Volume 6, Issue 1: Fall 2010
Sons of Anarchy, Season One (2008)
Twentieth Century Fox, 2009
Lady Macbeth as Hamlet’s Mother: Sons of Anarchy, Season One
John M. Withers IV
Season One of Sons of Anarchy (SOA) captured the attention of riders and non-riders alike on the FX network (2008) and again on DVD. Similar to other chopper opera movies and TV shows, like the previous Canadian series The Last Chapter (2005), SOA draws heavily on common biker images and stereotypes. One thing that sets SOA apart is its use of a strong female character throughout the first season. In addition to the booze, bikes, babes, and brawn showcased in every episode, the character Gemma Teller Morrow (Katey Segal) engages in her own machinations to further her gang-leader husband’s goals on occasion in a manner that would make Lady Macbeth proud. Additionally, Gemma’s relative position within the gang—wife to the leader and mother to the main characters Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and Clay Morrow (Ron Pearlman)—further allies it with Hamlet. Her strong, female character sets SOA apart from the pack, giving this chopper opera a Shakespearean resonance with a Harley-Davidson rumble
Sons of Anarchy is not the first television series to feature motorcycles. But SOA can be distinguished from Then Came Bronson (1969-1970), CHiPs (1977-1983), Street Hawk (1985), and Renegade (1992-1997) because each of these previous American television shows presented the biker as the clear hero. Bronson featured Michael Parks in the titular role, drifting across America on his Harley Sportster while helping people in episode after episode. CHiPs followed a pair of California Highway Patrol officers astride motorcycles as the motorist-friendly good guys. Street Hawk and Renegade both took the Good Samaritan hero of Bronson and changed him into a pseudo-cop on a motorcycle, a vigilante operating on the periphery of the legal system. Street Hawk was a one-season action show that featured a sci-fi version of a Honda dirt bike, similar to K.I.T.T. from the more popular series Knight Rider (1982). Renegade introduced a little ambiguity by following a former cop, charged with murder, on the run working as a bounty hunter. Again he was helping people and catching the bad guys, and the introduction to the show clearly stated he had been wrongfully accused of a crime he did not commit. Each of these iterations shares the common trait of featuring the biker as hero that SOA confounds.
Sons of Anarchy presents a darker American television outlaw character by centering on a gun-running gang of bikers. Not completely divorced from the idea of the good biker, the series features Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), a young biker who is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the lifestyle of the gang. His dissatisfaction is compounded by the birth of his son and his discovery of his father’s unpublished book, which reveals another purpose had been intended for the club. Jax Teller is surrounded by a cast of other gang members who embrace different aspects of the biker lifestyle, such as Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), who does not want their world to change.
Sons of Anarchy can easily be compared to the Canadian TV show The Last Chapter because it, too, centered on an outlaw biker gang. Now available on DVD, The Last Chapter lasted two short seasons on Canadian television. It focused on the illicit motorcycle world of the fictional Triple Sixers gang during their expansion across Canada. Similarly, the fictional gangs of both shows are involved in illegal activities, instead of the pseudo-cop role of so many previous shows. At the core of The Last Chapter was Bob Durrelle (Michael Ironside) who changed patches at the beginning of the show to become a Sixer with the intent of expanding his own business and inflating his own profits. Durrelle’s concept of brotherhood stops at his quest for self-profit, which places him conflict with members of the gang that he left and the gang that he joined. The show did feature contemplative characters questioning the outlaw lifestyle. However, these characters were not at the core of the show as is Sons of Anarchy’s Jax Teller.
Another primary difference between Sons of Anarchy and other cycle shows is the prominence of female characters. Both SOA and The Last Chapter feature women in background roles, such as the gang leader’s wives. Bob Durrelle’s wife, however, is an unwilling participant who tries to escape the lifestyle and resist what her husband is doing to gain his wealth. By contrast, SOA’s Gemma seems wholly committed to the illicit club lifestyle, discussing plans, and encouraging the men in her life. Previous non-outlaw cycle shows, Street Hawk and Renegade, had women in the supporting cast. However, their prominence was questionable. While they helped get the main characters out of a jam, they were clearly separated from the central plot line of their respective television shows. These other shows did not have a prominent, willing character like Gemma.
