Mythology: Sons of Anarchy
By Martin Felipe
September 8, 2010
I’ve talked a little about real world mythologies and their representations on television program. The idea of mythologies is by no means limited to stories about vampires, aliens and smoke monsters. There are worlds in which the characters of a given show inhabit which bear striking resemblance to our own and the rules to which the world adheres are natural laws we all learn about in school.
The beauty of the recent explosion in quality cable programming is that it offers us windows into real world sub-cultures that traditional network television doesn’t. The big networks tend to show us life as a lawyer, a cop, a doctor. Cable, however, often digs deeper, dipping into fringe lifestyles, The Sopranos’ organized crime, Big Love’s Mormon polygamists, The Riches’ Travelers, Mad Men’s '60s ad men. FX had a stealth hit last fall with a show about just such a fringe society, that of a motorcycle club. The show, of course, is Sons of Anarchy.
I say stealth hit because the first season came and went in 2008 with little or no fanfare. The reviews were positive, the ratings good enough for renewal, but it wasn’t until the second season when the show became a bona fide hit for the network. I certainly didn’t know much about it before that point, and I tend to be a follower of FX output ever since The Shield put them on the quality product landscape. For some reason, in season two, the obscure little critic’s darling struck a chord with viewers and became one of FX’s most talked about properties since their Shield/Nip/Tuck heyday.
In fact, The Shield is one of the shows to which Sons of Anarchy is most often compared, along with The Sopranos and, of course, Hamlet. It’s no surprise. Show-runner Kurt Sutter not only produced and wrote for The Shield, he has also declared Sons of Anarchy a contemporary retelling of Hamlet. This is all well and good. There are worse writers to emulate than Shakespeare, but what interests me most about the show is the glimpse into the culture of a motorcycle club.
Much like The Simpsons' Springfield, the show takes place in a fictional town called Charming, filled with singular characters and places. It’s a somewhat self-contained little universe that spills out into surrounding Northern California. The Sons of Anarchy run this town, and we’re privy to the way this all operates. We see how the gang interacts with the law, with the townspeople and with each other. We also see how they relate to neighboring gangs and criminal syndicates. If The Sopranos represents a white-collar mob, the elite of the organized crime world, Sons of Anarchy are the working class mobsters.
There are, of course, differences between the two. Though violence abounds in both worlds, the Sons seem more amenable to working things out through negotiation. They also seem to really run the small town. While Tony Soprano and his people have infiltrated the law, the Sons own it. In addition, where it seem like the Sons have each other's backs, the Sopranos have to always watch theirs.
That’s not to say that there’s no violence. Snitching, the most unforgivable of sins, seems like something motorcycle gangs punish the same way gangsters do. In an effort to avenge some presumed snitchery, Tig unwittingly kills Opie’s wife. For that matter, Clay, the patriarch of the gang, seems to have something to do with the death of Jax’s father’s death. The rules may be more forgiving than those of the mafia, but killing is far from unheard of.
The ill doings surrounding Jax’s father’s death lead me to another fascinating aspect of the show. There is a rich history to this club, a history that unravels as the show evolves. We learn more about the nature of the gang, the rules, ethics, mission. We get an ever-widening view of whom these characters are, how they relate, and the betrayals that lead to where they are now.
It’s a rough and tumble world, yet a compelling one. I admit it; I don’t know if this is what a real motorcycle club is like. The important thing is that it feels true, it feels real. It’s a world so unique and off the beaten path that to create an entire show around it is something we might not have seen in the era of network television dominance. And that’s too bad. While this may be Hamlet, and the themes may be familiar, the gang mythology isn’t. That’s what sets it apart, what raises it to its own unique level.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great show, no matter what the setting. The themes are universal. Bottom line, however, is that if it really is Hamlet, what makes it different than any other Hamlet is the mythology of the motorcycle gang. This is the beauty of the rise in cable programming. We get to see life amongst new groups, different ways of life. There’s always another doctor show, but there isn’t another Sons of Anarchy.