Academic Writing

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sons of Anarchy

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My most recent “catching up on TV shows with ungodly speed” endeavor has been FX’s Sons of Anarchy.  Thanks to Netflix and some friends’ personal collections, I was able to catch up on the three seasons of this Motorcycle Club drama.  What I have found most interesting in this show is its primal and savage nature.  The men are the hunters and protectors of their clan.  They deal in shady and dangerous business of which the women in their lives, about whom they care deeply and would protect at any cost, know little about.  Rarely is there a consideration for the good of the individual, rather every action they take is considered heavily first to determine if it is good for the club overall

This was a show I knew virtually nothing about until I started watching it.  It’s amazing that with the sheer amount of media I consume, I had practically no knowledge of this show, nor had I seen much advertising about it.  It could be that I legitimately did not see anything about it, or as it wasn’t a show I thought I would enjoy I merely tuned it out and ignored all of the marketing efforts that had been put behind it. 

Nevertheless, word of mouth is a powerful tool, and I agreed to watch it.  By episode three I was hooked.  The show is about an MC in the fictional town of Charming, California.  It centers on the Redwood Original charter, made up of a colorful group of unique characters who all have their own mythologies and backgrounds.  It is officially led by its president, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman).  I say “officially” because his wife, Gemma (Peggy Bundy, ahem, I mean Katy Sagal) is really the power behind much of the club’s doings.  At the center of the narrative, however, is Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam).  He is the son of Gemma and her first husband, and the club’s former president, John Teller.  Jax is next in line to take over as club president and become its leader, yet he questions his and the club’s role and whether they should continue on the path his father, as founder, had forged.  With his new born son and his burgeoning relationship with his recently returned high school sweetheart, Tara (Maggie Siff), he begins to question what his role in life is and should be and what he wants for his son’s future. 

With the Charming Police Department in their back pockets, the club has traditionally been virtually untouchable, allowing them to go about their dealings of gun-running and exacting revenge on those who have crossed them and who are deserving of incurring their wrath.  However, when ATF officials, led by the exceedingly unlikable June Stahl (Ally Walker), descend on the small town, their world becomes less autonomous and more reactionary as the federal agents pay close attention to their dealings in an attempt to shut down the MC and throw its members in jail.

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The club, also referred to as SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original) is a tribe, and, for all intents and purposes, a family.  They are bound by rules and mores and as such it hearkens back to what historian Richard Slotnick has dubbed, “The Savage War.”  In his essay, “Ideology and Fiction: The Role of Cooper,” Slotkin credits James Fenimore Cooper with “mythogenesis,” or being the first to establish the cultural foundational myth which was derived from history and presented in artistic form.  He argues that much of the American character today was born out of the ethos and mores of the earliest days of American civilization, and more specifically, Native American culture.  The foundational myth highlights the idea that violence is at the core of America’s earliest culture – particularly in its relationship with the Native Americans.  The motif of savagery in art is born from the indigenous population has evolved to include specific thematic elements.  Slotkin refers to the manifestations of these themes as “The Savage War.”  This concept states that Americans embody the tribal violence born from Native American culture and applies it to our most modern life situations.  Initially, “The Savage War” motifs in art began with literature and paintings, but have since evolved into the cinematic and televisual era, and, as will be shown, are especially prevalent in Sons of Anarchy.

Furthermore, in addition to the violent core, a central theme in “The Savage War” strongly relates to the notion of tribes and class values.  It was important for the Native American tribes to have specific social codes within their own clan as well as rules for interacting with outsiders.  The natives clashed with the white man and in today’s society that conflict has evolved into a clash between classes: the white upper class versus racial minorities and urban immigrant workers.  Moreover, that struggle tends to manifest itself in ways in which the lower classes try to overcome their status and reach upper class levels.  The relationships formed by the earliest Americans have stayed with our cultural ethos and has translated itself into today’s modern day society.  SAMCRO, is very much bound by these traditional values.  They clash with other motorcycle clubs – all of which are of racial minorities.  The Mayans are the Mexican motorcycle club and the One-Niners, the African-American MC and there are many a bloody interaction between the groups.  They fight viciously with one to defend their names, their turf, and their means of income .  Yet they also create alliances when they recognize the need to partner for the greater good of their own clubs.  Just as tensions between different tribes was a crucial element to the Native American experience, so to today our society continues to experience clashes between differing ethnic groups.  This reality is shown as a microcosm through the gang-wars in Sons of Anarchy.

