I finished the E13 of SOA last night and couldn’t wait to post about it. Following on Weeds, Justified, Breaking Bad, Dexter, and Treme, this is the next series that I was woefully behind on and trying to catch up with. I refer to this as my “ex-pat homesickness self-treatment via TV on my iPad”. I am not sure that it is working yet, but it is probably helping. In this freshman season, the Sons impress with good writing (most of the time), tough characters (all the time), killer music, and overall a strong effort. The storyline is complex and has many parallels with similar insider views of criminal organizations – Breaking Bad and The Sopranos come to mind. There is also a good amount of humor thrown in from time to time.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock-n-Roll
There isn’t a whole lot of sex (normal sex that is) in SOA. And any male readers have to admit that they must be disappointed that we didn’t see more of the lovely Maggie Siff, but that could just be me. At least in SOA, she gets her man which wasn’t the case in Mad Men. The appearance of Drea de Matteo of Sopranos fame as Wendy was cool too. In fact, the sex scenes are pretty platonic – nothing like the insanity of Californication or even Weeds. That being said, there is the awful rape and the sordid escapades of Tig Trager (I still wonder if it wasn’t him that actually performed the rape rather than that pathetic clown guy) but other than that, just a few kisses and sloppy morning scenes in the Clubs in Charming and Indian Hill, NV.
As for drugs, SOA keeps them more or less out of Charming. They get pressure from outside gangs, notably the One-Niners with smack and Darby’s Nordics with crystal meth. There is actually relatively little alcohol on the show either other than the occasional whiskey or beer. There are loads of cigarettes though. I just found it a bit odd because I would have expected far more of this. I suppose it goes along the principles of the charter and would even perhaps take away from the story. It does seem like folks are toking weed from time to time but it is hard to tell. I suppose the thing that was unfortunate was that we didn’t see any of that California nectar – both the red varietals from Sonoma and Napa valleys or perhaps one of the 100s of micro brewed beers that permeate the northern California countryside. OK, so perhaps that is a bit of a stretch but hey, you smaller vineyards and micro-breweries – here is your chance at some good advertising and product placement – get with it dudes!
As for rock-n-roll, the show rocks big time. Whether it is the Black Keys or Social Distortion, there is plenty of awesome music here. I especially appreciated John the Revelator by The Forest Rangers (side note: I couldn’t find anything about this group on the Net – perhaps it was an adhoc arrangement during the shooting of the show?) during the closing scene of the season. There are slower moments of folk but most of the music is straightforward alternative, underground rock. I have cousins that love Harley’s in northern California (no gang affiliation that I know of) that are big time punk rockers (although with age leaning towards alt country like Mike Ness of Social Distortion) and so I was surprised that there wasn’t more native California punk rock on the soundtrack. Actually, there is relatively little California native music on the soundtrack other than Rhino Bucket, Sun Kil Moon, and Social Distortion. Texas make a showing with the amazing Scott H Biram and Lions. I guess you can’t have everything. But hey, if any of the folks in production for Season 5 ever read this blog, check out my cousin Ben’s The Roadside Bombers
The Characters: Gemma
Gemma is a complex character. As mother of Jax and wife of Clay, she is tightly woven into the lives of both of her men (and her grandchild Abel). Somewhat like Carmela on The Sopranos, she is incredibly strong, but unlike her, she takes a pro-active role in her family’s criminal activities – condoning murder, threatening folks she doesn’t like, bashing in the face of a sexual rival, giving a potentially lethal dose of crank to the crackhead mother of her son’s kid (the aforementioned Drea playing this role well)…not exactly a tender woman. And yet, she has her moments of weakness – the most painful of which is in her office after Clay denies having had an affair with Cherry. That is one of the magic elements of Sons of Anarchy. We see the raw strength and violence of each character, but we are not spared their moments of weakness or questioning. I appreciated some of Gemma’s lines about her lack of a conscience, especially “Jesus just is a guy who mows my lawn”. I think that she is in for a rough ride in Season 2. I think that the performance of Katey Sagal was extraordinary in this role. Will we ever learn about her heart surgery for which we see the scars in the opening credits? Tough old broad!
The Characters: Clay
Is Clay the most evil character in this show of scumbags? It is hard to say but he has to be the best liar on the show. He lies to nearly everybody about everything at some point or another. Plus, the actor Ron Pearlman looks the part so well – protruded jaw, caveman eyes, the bristly grey hair – every bit the aging gangster biker that we’d expect. His decisions are starting to move outside the club’s best interest at times – mostly in attempts to continually hide the truth from others. He is responsible for several murders inside the Sons that we know of: Lowell Harland, Sr and Donna, wife of Opie. There are probably even more skeletons in his closet though. He too, though, has his moments of weakness, particularly after the accidental killing of Donna. He is one mean son of a bitch and a serious adversary for Jax.
