In an early episode of Sons of Anarchy, a television series on FX entering its third season this month, Jackson “Jax” Teller reads a passage from his dead father’s unpublished memoir. It’s narrated in his father’s voice: “First time I read Emma Goldman wasn’t in a book. I was sixteen, hiking near the Nevada border. The quote was painted on a wall in red. When I saw those words it was like someone ripped them from the inside of my head.”
The son finds the passage on a wall under a dilapidated bridge in the California desert. It reads: “Anarchism . . . stands for liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from shackles and restraint of government. It stands for social order based on the free grouping of individuals.” The father’s voice returns: “The concept was pure, simple, true. It inspired me, lit a rebellious fire. But ultimately I learned the lesson that Goldman, Proudhon, and the others learned: that true freedom requires sacrifice and pain. Most human beings only think they want freedom. In truth, they yearn for the bondage of social order, rigid laws, materialism. The only freedom man really wants is the freedom to become comfortable.”
That’s some heady stuff for a show that spends most of its time running from gun fights, bar fights, and fist fights to prison fights, porn studios, and strip clubs. But such are the mainstays of cable television these days. Everyone ooh’d and ah’d over the quasi-iambic pentameter in HBO’s brilliant but short-lived Deadwood, but the series would never have been made without the whoring and gunslinging. The Sopranos didn’t need the Bada Bing Club, but no doubt the flesh on display there helped sell the show in the first place. The hardest trick for good TV writers isn’t plumbing the human condition or meditating on the eternal verities — some might say that’s the easy part — it’s finding a plausible reason to punctuate such rarefied fare with women spinning dervishly on chrome poles. (Get ready for some changes next season, Miss Marple!)
And that’s where Sons of Anarchy comes in. It’s not the best show on television. In my book, that title goes to AMC’s Breaking Bad, though the critics would choose that Pilgrim’s Progress of bourgeois materialism, Mad Men. But funny, prurient, violent, and rocket-paced, Sons of Anarchy is, in its own way, a contender.
The show has been widely described as “Hamlet on Harleys,” and Kurt Sutter, its creator, has been upfront from the beginning that Shakespeare’s tale of Danish royal intrigue provides the superstructure for the series. Charlie Hunnam — another one of those seemingly unlimited brilliant British actors no one realizes is faking an American accent — plays Jax Teller, vice president of the club, son of the late John Teller and Gemma Teller (sublimely played by Katey Sagal, best known as Mrs. Al Bundy from Married with Children). Gemma is remarried to Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman, in easily his best human-faced role), the current president of the gang, which often goes by SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original Chapter). Perlman clearly enjoys the show’s mix of high- and lowbrow. “It should be interesting as we move forward,” he told an interviewer. “When you look at the fifth act of Hamlet, nobody gets out of that mother alive.” The ghost of Jax/Hamlet’s father is cleverly played by the manuscript he left behind, which chronicles how the club “lost its way.”
From that premise, the cast spills out in all directions. There’s Jax’s love interest, a childhood sweetheart turned surgeon, played by Maggie Siff (perhaps best known as the Jewish department-store owner in Mad Men); Dayton Callie (Deadwood’s Charlie Utter) as the conflicted, cancer-ridden sheriff of Charming, Calif., the fictional town where the show takes place; and a host of oddball bikers, desperate wives, semi-abused children, Aryan thugs, Mexican banditos, Chinese gangsters, rogue federal agents, IRA henchmen, and (bada-bing!) porn stars.