as an anarchist fairy tale
Mainstream culture is not capable of using the A word in any context where it can be identified with or celebrated. The best one can hope for is farce. So would this program have been if it were on network television.
Television has come a long way from just being a wasteland of empty smiles and variety shows, or from a national fireplace where we all sit around and are delivered a package of Americana and late night blue humor. Approximately 70% of households subscribe to cable (and satellite) television, which have fractured the way that media is consumed, so much that while the quality of all mass visual media can still be debated, it can’t be argued that the place where experimentation happens (such as it is) is in cable programming.
This experimentation, namely with adult themes, began with HBO and shows like Oz and The Sopranos but networks like Showtime, Fox’s FX and even AMC (American Movie Classics) are programming for the adult audience that has been passed by in the blandification of network (over the air) television.
Each of these networks seems to have a different attitude that informs their choice of programming. HBO seems to have the long view, believing that box sets and subscriptions can fund the telling of long form story-telling. Their shows have dwelt on the ambiguity of morality (Carnivale), government failure in the inner city (The Wire), and human scale of military life (Generation Kill). HBO represents the height of a twentieth century liberal education.
FX inhabits the other side of a story telling and motivation. Perhaps in the same way that the documentary American Nightmare tells a story of John Carpenter’s Halloween as a conservative casting of the liberal mores of the seventies, FX recasts each television genre it touches. This makes compelling television in the case of the existential recast of the hero show (like Rescue Me) and disturbing television in the case of black hat civil servants (like the ones who populate The Shield).
Sons of Anarchy is the newest show on FX that falls somewhere, genre wise, between the A-team and The Shield with action, chase scenes, and a kind of cop-proof invulnerability real outlaws would love to have. Furthermore Sons does work as a kind of anarchist fairy tale (anarchist in the opposing State and Capitalism sense of the word), weaving together a rich set of relationships that has only a convenient and non-ideological connection to money and (state) authority.
In no particular order here are ten reasons why Sons of Anarchy is a modern anarchist fairy tale.
1. Female Characters
Finding consistent strong female characters is becoming more likely in the era of actual adult dramas, still it isn’t exactly common. Gemma Teller is played by Katey Sagal who was both the female lead in the atrocious sitcom Married with Children and the voice of Leela on Futurama. She serves as the lead female protagonist (next to Ron Perlman’s male lead) and the emotional center of gravity for the show. She is played as a believable, take no bullshit, queen of the gang. Tara is the second female lead who pales in comparison to Gemma but is clearly placed as the next generation. Maggie Siff (who plays Tara) doesn’t have the gravitas of Sagal but holds her own as a well-written strong woman. Additional strong roles are played by the wife of Opie, the “old lady” (Luanne) of Big Otto, and even the Federal Agent (ATF) Agent June Stahl (played by Ally Walker). This many strong women in a program is a testament both to the writer/producer Kurt Sutter (who also plays Big Otto) and Katey Sagal (who is his wife IRL).
If you are going to make art that is designed to have staying power in this culture odds are pretty good that you are going to draw deep from the well that is William Shakespeare. He continues the be The Mythologist of Western Culture and sets the frame for our most prevalent understandings of ourselves including romantic love, revenge, treachery, familial relationships, and on and on. Sons of Anarchy is the story of Hamlet set in an imaginary California small town trapped in the 1950s. The protagonists are all the leaders of an empire in parts. Charming the imaginary small town placed somewhere between Sacramento and Redding. SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original) is a motorcycle enthusiast club with chapters across the west headquartered in Charming. Finally, through their ability to arm and disarm the different factions they rule the entirety of gangland Northern California.
3. Outlaw Culture
Anarchists position themselves, in literature and through their political strategy, on the fringes of the world that they live in. They play the role of firebrands and vagabonds, troublemakers and petty criminals, theorists of revolt and sabotage. A motorcycle gang is the self-organization of a life (or a set of lives) outside the law of man but in the world that man has created. For all the intellectual cover that anarchist provide lawlessness they are, by-and-large, mostly law-abiding and only lawless themselves in a few spectacular moments.
