There is a competition going on between us and the neighbours, not of the DIY or the gardening kind and certainly not of the Bridge kind, nope this is TV. This competition is about who can get to Season 5 first and this race has spread like a virus across the town. We are late to the party of course, it’s been around for a while but not on good old terrestrial TV in Britain (somebody in acquisitions dropped a clanger there – well okay except Channel 5 …. but still), it took a while before we gave in and headed for the DVD, but now we have, we’re doomed to evenings of “Okay just one more episode” and “for God’s sake we must stop now, I’ve got work tomorrow.” I’m talking about SAMCRO (that’s Sons of Anarchy California Redwood Originals to you “prospects”). Yep the kickass violent TV series, Sons of Anarchy, about a motor cycle club, hell – Hell’s Angels who have somewhat departed from their original hippy intentions and now run guns. They justify their independent ways and alternative business plans on the basis that they are protecting the small town of “Charming” from nasty foreign invasions like Starbucks. Schumacher (small is beautiful) meets motorbike religion, church, chapel and all.
Like all good American series it stars a British actor (for evidence see Dominic West and Idris Elba in The Wire, Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead, Stephen Moyer in True Blood and Damien Lewis in Homeland and pretty much everything else except Dexter. Charlie Hunnam (Jax) is formerly, if briefly of Byker Grove, a fact that seems to have escaped the BBC’s “Where Are They Now?” page in favour of Ant and Dec – ouch! Feel free to update if so inclined, but more notable is his role has Nathan in Queer as Folk, as for others check here. Sons of Anarchy is written by Kurt Sutter third husband of Katey Sagal (way to go Katey) and, it seems, is pretty much written for her and if you don’t know who she is check out Married with Children, the voice of Leila on Futurama or one of those mermaids (The Harlettes) backing the Divine Miss M (Bette Midler) a year or two ago.
In our street discussions that we and our neighbours have, either at the farmers’ market (yes we too come from a charming town) or over coffee, we discuss the appeal of this violent series and the men are sometimes bemused, that women, even older women (as old as Katey Sagal or older) are infected by this bike driven testosterone fuelled romp through the troubles of a small town, where the police are weak, the bad guys are white hate and the good guys run guns on motorbikes. What, the men wonder can be the appeal? Of course they have their suspicions with regard to the amount of beefcake on show – blondes with deep voices and roaring engines, taking their kit off as much as the women, and that is appealing – true dat, but it’s not the men who bring the female audience in, it’s the women.
If one might digress a moment to the return on British TV (again not on terrestrial – mistake….big mistake) of Mad Men, I watch that series with a sort of awed horror. I was alive then, a little younger than Don Draper’s oldest daughter. I started work just a decade later and all of a sudden I need no longer wonder why progress was, has been and still is so difficult for women (leaving aside the idea that I might be truly awful at what I do) the FTSE 100 boards of the UK are still only 30% women (13% in 2010) 22% of women are MPs, and even though women are increasingly becoming the single major earner in the household, equality of pay is elusive and full time work is still dominated by men. In Mad Men the delightful Christina Hendricks plays Joan, a woman who briefly enjoyed some authority when they palmed off placing ads in TV soaps to her thinking it was a girl’s job, until it made money, then they took it off her and gave it to the man, without even noticing her ability or her disappointment. Nowadays the only difference to that is – that they have to go through some form of interview process and then give it to the bloke – take it from me – I know.
So why do us girls like Sons of Anarchy? Because Gemma Teller Morrow (Katey Sagal) kicks ass that’s why! She’s the undisputed matriarch, the “old lady” to Ron Perlman’s (Clay) king of the road. She’s in her fifties, a grandma, a mother and a wife, a good looking woman capable of giving the younger prospects, and I quote, “a chubby” and, as far as I can tell, not a face lift or an ounce of collagen anywhere, and she looks so much better for it. She holds sway over her man and her son and she is fully on board with the activities and the commitment of the men to their way of life, to their crimes. Unlike the Sopranos where the women appear to be complicit in their ignorance, passive in their participation and their victimhood but willing to spend the money. These women are drawn into the life, to the extent that the Jax’s “old lady”‘ Tara (Maggie Siff, who, as it happens, is one of Don Draper’s many in Mad Men) but in SOA is a doctor who taught largely by Katey Sagal’s matriarch Gemma, learns to threaten her boss, sell drugs and participate in a killing, albeit accidentally (nice cameo by Stephen King there by the way). Don’t get me wrong, the Sons aren’t without their sexism, their chapel, their work place, if you like, is men only, only men vote, but they do vote although they use women for pleasure like they use tissues. Even so when a relationship is established then there are rules, even if Ron Perlman is given the immortal line ‘She’s a chick, don’t complicate it!’
The women are complicated though, if they don’t like what the men are doing they say so, they challenge, run their own businesses, double cross and they die. The ATF detective, June Stahl played by Ally Walker may be a cliche, but her duplicitousness out ranks Iago (Shakespeare’s – Othello reference). SOA is not sentimental, much loved characters bite the bullet and much loved characters dish it out, leaving us little room to sympathise with them. Unlike Dexter where his code means that he kills only the deserving, or The Walking Dead where the zombies are dehumanised and can represent to us what we like, SAMCRO’s justification that they protect the lifestyle of Charming by seeing off drug lords and gang wears increasingly thin as the series and its characters descend into a film noir like spiral of things just getting worse and worse. Were it not for the Nazis and the white hate representatives it would be hard to find a group more reprehensible than SAMCRO. Although, in their defence, they are not racist and they run a good line in instant, and very satisfactory justice, along with providing meds to those who can’t afford it. In addition in the same way as Tony Soprano’s panic attacks hint at a decent man not entirely at peace with himself, Jax’s fascination with his father’s idealism in setting up Sons of Anarchy hints at a need for redemption. The original definition of anarchy, no doubt,had more to do with independence from the state than it did with the violence of living without the rule of law.
Through all of this Gemma Teller Morrow dominates the men and women of SAMCRO: sometimes she whispers like Lady Macbeth in the ear of her husband, sometimes she takes direct action, sometimes she refocuses all in the value of family, be it her own kith and kin or the chapter of Hell’s Angels.
Whether or not Sons of Anarchy has anything to do with the reality of being a Hell’s Angel, or whether it is liked or loathed by them, is not for me to say, but as a representation of men and women together in a tangle of sex and survival, family and faithful it moves the story on from women like Don Draper’s Joan, and the myth that an actress over forty can no longer hold a close up into the annals of media history where it should stay. I, for one, applaud Gemma Teller, although whether she and any of SAMCRO can be regarded as good role models is for another discussion.