worth a shot.
American pop culture can be a little obsessive about glorifying outlaw biker culture. Even the documentaries like National Geographic’s Inside series, while offering up references to the real world consequences of the actions of the one-percenters (a term that I know because of National Geographic), also give a lot of focus to how tightly that community knits together. Talk of brotherhood runs pretty rampant throughout the narratives, as does emphasis on the trust that biker gangs really have to put in each other to pull off the crimes that they do. They’re careful to point out that not every club qualifies as a bonafide gang. It’s an important distinction, but not one that I think the general media-consuming public honestly cares about all that much.
I thought “Sons of Anarchy” would turn out to be just another one of those shows that served as an excuse to power a loud rock soundtrack with a backdrop of rumbling engines and a whole lot of brotherly camaraderie. The illegality of their actions would barely be acknowledged, much less addressed simply because it ruins the fantasy. It would all be cloaked in the fictionalized bubble of drama that happens a lot with TV shows, especially those TV shows that focus on the mafia. Mostly, it seemed like it would be another one of those action-driven dramas that would serve well as an escapist hour on Tuesday nights.
I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy watching shows like that from time to time. When it comes to entertainment, I enjoy a good car chase with shootouts and explosions as much as the next Geek. I love the action genre and I probably have more movies about hitmen, spies, and mobsters than should probably be allowed in a single DVD collection. I’m perfectly okay with that. Feeding my inner rebel vicariously seems to be good for my inner starry-eyed little sprocket. It’s also incredibly unreasonable to expect something created to be entertainment to be fully realistic. I’m an adult and, as an adult, I know better. Still, as comforting as formulas can be, especially when applied to genre entertainment, there does come a point where it starts to get tiresome.
That first episode of “Sons of Anarchy” introduced me to Charlie Hunnam. It would be several episodes in until I’d discover that Hunnam is, in fact, British, and is doing a stellar job of using an American accent, no mean feat when you consider that “Sons” takes place in Charming, California where the American non-accent accent flourishes. I have never heard him make a misstep with that accent over the course of the entire show, and I’ve been watching from the beginning.
The cast of the show is phenomenal. Ron Perlman plays the gruffy, continuously out of sorts President of SAMCRO, Clay. He cares about his club, he cares about his wife, and he cares about his stepson, and his priorities are pretty much in that order. As a character, the writers of the show could have left him a one note wonder. He could simply be alpha wolf commanding all he surveys. Instead, he makes choices that he sees as not only correct but in the best interest of those around him, even as he’s blinded by his own perception of what’s happening around him.
Katey Sagal’s Gemma is the savvier of the pair. She sees the bigger picture and is less inclined to sacrifice the troops if it can be helped. She’s the Mama Bear to not just Jax Teller, but the club itself. Frequently, the dialog refers to her as Clay’s “Old Lady” in an almost dismissive matter, until you realize over the course of the show that while the club might walk the walk, they don’t talk the talk. Gemma has a lot of pull in SAMCRO and if she takes a stance that opposes Clay’s, it’s a toss-up on how the club will actually decide to vote.
Of course, Charlie Hunnam’s portrayal of Jax is one of the centerpieces of the show. Jax Teller is caught between the standing Old Guard and trying to take SAMCRO into a different and more legitimate direction. He’s a product of the world in which he lives, where the mugshots of the various members of SAMCRO occupy a Wall of Fame in the clubhouse. He’s seen the damage that kind of life can cause and how it impacts everyone around that life. Like any human being trying to rebel, however, he finds himself resistant to change. He wants to, but actually enacting a complete revamp of his entire life is a difficult process, one that requires him to break every habit that he’s ever formed. Hunnam plays the character with depth. The laughter is every bit as believable as the tears. The conflict within him is written on him as clearly as the ink on his skin.
Then, there’s my favorite character, Tommy Flanagan’s Chibs. Chibs is Irish. Not just Irish descended. He’s Irish, with the full-on accent. I’ve been a fan of Flanagan’s since the first time that I watched “The Saint.” I’ve seen him in a lot of roles, most of them small parts as an easily recognizable thug. What I find so compelling about Chibs is that he isn’t just a run of the mill thug. He’s got a history that has brought him to where he is, not just America, but a member of SAMCRO. Early on in the series, they revealed that Chibs has a wife, from whom he’s been separated, not because they don’t love each other, but because of the life that he leads. In order for his wife to be safe, Chibs couldn’t be around her. It was one of those rare moments in a TV show that I found as breathtaking as it was heart breaking.
