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April 2011

Sons Of Anarchy - season 1

cast: Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman, Katey Sagal, Kim Coates, Tommy Flanagan

creator: Kurt Sutter

815 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
20th Century Fox
DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont




riding high in Sons Of Anarchy




bikers with guns - Sons Of Anarchy




Sons Of Anarchy poster
Sons Of Anarchy - season one

Usually, when we form an opinion about something we tend to assume that our opinions are based solely upon the characteristics of the thing itself: if we enjoy a film, we argue that it is well made and, if we hate a book, we argue that it is poorly written. However, this theory of aesthetic judgement completely ignores the roles played by expectation and mood in colouring our reaction to a work. As Daniel Mendelsohn puts it in his incendiary New York Review Of Books piece on Mad Men:

That a soap opera decked out in high-end clothes (and concepts) should have received so much acclaim and is taken so seriously reminds you that fads depend as much on the willingness of the public to believe as on the cleverness of the people who invent them.

What Mendelsohn is trying to say is that the popularity of Mad Men is due not to the quality of its writing but to the intensity of the hype surrounding it. In other words, because every newspaper, blogger and cultural critic in the world loves Mad Men, people approach the series in such a charitable frame of mind that they manage to completely overlook the fact that it is actually little more than a cleverly-directed and under-written soap opera. Of course, such accusations of false consciousness ('You may think you are enjoying this TV series but in fact you are just being manipulated into thinking you liked it') are invariably the hallmark of a critic intent upon playing the role of belligerent cultural tyrant, but there is a kernel of truth to Mendelsohn's idea.

Generally, when films and books receive rapturous early reviews only to turn out to be a little bit shit, people place the blame on the PR industry and its ability to create firestorms of hype so intense that they come to resemble mass hysteria. However, to blame PR for distorting our expectations is to ignore the various ways in which works themselves signal how it is that audiences are meant to approach them. Indeed, when we pick up a detective novel or go to see a horror film, we never approach these works 'cold'. Instead, we rely upon certain visual, narrative and thematic cues to guide both our emotional reaction to the text and where it is that we should place our attention as an audience. Sometimes, these cues will be contained in the text in the form of stock characters, familiar tropes or storytelling techniques common to a particular genre but they can also exist outside of the text in the form of book jackets, trailers or where in the book shop we find the book.

All of these cues forge links between the given text and our memories of other texts and so they nudge us into particular sets of reactions based upon the suggestion that 'this text' is a bit like 'that one'. For example, if you see a film such as Jaume Collet-Serra's Orphan (2009), and assume that it is a serious drama about adoption, then you will quickly find yourself either scandalised or disgusted by the absurd plot developments and grisly murders. However, if you are warned by the trailers and are familiar enough with the particular genre to have a clear set of genre-memories then it is easy (almost from the opening scene) to locate that film within a tradition of grand guignol horror films that entertain and amuse rather than horrify or educate.

This process of genre signalling is perhaps most obvious when it is intentionally subverted. Indeed, much of the cinematic power of films located within the so-called 'new French extremity' is due to their directors taking elements of the horror genre and introducing them into films that not only feel very much like straight dramas, but that are marketed as such.

For example, in Irreversible (2002), Gaspar No� tells the story of a man driven to murderous depravity by the grisly rape of his wife. This tale of psychological transformation and descent into madness is an old horror saw but, by framing this transformation in the context of a French relationship drama, No� makes the violence in the film feel far more shocking despite the fact that the violence is actually comparatively mild by the standards of the horror genre. The film's power lies in its awareness of the fact that genre can serve as a defence mechanism and by refusing to signal to us that 'it's okay... this is just a silly horror film' the film carries a much greater affective charge.

A similar process takes place in Trouble Every Day (2001) when Claire Denis takes a vampire story and refashions it as the tale of a dysfunctional relationship. Had the action taken place in a standard gothic landscape full of castles and mists then the film would have been toothless and hackneyed but, because it takes place in a French suburb, the violence and imagery feels incredibly savage and disconcerting.