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Moreover, the visual references to savagery are quite overt.  From the most outward of their appearances to the deeper internal social mores, their doings all hearken to a tribal nature.  Similar to war paint or other tribal markers, club members are identified by their "ink," or tatoos.  Emblazoned across their backs and up and down their arms are permanent markers of their allegiance to the club and an immediate signifier of that to anyone who sees it.  Their “cuts” – the leather vests they wear that bear their club name and personal rankings – are their badges and identifiers and time and again we see members risking death rather than parting with it.  Rarely alone, they drive their bikes in packs in perfect formation.  Their appearances and behaviors immediately alert to any bystander that they are a cohesive unit, not to be messed with.  This is not an idle threat either as during the span of the show those who have crossed them definitely have felt the consequences.

Furthermore, Slotkin suggests that Cooper’s paradigm of the foundational myth contains three specific character types associated with the savage war: the captive, the hunter and the savage.  Cooper multiplied these character types and that variety allowed for a range of interrelations between the characters, such as alliance, sexual/romantic/marriage, and antagonism.  The point of these relationships is exemplified by the manner in which they are resolved by the end of the work.  This is also true in Sons of Anarchy as there are quite a few character types and all rotate in and out of those roles.  Men who in one scene portray vicious traits are a few scenes later vulnerable and helpless.  Women play significant roles of both caretakers of the men they love, keeping house and caring for the children.  They also know that their roles have the potential to step beyond that and ultimately they control much of the club’s protection and safety from outsiders. 

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Jax’s struggle with his role in the club and the club’s role in society is interesting as it fits into this model.  He wishes a better life for his son and his family, just as his father had futilely wished for him.  The inability to break the cycle highlights just how ingrained the tribal mentality is to society and how difficult it is to break free from it.  Further Jax must ask himself if he really does want to leave this life behind, for with all of its sordidness also comes a sense of security, community and family that otherwise he would be without.

Taking place in California adds another layer to the comparison to “The Savage War.”  California has traditionally been considered the final frontier in American exploration as it was where pioneers looked for a better life and more opportunities.  From the earliest days of American exploration through to today with Silicon Valley, offering scores of opportunities for tech savvy individuals, California is a symbol for exploration and success for the future.  Perhaps its use in this show is a comment that despite all of the aspirations we as a nation has had for our future, we are unable to escape our past as it is rooted so deeply into our consciousness.

At its heart, Sons of Anarchy is a show about a family trying to maintain its way of life and keep itself safe.  It’s a nontraditional family in the nuclear sense, however as a tribe protecting itself it is one of the oldest stories our country knows.  This iteration is merely a retelling of this tale, yet through storytelling devices such as plot, character development, and location it has given it a fresh take for the 21st Century.  


Anonymous said...

John Teller not MOrrow

Anonymous said...

Come on people! How can you watch all 3 seasons and then write this report not even know their correct names! Its John TELLER!

Judith said...

Fixed! Thanks for noticing the typo!

Jeff said...

Let me be the first, Welcome to the Club.

jc said...

It is Hamlet retold inside a Motorcycle gang - you do see that, right?

Anonymous said...

A very well written article, it's more or less what I have taken away from SOA though I would not have put it so eloquently to say the least.

A more basic and modern analogy may be that SAMCRO is a mini version of the "National Security State" in which everyone in the club is primarily focused on the protection of and furthering the interests of the club itself as they feel it relates to themselves(good for the goose, good for the gander).

They will do anything and everything they have to do to protect the club and it's members 'right here, right now' even if much of the time those actions end up creating more enemies, more violence and less security for the club in the long run.

They are bred to believe in the 'wild-west' tribal life and mentality yet even the hardest of them at times struggle with that mentality and lifestyle and the consequences it brings them, like many Americans struggle with modern 'Americanism'.

And of course SAMCRO is carrying on the modern American tradition of arms dealing along with all of the less obvious cultural undertones.

Just to be clear I do agree with everything you say, ultimately the whole 'national security state' system is just a nationalized tribalism and it all ultimately falls back on the whole "savage war" ideal.

I just wanted to draw a more direct modern reference point for it, I only wish I could do so as eloquently as you manage to do so though.

Also, I had never even thought about the possible symbolism of the setting being in California before, so thank you for pointing that out.

I have always just looked it as a "it's cheaper and easier to set it locally" situation for them, haha.

Anonymous said...

@JC - That is really quite obvious, especially since Mr. Sutter has repeatedly stated as much.

But where exactly has he stated that it's "hamlet retold inside a motorcycle gang and nothing else"?

The impression I got from his own words was that there were many influences on the story but that the hamlet references were simply what it started out as before it evolved into much more than that.

There is so much more to this story that you are apparently missing, and no doubt some if was never intended by Mr. Sutter or anyone else in the show.

That is the beauty of a medium such as this and a masterpiece such as SOA - there is something for almost everyone to take away from it, everyone see's things a little differently.

DaeLite City resident said...

The African American MC is The Grim Bastards. The One Niners is a street gang.

Anonymous said...
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