By contrast, Gemma appears in every episode, working within the plot of the show as a forceful character. Gemma is the wife of Clay, the club’s leader, and is often privy to his plans as well as his secrets. She knows that Clay is suffering from arthritis and that he may soon lose control of the gang when he can no longer ride his bike or throw an effective punch. Gemma is not passed around sexually like Cherry, who is introduced mid-season, but instead she is an “old lady,” a dedicated wife within the gang and within the biker community. She plays shepherdess to the other women of the gang, organizing events within the community and controlling the women’s actions. Gemma is not a weeping woman, but instead is a strong force. In one episode, she even takes drugs to another member in the hospital and tries to convince her to overdose, advancing Gemma’s own plan to safeguard her family without involving her son or husband. Gemma is willing to kill to protect her family when she thinks she knows what is best, confronting the authorities and any threat that may come to town. In Season One, Gemma is a force within the show as much as any of the male characters, including Clay and Jax.
Gemma is not a throw-away character like so many of the underdeveloped biker film vixens that seemingly exist just to be women on motorcycles. Instead, she is a central part of Sons of Anarchy, with her own story and purpose. While much has been revealed about Gemma within the first season, her backstory and full history has not yet been explored. She is an aging woman holding onto her way of life. She struggles with aging and menopause. At times, she appears confident and in charge, while at other times she is jealous enough to attack a younger woman with a skateboard. Gemma says she is a survivor, although Season One barely explains what that means. She often wears low-cut shirts that not only reveal her cleavage and a tattoo, but also a long scar from an alluded to heart surgery. Season Two captures Gemma’s survival spirit and self-determination as she is swept up in the war between the SOA and a new threat in town.
In fact, Gemma’s position within the biker ranks may be described as Shakespearean. Echoes of Hamlet ring throughout the first season. Not only is Gemma in the Gertrude role of marrying a “brother” to her dead husband but she is also the mother of a questioning son. She is currently married to Clay, but this is her second marriage. Her first husband was John Teller, only pictured in photographs in Season One, a co-founder of the motorcycle gang and Jax’s father. After the death of her husband, Gemma married Clay, another co-founder of the club. Not quite kings, Clay and John operated the Teller-Morrow garage together. Inside the club, they should both be royalty. However, John is dead and Clay is now in charge. Within the first season, as Jax reads his father’s manuscript, he comes to realize that his father had a different vision in mind for the club than Clay’s. Jax does not realize how disapproving Gemma and Clay were of John Teller, although it is revealed to the audience as the couple discusses the newly found memoirs. Jax is left to reflect on his own path at the end of the first season.
If Gemma resembles Gertrude from Hamlet, she also has resonances of Lady Macbeth: she is looking out for herself. Gemma’s role in John Teller’s death is not fully resolved in Sons of Anarchy; however, Gemma’s manipulation of other characters to further her own goals is abundantly clear. She supports her ailing second husband and encourages him to do what he thinks needs to be done to further their own security. However, unlike Lady Macbeth, Gemma also pushes her son to further her own security. Gemma is grooming Jax to be the next leader of the gang, so that even after Clay falls from power, her position will be cemented.