Sadly, while the realisation that straight drama is a genre with its own stylistic tropes has allowed some directors to create works of incredible interstitial power, it has also allowed some film makers to pass works off as being more intelligent than they actually are. Indeed, as Mendelsohn suggests, TV series such as Mad Men and Six Feet Under are really little more than soap operas that have managed to re-position themselves as serious intellectual dramas.

As with the works of the new French extremity, this process of repositioning is due to directors framing the narratives of one genre (soap opera) using the visual techniques and thematic allusions of another (the art house drama) in order to shape audience expectations. In other words, because Mad Men and Six Feet Under are marketed as serious dramas and look like serious dramas, we are gulled into approaching them as though they are intelligent art house dramas and projecting onto their simplistic plots sets of themes and subtexts that are entirely of our own invention.

For example, Six Feet Under - we are told - is all about death... but what does it actually say about death? Similarly, Mad Men - we are told - is all about the cultural changes that took place in the 1960s... but what does it actually say about women's liberation and the civil rights movement? The answer, in both cases, is not a lot once you get past the urge to fill in the gaps with your own projections.

The template for this style of television direction was laid down by David Chase's crime series The Sopranos, which combined stock genre characters and plots with superior writing and art house visual techniques to create an impression of thematic and psychological complexity that is rarely attributed to straight works of crime fiction. Indeed, one of the greatest pieces of genre trompe-l'oeil remains The Sopranos' final scene where the juxtaposition of an oddly context-free family dinner with clever direction and numerous dangling plotlines creates an impression of allegorical content. Search for the scene on YouTube and you will find hundreds of comments speculating as to the 'meaning' of a scene that really is nothing more than a family dinner.

This process of genre repositioning has allowed TV producers to make unintelligent series seem more intelligent than they actually are. However, if genre expectations can make dumb TV look smart then it can also make smart TV look dumb. The greatest example of this of genre expectations dumbing-down a series is Shawn Ryan's The Shield. Set in the fictional district of Farmington in downtown Los Angeles, The Shield paints an intensely dynamic image of America as an eternally bubbling melting pot of social, political and demographic change. While The Wire waxes nostalgic about America's fall from grace and the decline of its great institutions, The Shield denies that America was ever in a state of grace to begin with.

Inspired by the real-life Rampart scandal in which a rogue police unit used its position to take over part of LA's criminal underworld, The Shield depicts the LAPD and their political masters as little better than the criminals they claim to oppose and, by doing so, suggests that America's great institutions are really nothing more than consolidated tribal power. Just as one generation bemoans the decline of the LAPD, another will lament the fact that the local gangs are not what they once were. Under this vision of American society, the police shield of the series' title is really nothing more than a set of gang colours used by the white residents of LA in an on-going turf battle against the Latino and black communities.

When the series' antihero, the dirty cop extraordinaire Vic Mackey, ends the series in a desk job with a good salary and plenty of perks one cannot help but smile at the ironic nature of his demise: Mackey's corruption and amoral selfishness were predicated on the knowledge that the American dream of middle class white collar respectability is nothing but a myth and yet, due to his actions, it is a myth he winds up being trapped in against his will. Having evaded prison with consummate grace and style, Mackey realises that his ill-fitting suit and tie are a far more effective punishment than any ball and chain.

Though popular and widely acclaimed during its seven-year run, The Shield never quite managed to acquire the levels of cultural cachet enjoyed by the likes of Mad Men. This is because, despite a dynamic and fiercely intelligent depiction of contemporary American society, The Shield's use of sensationalist, action-based plotlines and visual motifs borrowed from action films positions it not as an intelligent upscale drama but as a dumb crime series on a par with the like of T.J. Hooker or The Professionals. Indeed, while genre signalling prompts audiences to assume that Mad Men and Six Feet Under are more intelligent than they are, the very same process of genre signalling prompts audiences to assume that series such as The Shield are little more than dumb escapist entertainment. Given that Sons Of Anarchy is the creation of Kurt Sutter - a writer who first came to prominence as an executive producer on The Shield - it is perhaps unsurprising that it, too, looks a lot less intelligent than it actually is.

