Sifting the Stream
Whatever else Sons of Anarchy is — funny, violent, beautifully scripted — it is first and foremost a show about what it is like to live in a world without grace, a world where the law reigns and the Gospel is in short supply.
Many of the show’s fans have come to refer to it lovingly as “Hamlet on Harleys,” and with good reason. The show centers around a fictional motorcycle club that makes its home in a northern California town ironically named Charming. The show’s central protagonist is Jax Teller, played by Charlie Hunnam. Jax is the young, up-and-coming son of one of the club’s original founders who died under mysterious circumstances when Jax was just a boy. His father’s best friend, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), has taken over the club and married Jax’s mother, Gemma (Katy Sagal). Jax discovers a manuscript by his dead father that reveals his father’s original intent for the club was, in Jax’s words, to be “less outlaw and more hippy.” It also reveals his father’s dark suspicions that he was about to be murdered. As the relationships between the characters become more complex, the bodies begin to drop.
Sons is action packed and brutally violent, but at its heart it is a show about family. The men who join SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original) are searching for a kind of bond in brotherhood that is worth living and dying for. These characters are hard, aggressive, and dangerous, yet they routinely hug and kiss each other, telling each other how much they love each other. They run guns and prostitutes, but they also care for their wives and children, put on large charity events, stand up for the weak against bullies, and do their best to keep the streets of their own town clean.
The world of SAMCRO is highly moralistic. Despite the fact that the club members are outlaws, they live by a strict code of conduct. There are rules for everything, both written and unwritten. There are strict guidelines for how members are to relate to one another, how to express loyalty, how to interact with people outside of the club and law enforcement, and how to go about exacting justice and revenge. As the show’s creator Kurt Sutter described it in an interview on the podcast Monsters of Talk in 2013, “I love the irony of, ‘We’re in this because we’re anarchists and we’re rebels and we don’t want to live by your rules,’ but here’s a thousand more rules that you have to live by to be part of us.’”
Just as the law of the Old Testament provided stability and a sense of common identity to the people of Israel, the heavy moral code of the Sons gives them a sense of clarity about how to live and be in the world. And just as the law ultimately crushed the Israelites when they discovered they could not fulfill its demands, so too does the heavy weight of the SAMCRO ideal crush the men who live under it and those who are connected to them.
Every character on Sons is idealistic, but their ideals always seem just beyond their reach. Jax desperately wants to get SAMCRO out of the gun running business and into legitimate enterprises, yet the only way he knows how to do that is through the spilling of blood, which invariably brings the club further into the very darkness he is trying to escape. Gemma idolizes her young grandchildren and vows to do anything to protect them, yet she repeatedly harms them by exposing them to the rough underbelly of lies and manipulation through which she has attempted to build a life for them. Even Clay is motivated originally by his desire to see Charming protected from harm and his desire to provide a good retirement for his family, though this desire eventually morphs into greed and a willingness to cross almost any line to secure his future. This is what makes Sons compellingly tragic, the mixture of nobility and depravity that haunts each character, a mixture that lives in every human heart this side of the fall.
God is also an important character in Sons, influencing the other characters through his absence almost to the same degree as Jax’s dead father. Gemma’s father was some kind of pastor, yet the difficulty of her childhood makes it hard for her to embrace the notion that God is real. Throughout the series she tries repeatedly to find God and make some peace, but she can never quite get there. She is fascinated by the faith of others she meets, perhaps even envious of them, but she is never able to fully hang onto the hope that God might care about her.
Jax shows no particular interest in God, but Sutter’s intention to paint him as a pseudo-Christ figure becomes more and more pronounced throughout the show’s seven seasons, even to the point that he is sometimes placed in cruciform poses. He is followed throughout the series by a mysterious young homeless woman whose true identity is never fully revealed — Guardian angel? Spirit guide? In the last episode, she offers Jax her cloak as a kind of baptism for his final mission, which will involve a great deal of bloodshed. After they walk away, the camera spends a long time paused on an image of what the homeless woman was eating, stale bread and cheap red wine, arranged to look as eucharistic as possible.
Despite this imagery, what is missing from the world of Sons is the grace of the Cross. There is no forgiveness and no mercy. When someone screws up, they have to pay for it or make someone else pay. When the club is hit, they hit back, always trying to balance a scorecard that never comes out right. To be sure, there is love and sacrifice in Sons, but the sacrifices never seem to achieve their desired ends. No character’s sacrifice is big enough and clean enough to settle all the scores.
What Sons paints larger than life is the struggle of the sinner’s heart. It is a struggle that is familiar to all of us, even though most of us will never know life in the specific niche that Sons depicts. We are made in the image and likeness of God, which is why our hearts yearn for the perfection of love in our lives. But the brokenness that we have inherited makes achieving that love impossible by our own efforts. As Saint Paul puts it, “I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead, and he shouldn’t have done it,” says the outlaw killer known as The Misfit towards the end of Flannery O’Connor’s story A Good Man is Hard to Find.
He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can — by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.
Jax Teller could have said the same thing. The horror of our sinfulness lives deep in our bones, haunting and compelling us to act against our own deepest desires, yet the love of God shown in Christ is such that not even our darkest moment need separate us for even a second from God’s affection and mercy.
Much like the writing of Flannery O’Connor, Sons of Anarchy points to the mercy of God by depicting a world that is unaware of it. By showing so clearly each character’s desire for the good and inability to grasp it, Sutter has — perhaps inadvertently — posed a question for which there can ultimately be only one answer. If we are made for perfection but unable to achieve it, the only remedy is for someone else to achieve it for us and give it to us as a gift. This is precisely what Jesus does when he died for us on the Cross, erasing all the scorecards and thereby setting us free. The Gospel is the fulfillment of the true outlaw dream, that all the rules, regulations, and personal inadequacies would disappear, and we can ride free into an endless horizon.
Fr. Jonathan Mitchican’s other posts may be found here.