The merging of Shakespearean female characters and outlaws makes Sons of Anarchy a more complex television show than most of the cycle shows broadcast to date. It is less episodic because SOA’s plot arcs from episode to episode throughout the entire season with ramifications into the next season. The long reaching plots are more theatrical than late night drive-in entertainment; the simple plots of Wild Angels (1966) and Rebel Rousers (1970) are more akin to the easily recapped episodic plots of Renegade than Shakespeare’s plays. In SOA’s more complicated roles the bikers are not complete villains, as in Undertaker and His Pals (1966), or the heroes, as in Chrome Soldiers (1992), but instead are a mixture of both. Unlike the pseudo-cops on motorcycles that had been on American TV, they are unapologetically gun-running motorcycle club. However, when a carnival clown abducts a young girl, her parents turn to the bikers to mete out justice. The bikers serve as detectives throughout the episode, not to bring villains to justice as Reno Raines (Lorenzo Lamas) of Renegade would have, but to use their good deed for potential blackmail in later episodes. When Jax’s estranged wife is doing drugs while pregnant, he feels justified in turning a broken pool cue into a shish kabob in the drug dealer’s groin. Even when the brotherhood of SOA is sponsoring charity fund raisers and helping the police, they are always ruled by their own inner machinations and greedy plots. Still the audience is expected to root for the bikers against the federal agents and outside gangs trying to move in on the biker’s town. The line between right and wrong is blurred.
Critics of Sons of Anarchy will nonetheless argue that the show offers stereotypical biker images that do not reflect the entirety or the complexity of the modern motorcycle riding community. SOA is clearly focusing on the subgroup that the American Motorcycle Association famously dubbed 1%ers. Many of the stereotypes presented within the SOA fall into the categories of the older biker films that were presenting themselves of ethnographies of the outlaw biker lifestyle, such as Devil’s Angels (1967), Hells Angels on Wheels (1967), and Hell’s Angels ’69 (1969). However, the inclusion of Shakespearean elements into the SOA chopper opera creates a more complex story line than most of the earlier drive-in biker flicks mustered. While some viewers will be turned off by the blatant outlaw stereotypes, violence, nudity, and profane language, others—riders and non-riders both—will revel in the complex way these ingredients are mixed together.
Another complaint that is often applied to motorcycle movies and television shows in generalis that the motorcycles receive very little attention. The DVD commentary track explains how different and individual the motorcycles are in Sons of Anarchy. However, they often appear at a glance to be black Harley Dynas, which have the potential onscreen to run together. SOA does include riding sequences and long columns of motorcycles in true drive-in biker movie fashion, but most of the action takes place away from the bikes, as it does in many biker films. Viewers who want to drool over the customized motorcycles have to keep a keen eye as they pass by in the background. The rich, character-driven nature of the show keeps the focus on the rider instead of the motorcycle. Although this may turn off some viewers, it seems a fitting choice given the complexity of the characters being presented.
Season One of Sons of Anarchy is not the first time that Shakespeare has been recycled on film or television. SOA is not the first to offer a glimpse into bikers on screen. However, it is the melding of Shakespearean characters with outlaw bikers that makes this series memorable. By the close of this series—the third season is airing in the FX fall 2010 lineup—the show may have reached violent enough proportions to earn comparisons to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, or perhaps Jax will stop being the questioning Hamlet in favor of becoming Henry V, or Clay will age into Richard III before his ultimate downfall. Viewers will have to watch and see.
CHiPs. Dir. Phil Bondelli, et al. Prod. Rick Rosner, et al. Warner Bros., 1977.
Chrome Soldiers. Dir. Thomas J. Wright. Prod. Derek Kavanagh. Wilshire Court Productions, 1992.
Devil’s Angels. Dir. Daniel Haller. Prod. Roger Corman. AIP, 1967.
Hell’s Angels on Wheels. Dir. Richard Rush. Prod. Joe Soloman. US Films Inc., 1967.
Hell’s Angels ’69. Dir. Lee Madden. Prod. Tom Stern. AIP, 1969.
The Last Chapter. Dir. Richard Roy. Prod. Claudio Luca. BFS Entertainment, 2005.
Sons of Anarchy. Season One. Dir. Kurt Sutter, et al. Prod. Kevin G. Ceremin, et al. Twentieth Century Fox, 2008.
Street Hawk. Dir. Virgel W. Vogel, et al. Prod. Burton Amus, et al. Universal TV, 1985.
Undertaker and His Pals. Dir. T.L.P. Swicegood. Prod. Alex Gratton. Eola Pictures, 1966.
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