Sons Of Anarchy tells the story of a motorcycle gang known as the Sons of Anarchy Motor Cycle Club, Redwood Original ('the Sons', 'SAMCRO' or 'Sam Crow' in the series' occasionally confusing parlance). Modelled on the Hell's Angels, the Sons are in fact a vast criminal conspiracy that uses a network of chapters throughout the country to smuggle guns and run prostitutes. The founding chapter of the Sons is located in Charming, a small town the gang controls through a combination of physical intimidation, political corruption and economic power. Much like the Soprano family, or the Barksdale organisation from The Wire, the Sons present themselves as one big family and so betraying the gang is painted as carrying the same moral weight as betraying a member of one's family but this, of course, assumes that families are deserving of loyalty in the first place.

Sons Of Anarchy is a series that explores the question of family loyalty by asking whether the family is an institution that demands the loyalty of its members as a matter of principle, or whether families are institutions that deserve the loyalty of their members because they are supportive and loving environments. The series explores this idea by examining what happens when a family begins to act in a manner that is neither loving or supportive, and it does this by looking at the relationships that make up both the Sons and the 'royal family' at the heart of the organisation.

The series' main protagonist is Jackson 'Jax' Teller (Charlie Hunnam). Brave, intelligent and almost impossibly handsome, Jax is both the biological son of the club's first president and the adopted son of its current president Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) who later married Jax's mother Gemma (Katey Sagal). Jax has always been loyal to both of his families but, as the series progresses; this loyalty comes under pressure from two different sources: The first challenge that Jax has to face is the fact that he is now himself a father. When the series begins, Jax is estranged from the mother of his child but the expectation (on behalf of both Clay and Gemma) is that the child will bring the couple back together and so return Jax to the kind of stable family life that the organisation seems to encourage in its members.

However, when Jax's son is born severely premature due to his wife's frequent drug-use, Jax finds himself alienated from his wife and drawn to the woman who was his childhood sweetheart before she left town to become a doctor. This refusal to reconcile himself with his wife and his decision to pursue a relationship with an outsider to both the club and the town throws Jax into conflict with his controlling mother who engages in an extraordinary campaign of disinformation and emotional sabotage designed to bring Jax back into the fold and back under her direct control.

The second challenge that Jax has to face is the fact that while the Sons present themselves as a bunch of free-wheeling anarchists, the reality is that - like most large criminal organisations - they are effectively a miniature state-like entity operating outside the law: they have a leadership structure, they have their own laws, they have castes and they have a clear desire to bring other organisations and individuals under their direct control.

As the series progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that, despite their name, the Sons of Anarchy are actually structured as a paranoid and autocratic monarchy where individual freedoms are sacrificed 'for the good of the club' and differing opinions tend to result in people winding up dead in ditches. In one remarkable episode, the Sons effectively annex a smaller gang and Clay uses one of the women affiliated with this smaller gang because he is a powerful man and females affiliated with the gang are expected to give themselves over to powerful members on command. Indeed, late in the series, Clay refers to a female police officer as a 'fascist' but even Mussolini did not feel entitled to sleep with any Italian woman he desired.

Together, these two challenges force Jax to reconsider his family relationships light of the ideas explored in his biological father's memoirs. Jax's real father was evidently something of a hippy who intended the Sons to become a form of anarchist commune where free-thinking individuals would come together out of shared interests and principles and act together as a group. In this group, loyalty would not be demanded but freely given and members who disagreed with the decisions of the collective would be free to part as friends. Upon reading his biological father's utopian dream, Jax comes to realise that neither his immediate family nor the Sons have done very much to earn his trust or loyalty.