Illegalism, criminality in the service of anarchist passion and projects (like printing presses and social centers), has largely disappeared as an anarchist practice. To the extent to which it still exists, it has degraded into petty larceny and trespassing rather than burglary, assassination, and robbery. This is because the members of society who find themselves having radical political pretensions aren’t typically from the same socio-economic classes as those who find themselves felons. In a society where felons are media figures juxtaposed by cops and prisons, those whose understanding of themselves-in-the-world comes from a screen, rather than poverty, violence, and felonies, are naturally going to shy from felonious action.
The assertion of criminality, violence, and aggression into the practice of living isn’t an anarchist practice but will probably have to be for anarchists to leap off of the headlines (outside of spectacular protests) and into world-changing. SAMCRO is a presentation of this as plausible fiction.
4. Believable violence
Both the Sopranos and Oz, arguably the progenitors of our new wave of adult dramas, set the definition of adult themed as “having lots of extreme violence and explicit sex”. Since Sons is on FX and not HBO this option isn’t quite as available (as the FCC rules are different) but there is a fair share of violence and partial nudity on the show. Oz was the most extreme in its application of gratuitous sex and violence (it was set in a prison) but The Shield, also on FX, was in the same category of shock and awe violence (which clearly the FCC has less of a problem with than they do sex).
Sons is a violent show but the violence tends towards being appropriate (given that the context is outlaw culture). SAMCRO usually can be found pushing each other around, and maybe taking a swing at each other, about once an episode but there isn’t nearly the amount of bloodshed you would expect given that their primary money-making operation is gun running. They wave guns around more than they shoot them. They intimidate more than they beat people down. Taking the best lesson from chess, the potential of violence is used intelligently in place of action-scene after action-scene (unlike, for example, the unending barrage of implausible bullet dodging in The Shield).
5. Survival in this world
Any transgressive belief system has to come to terms with its own survival in a world not of its creation. For outlaws and anarchists, this means that a straight job is usually necessary and that transgression “adds to” rather than replaces survival. In Sons this question of survival is played out in a subplot involving Opie, a recent parolee, who has to cope with the question of whether working a shitty job (doing timber work) is enough, financially and existentially, to survive. His answer is the usual answer of anyone who tries to keep their foot in both worlds. It isn’t easy.
This experience, of being in this world and against this world, is both common and highly dis-functional. The modern phenomena of schizophrenia, of shattered people held together with duct tape and bailing wire, poorly acting out roles required of them, is the story of SAMCRO and the community of Charming. It’s also a major subplot of the show Mad Men but I’ll cover that another time. This survival-story isn’t one that ever ends, which is one of the reasons why the medium of television (with its traditional 24 part arc, cut to around a dozen for Sons of Anarchy) is a great way to share the story part of it. The twist for Sons, and what makes this an anarchist tale, is that survival is an assumption that most mass entertainment glides right over. For every Good Times there are 1000 Love Boats. Or perhaps to put this in the twenty-first century, for every Sons of Anarchy there are 1000 Desperate Housewives. To the extent that television entertainment is about escape it is exactly not about the misery of survival that its consumers face during the rest of their lives.
SAMCRO is a gang in a world of other gangs. The mission of this gang is maintaining the burb of Charming as an enclave removed from the fabricated, processed, post-crack cocaine culture of the rest of the world. Naturally this defense is both hypocritical and conservative. As are the rival gangs and their missions.
Sons is a world of rival faiths. In the first season the struggle is a three way between Aryans, Mayans (a Mexican motorcycle crew) and SAMCRO, but other gangs include the Irish, a black gang (from Oakland naturally), the Feds & county law enforcement, and in season two, it’s between SAMCRO and high end Aryans (crewed up with Adam Arkin and Henry Rollins– !!!).
