Leatherballs VII: Sons Of Anarchy

Love it or hate it, the FX TV show “Sons Of Anarchy” has a lot of bikers talking.

In case you haven’t seen it, SoA is about an MC in the fictional northern California town of Charming. It was created by Kurt Sutter, formerly a writer and producer on the FX cop drama “The Shield.” The series revolves around the club’s Prez and VP, original member Clay Morrow (played by Ron Perlman) and his stepson Jax (Charlie Hunnam), whose father was also a founding member and who was later killed. Katey Sagal (Peg freakin’ Bundy, folks, which is reason enough for me to like the show right there) plays Jax’s mom Gemma, a conniving, ruthless den mother to this sometimes hapless band of merry marauders.

The story arc for the series is based on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” wherein the dithering, conflicted Prince of Denmark waffles over whether and how to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of his brother (and Hamlet’s stepfather), Claudius. It’s no accident at all that the names of Jax’s parents have the same first initials as those of Hamlet’s parents in the play. Jax even “communicates” with his dead father via a manuscript detailing his co-founding of and subsequent disillusionment with the club, which feeds Jax’s own doubts about the direction in which the club’s business is going, echoing Hamlet’s conversations with his dead father’s ghost, in which Claudius’ treachery is revealed, setting in motion the tragic chain of events that eventually leaves the entire Danish royal family dead on the floor by play’s end.

Perlman has said, “I’m sure they’re going to stick to the structure of Hamlet all the way to the end, but how it happens and when it happens we’ll have to just see one episode at a time.” That might not bode all that well for this series having a happy ending, I’ll say that much.

I probably ought to say right up front that, other than private conversations poking fun at certain types we’re all familiar with, I’ve never really been one to get into serious discussion about who’s a biker and who ain’t. People have to make their own way in life, and if somebody wants to play at being something they clearly are not, well, it’s no real skin off my own ass, until they try to jump line ahead of me at the bar. I always figured phony-fraud behavior reflected more on the person acting out than it ever would on me. I know well enough who and what I am, and I don’t owe any explanations or make any excuses about it to anybody.

So speaking only for myself, I have to say I like the show. I’m not a club guy and never have been or pretended to be, although I’ve had plenty of friends and acquaintances over the years who are. I’ve heard people make complaints about certain details in the thing, and some of those complaints have merit, no doubt. But given that the show isn’t actually written by bikers (there’s a “tech adviser” working on the show who’s an Oakland HA, which has to help), I think they’ve done a pretty decent job of making it as real as TV is ever likely to get, and the show’s writers and producers seem to actually give a shit about keeping a certain gritty verisimilitude throughout. The portrayal of the loyalty and deep sense of brotherhood that is club membership’s main appeal is respectful if not outright admiring, and rings true, at least to me.

I also liked the fact that, in the first episode I saw (“Patch Over,” episode 4), the word “pussy” was tossed about almost as liberally as I myself use it. And I mean in every sense of it, too, the best and most vital one (as in, “getting some…”) most prominent among ‘em, which is as it should be.

SoA’s run-ins with law enforcement seem pretty dead-on to me, too, with a clear distinction made between the more easygoing, live and let live approach used by the local cops who know, grew up with, and live among the members contrasted very sharply with the feds take-no-prisoners tactics. The ATF agents on the show—who came in mid-season to try to bust up the club over a gun-running operation involving the IRA and some Bay Area drug dealers—are pretty much without exception a passel of cold, no-compromise would-be tyrants, and they don’t care who they step on or even what laws they themselves bend or break to get what they want. Which, as in real life, is mo’ bettah RICO prosecutions that put pretty much everyone under their iron rule. That jibes all too nicely with the attitude of the few feds I’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have had dealings of any kind with over the years, sad to say.

And did I mention Peg Bundy? Katey Sagal is note-perfect as Gemma, as remorseless an ol’ lady as you ever set eyes on outside of a real clubhouse. Talk about take no prisoners; Gemma wrote the book on it, I tells ya. She’s fiercely loyal to the men in her life and the rest of the brothers; she’s smart, cunning, and utterly fearless. Her verbal sparring with the aforementioned female ATF’er is absolutely priceless, and the show is worth watching just for Sagal’s performance alone. She’s got a big open-heart surgery scar Yea, walking through the valley of the shadow of her cleavage, and it figures Sagal could make it look sexy. Even the weakest, most feeble milquetoast of a man would look like a mighty warrior indeed with a righteous woman like Gemma at his back. It’s more fun than a barrel of strippers watching her work.
And yet, and yet…just as in real life, treachery, thy name is sometimes woman. Gemma’s role, if any, in Jax’s father’s—her husband’s—death is as yet hinted at some, but unexplained. At the very least, she seems to be complicit in covering up the emerging but not yet definitively established fact that Clay was the guy who offed him. The idea of it contradicts any simple conception of loyalty that a mere man might comprehend, and her character is more three-dimensional, human, unpredictable, and, ultimately, unsettling for it. And Sagal is just the woman to pull it off. I can’t think of any actress I know of who could do a better job.