This interweaving set of family tensions plays itself out against a backdrop of violent political turmoil as the destruction of the Sons' illegal gun factory leaves them owing money and unable to defend themselves against an unholy alliance of Latino bikers and neo-Nazi drug dealers. Shot through with political instability and personal distrust, the Sons struggle to work together as the organisation's founding principles of freedom and tolerance clash with the brutal expediency of Clay and his wonderfully psychopathic wife.

Thematically, Sons Of Anarchy self-consciously references such Shakespearean tragedies as Hamlet and Macbeth. Indeed, Hamlet and Jax share not only an uncharacteristic degree of self-awareness; they are also both sons to noble leaders slain by treacherous brothers and griefless wives. However, while Hamlet's mother Gertrude is widely understood to be either an innocent or a slave to her sexual passions, Jax's mother Gemma is more of a political force in her own right. In fact, as a character she is much closer to Lady Macbeth than she is to Gertrude.

Much like medieval Scotland, Charming is a place where women are ostensibly excluded from the decision-making process. Women begin their lives in the Sons are 'Sweet Butts' who must avail themselves of the men in the group until one of these men selects them and elevates them to the status of 'Old Lady' by marriage. 'Old Ladies' and 'Sweet Butts' play a vital supportive role in the Sons as an organisation but they are not recognised as proper members; there are no daughters of anarchy. However, while women have no direct power over the Sons as an organisation, they do have a good deal of 'soft power' in the form of influence over their men-folk. Indeed, just as Lady Macbeth coerces her ambitious husband into committing terrible murders, the series suggests that the controlling Gemma might well be the source of Clay's authoritarian streak.

At root, Sons Of Anarchy is a series about the violation of the natural order. This order, represented by the utopian noble savagery of the founding father's vision is violated not only by Clay's brutal authoritarianism but also by the savagery of the series female characters. Indeed, while Gemma's ruthless ambition and fondness for violence mark her out as a woman who violates the natural order by possessing traditionally male qualities, the same can be said of the female ATF agent whose self-serving ambition and dishonesty in targeting the Sons seems to constitute a violation of the natural role of the police officer as a dispassionate servant of the law.

However, as becomes evident in series two, Sons Of Anarchy is as much about violation of the natural order as it is about a desire to return to it. Whether it is Jax's alienation from his tribe, Gemma's alienation from her son or Clay's alienation from his principles, the characters in Sons Of Anarchy are all ultimately motivated by a desire to return to a state of nature. A state of nature where they might be free and live in peace, but the problem is that the world is forever getting in the way. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau puts it in Discourse On Inequality (1754):

The first man who had fenced in a piece of land, said 'This is mine,' and found people na�ve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.

Sons Of Anarchy is about the attempt to recreate a state of nature in the modern world. It examines families, tribes, organisations and states and looks at how distrust, individualism and selfishness have not only rotted out all of these institutions but also made it almost impossible for us to return to a state in which we do work together and trust each other as equal, free individuals. Sons Of Anarchy speaks to the very heart of human politics and it does so not by using long-takes and awkward silences to hint at the deep inner lives of middle-class professionals, it does so by having a load of hairy tattooed men shoot machine-guns at each other.

Indeed, aside from being fiercely intelligent, Sons Of Anarchy is a lot of fun. Filled with well-drawn and colourful characters engaging in moments of wonderfully funny banter, the series is built upon the same sturdy foundation of action-based storytelling as The Shield. In episode after episode, the Sons get themselves into all sorts of tricky situations that force them to fight and think their way around their opponents making for some brilliantly engaging and exciting viewing as the action sequences are well-realised and the episodes are all beautifully paced.

However, once the fighting is done and the various capers are dealt with, the series returns again and again to its complex relationships and its exquisitely drawn characters making for TV that not only quickens the pulse but also grows the brain. Forget the men in sharp suits and hair gel and embrace the leather and tattoos because Sons Of Anarchy is one of the smartest things on TV.



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