Or: Soaps for Generation X
It’s time for us to face the music: we have our soap operas, our evening dramas, and we’ve hidden behind anarchy. We want to see our sordid stories, extrapolating some sort of meaningfulness from television serials into our own boredom, except with cool tattoos, seedy New Jersey streets, martinis in Manhattan, guns, and sex. Lots of sex.
Nachmu has just gotten around to Sons of Anarchy, and I’m captivated by the characters and plot. Echoing in my head, though, when the growl of the acoustic guitar over the steady bass line brings in the first stanza of the theme song, “Ride into this world,” is the clarion call of my own childhood, of Dad throwing us all out of the living room when that trumpet began to sound. That’s right, “Ride into this world” makes me hear the theme for Dallas. “Dad is watching his stories; don’t bother him.”
Some people have tried to write about the deeper meanings and significances of The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Rescue Me, Sons of Anarchy, and what is surely to become a host of facsimiles, duplicates, and imitations, but there isn’t any deeper meaning. It’s just not there, and cultural commentators writing about these shows are like miners mining for gold where only pyrite can be found.
Indeed, dear Nachmu, why the sanctimony? Why the lecture?
Well, I’m eleven episodes into Sons of Anarchy, eight episodes into The Sopranos (I’m a little behind, I know), and I can’t wait for the next episode of each series. I watch them in chunks, devouring them like so many McDonalds french fries, so good and so bad. What am I anticipating? Well, first, let me describe what I’m no longer anticipating.
I was told that Sons of Anarchy was some sort of analog to The Godfather, the creation of yet another antihero which explores the tribal instinct of family and honor versus superimposed mass culture. Which of the two yields true unity? Which of the two, after sacrificing for the one, results in spiritual health? Et. c. To be sure, Opie has made the ultimate sacrifice, losing his wife by the hand of his own companions, to whom he is loyal through the very greatest test, and if I hear one more lecture about “the club” and how “it has made me who I am,” and “it’s the only thing I know,” I’m going to puke.
Truly, truly, I say to you, I am transfixed by what Gemma is going to next do to Wendy and how the Nordics are going to do to respond to the treachery of One-Niners, and whether the stupid Mayans can figure out if Clay was the betrayer, and all the other story lines developing along. It’s a soap opera! And I love their nifty motorcycles.
Oh, and what’s going to happen to David, the Deputy Chief? He’s betrayed his badge for his conscience! That’s right! Law enforcement is baaaaaaaad. Motorcycles, goooooooooood. But they are so cool. And I totally dig Hellboy as Clay. Seriously.
The comparison to The Godather and other classic antihero films bears a serious rejoinder. For the most part, critics and fans have The Godfather wrong. It is not a glorification of the life of the Italian Mafia. After watching the first two parts (they made Part III so that there could never actually be a Part III, you see), and being entranced by them many times, I have never once said to myself, “Gosh, I wish I could be in the Italian Mafia.”
I know others do, but they’re flat wrong to take to heart the story of Michael Corleone (or worse, Tony Montana) to idealize or romanticize it into their own self-image. It seems to me that the film teaches us, beautifully, that the infrastructure of a family is easily destroyed without the superstructure of a shared mass culture. Michael has killed or otherwise destroyed all his enemies, leaving him with, literally, fading memories of a family that was not entirely happy to begin with. It began in violence and ended in violence, with violence penetrating deeply and constantly, which breeds fear and distrust. This theme permeates both movies.
“I love America,” says “Goodnight” Bonasera, speaking against a justice that can be found in the idealization of American culture but not in the actual American experience, which is an important critique for the viewer to consider, especially in light of certain painful realities of the character of America. Even so, is the ideal alternative somehow in Don Corleone? Does the movie actually make that case?
Therefore, I believe all the American flags in Sons of Anarchy are out of place as an ironic symbol. I keep cringing at some of the attempted symbolism and imagery, allusions to corrupt rights, and I especially reject the apologetics for the utopian worldviews of the founders of the motorcycle club, as though they lost their way, got turned from the good and righteous path they were on, as though the raw energy of revolution got its front wheel caught in a rut of anger. No, they were criminals. The anti-American thing, the anti-Western Values thing is just so much chaff for evil men; the Sons of Anarchy were criminals in their hearts from the very beginning.
Finally, in truth, what kills the project of Kurt Sutter for me is Opie: Opie’s character is simply not believable. His beard is spectacular, but I am hard to convince that an ex-felon with a love for explosives is a sweet, gentle bear, soft-spoken and conscientious. When Jax makes the case for the righteousness of the club, I can suspend disbelief. When Opie does it, I can’t. It’s that simple. Sutter works too hard to sell the premise of a parallel morality.
All in all, however, the show is well-written, the performances are captivating (even Opie’s), the characters are interesting, and I can’t wait for time to watch more episodes. I can hear my kids now, rolling over in their beds, disturbed from early slumber by the first strains of the theme song, “Ride into this world,” saying to themselves, “Dad’s watching his stories again!”