The kid who plays Jax is English, Charlie Hunnam, and he does an excellent job overall. He had a pretty high degree of success in Old Blighty before relocating to LA in 1999 to try his luck in America, and he’s done well here too. But one of the gripes I’ve heard about the show involves him, and it’s one of those I can’t really argue with: the kid wouldn’t last a minute in any one-percenter club with those white sneakers and rap-dork baggy britches. I suspect that’s a move by the non-biker writers to point up the generation gap between Jax and his older club brothers, but I don’t like seeing that horseshit on the street, I damned sure wouldn’t like seeing it in any clubhouse I was ever in, and I don’t like it here either. People can dress however they like; I ain’t nobody’s mother. But shit, man, if you’re gonna play a one-percenter on TV and ride around on a Harley, get yourself some decent boots and buy some pants that fit, already.

Another legit gripe I heard from a good friend of mine also involves Jax, although I hate to seem like I’m piling on the guy. I’ll just quote straight from the e-mail I got:

“…I have to admit, I was saddened by the scene where Jax is looking at the old man and basically recites the litany of millions of lying deceitful bitches everywhere across this great land:

Just tell me the truth. I won’t be mad as long as you tell me the truth. I just want the truth.

Immediately followed by a giant explosion upon hearing the truth.”

Not a word to add to that. It’s true, and if you’ve ever been involved with the wrong kind of woman for more than fifteen minutes you know it is, and if you saw the episode he’s talking about­­­­­—which I also liked, by the way—you know it’s so here, too.

When I first saw the commercials for the show, I had the same reaction a lot of you probably did: oh shit, here comes Hollywood to tell us how much we all suck all over again. And they’re bound to get it all wrong, just like they always have. There are plenty of reasons for straights not to like us, after all; there are always plenty of reasons not to like anybody, when you get right down to it. But Hollywood never seems to get any of them right, and they’ve never been shy about making them up when they can’t come up with anything original and true, which is more often than not. They don’t get bikers, and to them freedom is something they buy and sell in the marketplace, amounting to nothing any more momentous than whether they’re going to choose the cappucino or the mocha latte to go with their organic free-range soybrangrainbean muffins when they go on break. The joyous delirium of true liberty, the independent spirit that is like oxygen to any real biker, is not only foreign to their psychology, it’s downright frightening to them. It’s almost inevitable that they get it wrong; it’s understandable, and in its way, pitiable too.

And then there’s the revolting idea of a passel of miserable Hollywood worms using the biker lifestyle to line their own pockets, twisting and subverting a thing that’s true and real in the interest of appealing to trembling, salacious squares everywhere in order to drive their consumer product choices in certain highly remunerative—for them—directions and, along the way, contributing to their lack of understanding and regard for that true, real thing that, for some of us, is the only reason to bother getting up in the morning. Sucking the juice out of our stories, contributing nothing, our lifeblood to be absorbed into their own dry, meager existences.

There might be some truth to that too. In fact, there almost always is.

But I don’t think it’s the whole story here.

I think, for once, that the makers of SoA have taken a real, sincere stab at telling an entertaining story about an unconventional and, for most viewers, wholly alien group of people—real people, or as close to it as entertainment ever gets—with real faults, and real problems, and real cares and concerns for the people closest to them; people who, while they might not always be right, just, or even entirely likable to most, are no less worthy of some sort of regard and respect.

At the end of the day, what we have here is a TV show about an outlaw bike club—no more, no less. And for what it’s worth, which admittedly ain’t a lot, I think it’s a pretty good one. It’s a cinch I haven’t seen a better effort made, and I don’t really expect to. I plan to enjoy this one for as long as it lasts, as long as the club doesn’t pick up a talking-dog mascot who solves crimes in his spare time and then moves to a multi-thousand dollar a month apartment in Manhattan to live with his latte-swilling yuppie friends, none of whom seem to have a job. As long as SoA can keep it as real as they have so far, I’ll keep tuning in.

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