“Sons of Anarchy” could very easily have ended up being sudsy and melodramatic. There’s a wealth of characters to turn into blatantly evil, mustache twirling villains, depending upon whose point of view you want to take. Creating simple characters to dispose of like your average redshirt would have been a simple means to an end that probably would have still been highly entertaining. However, when I see characters portrayed on the screen like Kim Coates’ Tig, who manages to be both crusty and squirrely at the same time, it’s more than just a cautionary tale about the ADHD kid who grows up dangerous. There’s an unsettling sense throughout the whole show that these are guys that you could just meet on the street. They’d be regular guys on regular motorcycles in a regular town and you wouldn’t even spare them a second glance.
I honestly don’t know how accurate much of anything in “Sons of Anarchy” could actually be said to be. That’s not a world that I’d want to investigate and certainly not a world that I would want to take part in. I like motorcycles. Riding them is enough for me, thanks. Still, it’s interesting to see the way the criminal connections play out in the show. SAMCRO runs guns that they buy from the IRA. They stay away from the drug trade because the cartels have a lock on it in the areas surrounding them and it’s both safer and more profitable for them to deal in various firearms than in anything else. A scheme like that and the foresight to pull it off clearly indicates there’s some intelligence behind the decisions.
The members of SAMCRO are never portrayed as idiots. They make some bad decisions, and that’s never left in doubt, but they aren’t too stupid to live. When you can’t see the future, you don’t always see the consequences of every decision that you make. Sometimes, the chain of events that you know will happen from making what is supposed to be the right decision is worse than the perceived payoff for going the criminal route. Each character has their own particular code of morals, built around their experiences and their own perceptions, which makes for an interesting mix of personalities within SAMCRO.
I know that many viewers got frustrated with the storyline that took the show to Ireland. There were a lot of cries of shark jumping. I was scared about that, too, when I realized that was where the show was going. There was hope that it wouldn’t and, fortunately, that faith in the storytelling was rewarded. Sure it was a detour and, sure, it seemed a little far-fetched, but the show did pull it together and did so admirably.
Over the course of “Sons of Anarchy”, I’ve seen Henry Rollins as a polite but racist enforcer-type who does some horrifyingly despicable things, Mitch Peleggi as a small time crime lord trying to make it to the big leagues, and Danny Trejo as the kingpin of an enormous drug cartel. They’ve all been given meaty story lines that let them really develop a character, sometimes into unexpected directions. No matter who the character is in the show, there’s a sense of back story and groundwork behind them. As a viewer, you can feel that each character has motives, and maybe they aren’t being revealed to the audience as yet, but they’re still present. I don’t know if that’s due to the strength of the writers or the weight the actors give to their roles, but whatever alchemy is taking place on that show, I have to say I love it.
SAMCRO has enemies all over the place, from corrupt local politicians to federal law enforcement to other criminal organizations. It’s very much a real “us against them” view of the world presented in the show. They aren’t just trying to survive, they still hope to triumph. “Sons of Anarchy” never quite kills the dream of getting away with it all, the money, the guns, the girls, the bikes, the whole nine yards. They all want to get that big payoff that lets them retire fat and happy and, most of all, rich.
What makes the show so enthralling, though, is that even though the fantasy is still alive and kicking, they don’t ever pull off that one big score. Everything that the characters do has real consequences. They end up going to jail. They end up getting beaten to within an inch of their lives. They cause pain. They inspire dangerous vendettas. People end up getting maimed and getting killed. While the characters themselves may exist in a realm of gray areas, and their moral codes may be highly fluid if not a little suspect, their actions do not exist in a vacuum. The bad things they do beget bad things happening to them. The characters are never oblivious to the cause and effect relationships of their lives. The messes that they have gotten themselves into have provoked larger messes. It’s the way of the world. Sometimes, when things start escalating the only way it ends is in a giant implosion of the world you tried to build for yourself. There’s no “oops, how did that happen?” moment of wide-eyed disbelief. They’re fully cognizant of what they’ve been doing and why it led here. That’s a refreshing change of pace from the norm on TV.
The guys in “Sons of Anarchy” can’t rightfully be called heroes. At best, they’re protagonists. Most of the time, they’re out and out hellraisers. Whatever happens on the show, they have to deal with what they’ve done. And, as long as the things the characters do have consequences, then I’ll be sure to keep watching.