The Characters: Jackson “Jax” Teller
Jax, as the story’s hero character, is well-played by Charlie Hunnam. He is also complex as he holds down roles as dad, lover, husband (well sort of), son, vice-president of SOA, murderer, brawler, carouser, and general “Man of Mayhem” as the badge under VP on his kutte attests to. And yet, he also has an awakening spiritual (if you can call it that) side (or perhaps it is just political?) as he discovers his father’s spirit in the typewritten draft he finds in storage (and is given by Piney in E13). Another question I kept asking myself was whether these were rednecks or something else. The police (the ones not on their payroll) and the ATF take them for country bumpkins, but in fact they are a bit more complex than that. At the risk of getting side-tracked, it is notable that Clay is often asking for intel on various situations via a database (cracked? random Google searches? some criminal Google-wannabe?) and yet I don’t recall seeing any computers other than the crappy one that is in Gemma’s office. The Sons seem to be more rough-necks than rednecks. Or perhaps my Southern view of rednecks is a bit different than the California view. I suppose that the auto mechanic cover is a suitable profile for rednecks but they never listen to country and don’t seem butt-stupid like, say, the rednecks on Justified. Jax, in particular, seems to want to stretch beyond the limits of his biker/criminal upbringing by aspiring to his dead father’s principles more and more as the show goes on (letting the witness go in E13 was a good example of this change of attitude) and yet is still capable of both murder (E01 in particular as well as the killing of Kohn in E08) and violence when his “job” calls for it. He has great leadership capability and flashes of criminal insight that are key to the club getting out of several messes during the course of the season. As much as I like the Tara character (or is it just the sexy Maggie?), some of the scenes with her were a bit too soap-opera for me (“Jax, I know you are a good man”, etc). The murder of Kohn though was creepy and well-written. I am enthusiastic to see how he develops over the next three or four seasons.
The Characters: Agent June Stahl
The performance (and makeup!) of Ally Walker as ATF agent Stahl was excellent. The character herself was intense. Both a sexual powerhouse and a vengeful, scheming agent, she was off the charts. Her face after the beating by Big Otto was amazing. But even she had her moments of doubt, particularly her post-mortem mumbled apology to Donna. I hope we see more of agent Stahl. I certainly wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of the ATF with her hunting me down.
I have several cousins that grew up in Sonoma, CA which is about the size of Charming, both are about 10-15k in size. Like Charming, there are not a whole lot of options for kids growing up there. Either you go down the drugs and punk rock road which probably leads to a needle or a criminal background, or you get out. That’s more or less all the options you have. Most of my cousins survived but the only one that stayed in Sonoma has been (and perhaps still is but I haven’t heard) a junkie. The others have had brushes with the law but nothing like what we see in SOA. As for the town itself, Sonoma has several advantages over Charming – particularly the wine industry – and has similar vegetation but with more rolling hills. Many moments in this series transported me back to the many trips I took out there as a kid and later as an adult. As much as I miss it, I realize that it is a bit of a dead-end especially to grow up there. I recall going to a party with my cousin – we were both 16 or 17 if I recall – and seeing my first needles, H, and coke. Actually, come to think of it, the only time I ever saw those things. I was (and continue to be) too much of a chicken-shit or self-preservationist depending how you look at it to get any nearer to those dark things than that particular, defining moment. Even growing up in the drug den that is Miami, I never saw anything quite like that one party scene. I could definitely see Jax going to one of those kinds of parties and, probably like my male cousins, perhaps not going for the needle but rather for the razor and straw. Frankly, not my thing at all. If I compare this to the redneck things I saw in parts of my dead stepdad’s family (heart attack a few years back – no, I don’t miss him) in the deep nether regions of central Florida, I think there is a more palpable violence in the small-town California atmosphere somehow. The Florida redneck ambience was more of a racist-dumbass-chain-smoking-beer-guzzling-teenage-pregnancy kind but not as hardcore. Of course, this memory is from the late 80’s before the rise of crystal meth so perhaps all of that has changed. In any case, I felt that Charming was realistically rendered based on my fragments of memory and knowledge of the area.
The Limits of Fidelity
It seem to me that one of the principal themes of S01 was fidelity and its limits. Whether it was fidelity to the Club SAMCRO (over wife and family in Opie’s case, over current leadership in Jax’s) or fidelity to one’s family (Jax and Abel and Wendy, Clay and Cherry and Gemma are two very different triangles that come to mind), this questioning was omnipresent during the show. The most obvious one, of course, is Jax’s questioning of Clay, the Club, his “crazy mother” against what he is learning about his father’s aspirations and inspirations. I think we will see this develop more over the coming seasons but I thought it was a powerful running thread.
Can’t wait to start watching Season 2…