The great irony in Kurt Sutter’s biker saga being called “Sons of Anarchy” is that so much of the show’s storyline these first four seasons (and vividly here in the first two episodes of the fifth) has been about control — control over the criminal underworld of the fictional northern California town of Charming and who has it.
After a long apprenticeship, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) has finally wrested control from the antihero Clay (Ron Perlman), only to have the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original — SAMCRO — face its gravest existential threat to date, in the form of urbane psychopath Damon Pope (Harold Perrineau) and his well-dressed and terrifyingly ruthless Oakland-based crew. Anarchy is confronted with civilization, the principal difference between the two seeming to come down to the fact that the gentlemen who decide to burn an enemy’s daughter alive in front of him are wearing nicer suits.
When “Sons of Anarchy” debuted, much was made of its being a biker adaptation of “Hamlet,” though the parallels between the two are mostly limited to the dynamics between Jax, Clay and Katey Sagal’s Gemma, which, Danishness and yet-to-be-determined ending aside, are a reworking of the relationships between Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude. Beyond that triad, the Hamlet similarities are few and far between (though present, as in the two-part season 4 finale title “To Be”), with the great strength of “Sons of Anarchy” deriving more from its lack of pretension to being anything other than a nasty (in the good way), sharply written and filmed biker yarn. But be it Shakespeare or a soap opera on choppers, every drama is built on conflict, and “Sons of Anarchy” has plenty.
“Sons of Anarchy” is at heart a show about class structure in America, and about SAMCRO’s need, because of its total alienation from that structure, to carve out its own means of existence. Naturally, this is resisted by various local and federal police agencies, whose job it is to keep order but also to prevent the profit and power gain that can be had by drug and gun dealing — the existing class structure cannot, after all, abide competition. While never articulated in such terms on the screen, this idea is a constant presence and the strongest force that shapes the identity of the show and its character. For instance, in last night’s episode “Authority Vested,” when Jax and longtime girlfriend and mother of his children Tara (Maggie Siff) finally get married, they do so in a high-end brothel. The ceremony’s officiated by a very nervous judge who had clearly only intended to visit the place as a customer, while SAMCRO is hiding out there ducking murder charges.
And if it wasn’t that, it’d be something else, be it beef with white supremacists, or corrupt feds, or crazy Irish gun runners, or some other thing. The protagonists of “Sons of Anarchy” are not the kind of people who get married in a church with the bride wearing white. Such is a life lived outside not only the law, but also all that it represents.
Jax’s struggle is both with the idea of power itself and with others who would have SAMCRO’s power for themselves. And, inasmuch as this can be said of a bunch of violent bikers up to their necks in crime, the fact that this happy breed’s blessed plot, their realm, their Charming, is so small and off-to-the-side cannot help but cast their desperate scrambling to defend it in a sympathetic light. They are, after all, underdogs.
On the other hand, with the kind of shit SAMCRO pulls on a daily basis, the idea that they can stay one step ahead of all their adversaries is a little ridiculous. This fifth season is setting up a number of elements that feel more like an endgame than any of what’s come before. Perrineau’s big-city heavy is being set up as a potential Fortinbras. Scenes like last night’s between Clay and long-time police ally Wayne Unser (Dayton Callie), in which the two men struggle against their ancient, battered bodies merely to exist, are a none-too-subtle indicator that the old ways (and the old men to whom those ways belonged) are dying out.
The new order, led by Jax and the eternally and melodramatically beset Opie (Ryan Hurst, whose work has been consistently and quietly excellent from the beginning), will be there to deal with what comes next — if Danny Trejo is able to get them out of jail. And what a necessary piece of cosmic unity that Trejo be on “Sons of Anarchy,” and in a position in which the protagonists must trust him in any way whatsoever.
To tie into that idea of the natural order of the universe, it does feel as though “Sons of Anarchy,” delightfully rough and raunchy diversion that it’s been, is coming to its organic conclusion. Its fifth season, to poke once again at Shakespeare, seems to signal the show’s fifth act. It remains to be seen whether Jax has departed sufficiently from Hamlet (and he has, almost completely) to avoid the prince’s bleak fate, or whether the joke, as it is on the existentially doomed outlaw gang itself, is that there is no avoiding that end.
While it would depart entirely from the rest of the series to date to have Jax, his bride and the rest of the gang — Bobby Elvis, Tig, Chibs, and the like — ride off into the sunset without a care in the world, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility to have at least a few of them (because let’s face it, someone’s going to get killed soon) ride off into the sunset, probably with some trouble hanging over their heads. Bikers are magnets for trouble, but more importantly, all they have in this world are their rides, the road and each other. And California is where the sun meets the sea.