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series on FX entering its third season this month, Jackson “Jax” Teller reads a passage from his dead father’s unpublished memoir.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.
SAMCRO, unapologetically inspired by the Hells Angels, is a thoroughly criminal operation. Members of the gang have legitimate day jobs for the most part — a mechanic or two here, a repo man there, an overweight Jewish Elvis impersonator, etc. — but the club makes its real money mostly by gunrunning, with some drug dealing and extortion on the side. One of its functions is to serve as something between a police force and a local militia for the town of Charming. It keeps out other criminal activity, which in Clay Morrow’s mind includes big corporations and their retail chains. “The most dangerous gang of all,” he explains, is “old, white money.” Still, by civilized moral standards, they all belong in prison — and several belong on death row. But, as you might have guessed, Sutter successfully makes the gangsters into good guys.
What makes that possible is the implied moral universe of Sons of Anarchy. In SOA-land, everything is defined by the morality of the tribe. Loyalty to the tribe, sacrifice for the tribe, sharing the fruits of the hunt with the tribe, and — always — a full-blooded commitment to visiting vengeance upon those who hurt or insult the tribe’s honor: This is what defines the ethics of SAMCRO. Everyone is a brother, once he is patched in (i.e., fully initiated). Any transgression, indulgence, or crime can be tolerated, even celebrated, as long as it does not negatively affect “the good of the club.”
This social order is nearly identical to the one laid out at the beginning of The Godfather (as brilliantly explicated by Paul Rahe in his essay “Don Vito Corleone, Friendship, and the American Regime”). The American legal system has let down Amerigo Bonasera, the undertaker who visits Don Corleone to ask a favor on the wedding day of the don’s daughter. Bonasera wants the godfather to punish the men who raped his daughter. This offends the godfather, because Bonasera offered his first loyalty to the American regime instead of seeking “true friendship” from the don. “You go to the law courts and wait for months. You spend money on lawyers who know full well you are to be made a fool of. You accept judgment from a judge who sells himself like the worst whore in the streets. Years gone by, when you needed money, you went to the banks and paid ruinous interest. But if you had come to me, my purse would have been yours. If you had come to me for justice, those scum who ruined your daughter would be weeping bitter tears this day. If, by some misfortune, an honest man like yourself made enemies, they would become my enemies — and then, believe me, they would fear you.”
It is no coincidence that Amerigo Bonasera means “Good night, America.” By transferring his loyalties from the Enlightenment-era American system to the pre-Enlightenment politics of “true friendship,” Bonasera is bidding farewell to America and the American idea.
Sons of Anarchy is wholly about “true friendship.” When the young daughter of the richest man in Charming is brutally raped, the father seeks justice from the Sons, not the courts, and the justice is brutally disturbing, even by cable standards. Indeed, the notion that the law and justice are linked is completely alien to the SOA moral universe. All that matters is the good of the club.
Obviously, the concept of tribe über alles has its roots in human nature. One need not read about ancient Sparta or gypsies or prison gangs to understand it, because human nature has no history. What is fascinating is how deeply this vision has penetrated into popular culture. Since World War II, and particularly since the 1960s, antiheroes — protagonists who run counter to the classic understanding of a hero — have been a Hollywood staple. In these films, too numerous to list, loyalty to your personal moral code trumps allegiance to social norms. “Get ready to root for the bad guy” went the tagline for the quintessentially antiheroic Mel Gibson film Payback. The joke, of course, was that the film was an homage to movies from the early 1970s, when rooting for the bad guy was cool but already a cliché.
Something changed around the turn of the century (are we allowed to say that yet?). Antiheroes lost some of their individuality and became leaders or exemplars of groups. Quentin Tarantino’s hideously compelling Reservoir Dogs might have been the turning point. In this film, group loyalty is the only moral yardstick, and hideous violence is perfectly acceptable so long as it is visited on the Other. Variations on what might be called collective moral relativism can be found in many of the most popular — and best — shows of the last decade, from The Sopranos and the FX series The Shield (which Sutter worked on) to The Wire, The Unit, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and Boardwalk Empire.
One of the things that make Sons of Anarchy so compelling is its ability to illuminate not only the seductive power of the tribe, but the inevitability of criminality and bloodshed once you decide to reject the sovereignty of the state and its monopoly on violence. We all know you cannot be a servant to two masters; what is more interesting is that you cannot be a citizen of two regimes. Once you decide to live outside the law, there are no rules external to the tribe’s collective will or conscience. The only politics are the pre-modern politics of friendship, and those politics require that debts be paid in blood. Jax Teller’s ghostly father is right when he says that all men seek the bondage of social order, but that goes for the outlaw as well. It’s just that the outlaw’s social order comes at a higher price. As Teller puts it elsewhere in his memoir, “I never made a conscious decision to have the club become one thing or another. It just happened before my eyes. Each savage event was a catalyst for the next. And by the time the violence reached epic proportion, I couldn’t see it. Blood was every color.”
Many first-time or one-time viewers of Sons of Anarchy will be stunned by the suggestion that it’s anything but adolescent tripe with better-than-decent acting and worse-than-decent language. But that, too, is an old story. Ancient tales of Roman bacchanalia now enjoy a certain grandeur, and deservedly so. But heaven forbid anyone suggest that the prurient mixes with the sagacious in the telling of those tales. And let no one whisper that Act Five of Hamlet turned so bloody in part because an audience might like it that way. No, Sutter is not Shakespeare, but he is truly gifted in his ability to drape fresh costumes on ancient tales and complex ideas. And what else are you going to watch on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m.?
— Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online. This article is adapted from the October 18, 2010, print issue.