This is not a world that is black and white, or Good cop/Bad cop. It is tectonic with factions pushing on one another using the means at their disposal. The relationships are meaningful and the costs have metrics that would still be measurable in a world where Capitalism did not exist.
As an adjunct to gang culture, which is generalizable as a form of social organization, the culture around motorcycles adds a couple things to Sons. Setting aside Harley culture(largely degraded into a very expensive hobby for the yuppie set), the act of riding is an actual form of anarchist practice.
Anarchists valorize Solidarity, Mutual Aid, Direct Action and individual autonomy. All of these can also be found in motorcycle culture. Solidarity in even the simple act of greeting every other rider on the road with a wave (sidebar: Harley riders don’t actually participate in this greeting other than with other Harley riders). Mutual Aid in the simple acts of sharing rides & resources, pulling over when you see another stranded, and an atmosphere of mutuality not seen in car culture. Direct Action and autonomy in the simple act of riding and being physically connected to moving quickly through the world.
Mostly riding a motorcycle is exhilarating and fun in much the same way as those moments when one is unleashed from the order of this world; when the cops are in retreat, when you eat shared food that no one paid for, when you ride for free.
8. Ambivalence of this world
Sons is set in a world much like our own. There is a USA, there are mortgages and parole, there are bills to pay and federales to avoid. To the extent to which SAMCRO is ideological it is in the style of the classic Marine hierarchy (God, Country, Corps), which makes some sense as most of the original members of SAMCRO were paratroopers in the Vietnam War. Rhetorically SAMCRO are true Americans while practically they are outlaws, parochial, and non-ideological. This distinction is the difference between ideas-above-experience and the practice of everyday life. Self-described anarchists often get lost in these distinctions.
In Sons there still is a world of greed and power-over, but it is outside of the club and, largely, outside of Charming. It is the world that is being defended against and is at the heart of the myth. This ambivalence toward the conceptual framework of the world of Globalization, Finance Capitalism, and Nation States isn’t a dialectical relationship but an argument for The Stroll, life as the journey shaped by ideas of a small scale.
The hypothetical town of Charming has no box stores or chains. It has a main street where people meet, barbers clip hair, and the police station stands at one end. Drug dealing and prostitution only exist outside of town and there is plenty of motorcycle parking.
It is also a town where you actually grow up, live, and die. It isn’t filled with a million transplants or lost souls passing through. Charming is a place where your high school sweetheart marries a buddy of yours and you still see each other at picnics. Where a person having problems isn’t a plot device to demonstrate how inhumane the central gang is but an opportunity to develop diverse relationships. One ongoing plot device involves a character who has a problem controlling touching himself and the character is still used to the extent of his abilities in productive capacities. Charming is a mythology for the obvious superficial reasons but also because it is a place where broken people can find places to fit in.
Sons of Anarchy is deeply influenced by Hamlet. The protagonist of the show stands in for Prince Hamlet, his mother (Gemma) is Gertrude, his step-father (Clay) is King Claudius. The ghost of Jax’s lost father is played by a journal of his fathers writings, a manifesto about the kind of club he wishes SAMCRO would become. One of the central alliances in the second season is between Jax, his father’s ghost, and Piney, one of the founding members.
This ghost could also be described as the anarchist heart of SAMCRO and the Sons of Anarchy. The most explicitly (politically) anarchist things in the show are in the narrations from the journal. The ghost uses this manifesto to loosely direct Jax. In one episode the ghost leaves a note for Jax on the wall of an underpass:
Anarchism stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion and liberation of the human body from the coercion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. It stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals…
Sons is not an anarchist show. Its politics aren’t explicit and aesthetically the show has as much in common with modern anarchism as a show set in high school locker room or law office. But the presentation of a community with, at its heart, a complex set of relationships, protected by outlaws, who are ambivalent toward the illusions of this world, is one where an anarchist can see themselves.