a review by Nalini Haynes
Sons of Anarchy is a TV series produced by FX about a motorbike club in a town called Charming in California. I’ve heard all sorts of rave reviews and good things about this show, including comparisons with Hamlet that have yet to come to light in my viewing although seeds have been sown. I’ve only watched four episodes so far but my verdict is: brilliant! Warning: triggers include sex, drugs and rape.
Jax (Charlie Hunnam) is a 30-ish guy who’s grown up with few rules other than to put family and the biker club first. Jax’s father died sometime before the series opened. Jax discovers his father’s journal – beginning a journey of discovery – alongside the birth of Jax’s critically ill son, whose premature birth and health defects were discovered after Jax’s ex continued injecting during the pregnancy. Jax’s relationships are colliding: Wendy (Drea de Matteo), the mother of Jax’s child, is in a hospital being cared for by Dr Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff), Jax’s former girlfriend who still obviously cares for Jax while Jax’s mother – Gemma Morrow (Katey Sagal) – is a bitch from hell to both Tara and Wendy. Meanwhile Jax sleeps with hangers-on to the club as well. Gemma’s partner and Jax’s step-father, Clay (Ron Perlman), runs the Sons of Anarchy bike club with a definite agenda of which he shares only portions. There are many other great characters I’m only just getting to know.
Family relationships, including exes and in-laws, are as complex and realistic as any dysfunctional family you could know. And just when you think you know someone, they surprise you – just like in real life. Pranks and occasional comical stupidity counterpoint the seriousness of scenes where, for example, shootouts result in injuries.
Although the morals of this group of outlaw bikers are challenging, FX have chosen to keep the storylines tight, focusing on the plot and characters while avoiding gratuitous sex scenes and unnecessary focus on gore. The scenes showing intimacy establish characters while avoiding actual exposure of genitalia. In contrast, exposure of genitalia occurs comically when establishing characters in non-sexual situations, particularly in the first couple of episodes. The contrast between Sons of Anarchy and Game of Thrones is striking in this respect: SoA is plot and character focused, very tightly directed with a story focus. GoT is exploitative in its presentation of women in particular and the way sex is portrayed with an emphasis on catering to the straight white male gaze. GoT is cutting essential plot from the books in order to dwell on sex scenes and even introduce sex scenes not in the books. While I’m still a fan of GoT, the contrast between these two series so far has me decidedly in favour of SoA.
Attitudes to sex in both series are different too. Women in SoA are more likely to be active agents; even when being used and ordered around, they are making choices based on their own motivations and active agency. In episode 4, for example, a young women talks about how she has sex with whoever she’s told in the hope that one day one of the guys will choose her to be his ‘old lady;’ although she’s saddened, she admits she’s been living this dream for three years. The woman who hears this story later chooses to leave with a guy not in the club who has beaten her before. The storytelling is very deep, portraying complex characters believably.
In episode 3 a thirteen year old girl is raped. The viewer does not see the rape and even when we’re shown the victim, bruised and bleeding after the rape, we’re not shown gratuitous flesh. If it is possible to do so, the rape is tastefully implied, increasing the horror of the situation by emphasising the girl’s innocence. The story that flows on from this rape is jaw-dropping in its cleverness, deviousness and understanding of humanity including the understanding of the trauma of rape and issues arising from rape. Just when I thought Jax’s mum Gemma was the Queen Bitch from Hell, she comes out with lines that I was stunned to hear on a mere fictional TV show. This episode was worth watching just for the rape issues and Gemma’s lines in particular.
Gemma’s character as revealed in these first four episodes was amazingly complex. I wroter her off as sassy and bitchy except in her love for her husband (something fishy there), her love for her son (with manipulative controlling overtones) and her love for her grandson (unconditional so far, but he’s only a babe). In episode three Gemma comes out with incredible wisdom and compassion and follows this up in episode four with snarking at Tara (Jax’s ex) before giving Tara an untraceable gun because Gemma seems to be about protecting the wimminz even if she doesn’t like them. Unless they put Gemma’s grandson at risk but even there Gemma’s relationship with Wendy is… evolving.
It’s rare for a TV series to hit the ground running like Sons of Anarchy, with fully realised characters right from episode one, characters unfolding before the viewer using ‘show don’t tell’ rather than exposition and a plot that is definitely going somewhere in a tightly planned story arc. I hope FX continues to support the team making this series, give them free rein and let them roll. Sons of Anarachy has been renewed up to season 6 and the creator hopes for a seventh season to round out his planned arc. If SoA manages to maintain this standard of production, expect lots more rave reviews.
Boo to FX for blocking all countries other than the US and Canada from accessing Sons of Anarchy material: we’ve bought at least the first three seasons on bluray in Australia so we should be able to access the online material.