My mom would not approve.
Over the past few months I have been binging pretty heavily on the FX drama Sons of Anarchy (SoA). I can hear her saying, “oh, Thomas.”
It’s definitely not for everybody, especially mom, but I think it is some of the best television ever created.
I should mention, this column may contain spoilers, so if you are watching the series, the final seasons of which just dropped on Netflix last month, or want to watch it, be forewarned.
I have always marvelled at how authors and filmmakers can engender sympathy for characters who are essentially bad people. This is where mom and I differ; she doesn’t differentiate between bad guys, whereas, I can’t help myself from cheering for the ostensible protagonists even though I recognize their tragic flaws.
The techniques for gaining this buy-in from viewers are very transparent. First of all, there is the juxtaposition of greater evil upon evil. The lesser bad guys are the good guys.
Secondly, you imbue them with internal morality, i.e., a code that, in the context of their world at least, justifies their actions. Another great example of this is Dexter, Showtime’s great series about the serial killer who only kills serial killers (mom totally disapproved of that one).
In the case of the Sons, it is family values, intense loyalty and devotion to protecting the innocents of their town from the broader evil they’re involved in.
SoA is an archetypal tragedy (my personal favourite of the seven archetypal stories) and Jackson (Jax) Teller — initially vice president and later president of the motorcycle club (MC, read gang) — is its avenging tragic hero.
In fact, Jax is a complex bundle of three character archetypes, the child, the tragic hero and the trickster.
At his heart, he is the idealistic innocent, determined to move the MC out of gun-running into legitimate enterprises, as his dead father and the club’s founder John (JT) Teller had also aspired.
Pursuing that is doomed by both the trickster and avenging tragic hero in him.
In pursuit of the goal, he uses an ever-escalating web of lies and deceit, which, of course, draw him deeper into the world he is trying to escape — think Michael “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” Corleone (The Godfather).
All of this is exacerbated by the underlying revenge plot arc. Jax is bent on avenging JT, who, as the audience finds out early on and Jax finds out much later, was killed by an unholy alliance between his mother and his father’s best friend, Clay Morrow.
If this sounds reminiscent of Hamlet, it is no coincidence as Kurt Sutter, the creator of the show, has admitted it was “loosely based” on the classic Shakespearian tragedy.
This story has been told a million times, but SoA, with seven glorious seasons, has the breadth to expand on the classic themes in a way a five-act play (Hamlet) or a nine-hour trilogy (Godfather) cannot.
And like Hamlet, you can guess what ultimately has to happen to Jax.
I also love finding the hidden protaganist in these stories. In this case, it is Jax’s second wife and mother of his children, who like Ophelia, meets a most tragic demise, but ultimately succeeds, even in death, of sparing Jax’s offspring from following in his footsteps (at least until some studio boss decides a reboot could be wildly profitable).
Anyway, SoA is great entertainment if you can stomach the violence and gore, a revenge tragedy and cautionary tale that reminds us all to reject the revenge ethic because it ultimately destroys that which it seeks rectify.