Warning: spoilers below.
I settled in to binge on Sons of Anarchy (FX) the day after running across critic Carrie Rickey's "Ratpacks and Pack Males" in the Library of America's American Movie Critics anthology. The essay offers a kind of psychic floor plan to a space—a clangorous clubhouse, a ripe man cave, a refuge in an existential Guyville—inhabited by in a certain kind of man in a certain kind of film. Rickey begins with a question: "The history of American movies is in part the history of guys running in gangs, in wolfpacks and in posses searching for ... just what, exactly?" She wends her way to understanding the characters as having undertaken accidental quests: "From The Wild Bunch to Road Trip, men-in-packs sagas are almost inevitably about the death of a masculine ethos. ... Each of the men who once were eager initiates of these fraternities sees that his invincible mentor is all too vincible. ... Each must, in the way of all myth, blaze his own path."
This is a fine note to have sounding in the mind when cozying up to a biker-gang drama, particularly one as instinctively and ruggedly myth-milking as Sons of Anarchy, which just wrapped up its third season. The show's setting is a kind of half-settled frontier, a parched subzone of contemporary Northern California where the codes of the cities do not apply and where black leather and white pickets complement each other nicely, sometimes. The gang—the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original Chapter, acronymed as SAMCRO, known as "Sam Crow" in dialogue that is largely free of showy outlaw jargon or simulated thugspeak—operates out of a small town called Charming.
There, its members beefily occupy a clubhouse adjacent to an auto-body shop. With their recreational hell-raising largely confined to circle-of-lust stuff, they reserve their energies for running guns, running protection rackets, running off meth dealers, and enjoying run-ins with a broad selections of other dude collections, the cultural diversity of which is a great tribute to America. There are black gangs and Mexican gangs, mobsters from China and from Italy, and white supremacists ranging in shade from old lace to eggshell. Alive above their Harleys, the members of the SAMCRO crew are alone together on the range. They don't represent the hidden underbelly of a small-town community; they're the community itself.
The hero and thirtysomething hunk and troubled conscience of the series is Jax Teller (played by Charlie Hunnam), the chapter's vice-president. SoA's creator, Kurt Sutter, has let on that Jax exists on the model of Hamlet, a statement it is largely safe to disregard. The show makes no obvious efforts to take the highbrow road, and its excursions down the low one come naturally. Neither pretentiously literary nor panderingly pulpy, SoA aims straight down the middle and delivers elemental entertainment. With the outright comic violence and upfront cleverness of, say, the Coen brothers informing the show's sensibility only slightly, its crime fiction cleanses the palate. It's tidy.
In some ways, yes, Jax does have the makeup of a melancholy prince. His mind, like a teenager's bed, is rarely made up properly. Is the biker's life really for him? If so, should SAMCRO actually resemble the quasi-utopian endless-summer-of-love project co-founded by his late father? Or does reality dictate that he continue it as the criminal enterprise of which his mother (Katey Sagal), now remarried to the chapter's president, approves? He strokes his sandy goatee, thinks about blazing his own path, decides that loyalty to his attendant lords outweighs his duty to himself, tries to dither, gets pulled back in. He spent much of this third season trying to recover his infant son, the victim of a revenge kidnapping, from the clutches of an offshoot of the IRA. He tracked the kid down in Belfast. He decided that it would be best to let the boy be raised by people whose lifestyles do not involve meth-lab explosions and porn-studio arson. Then the baddies offed the adoptive parents, and the plot twisted twice more, and the body count ticked higher. Jax was left holding his son in arms and reluctant to do much else.
Sons of Anarchy proceeds with a gruff hush. Threats are growled lowly, with Ron Perlman, who plays the chapter's president, setting the standard for menace by beaming a deep stare from shallow eyes. Secrets and silences hold the stories together. Most every episode finds at least one character doing another the favor of shutting up about something or other, lying by omission. A go-to plot device finds secrets confided and ad hoc alliances formed ... and betrayal following as if with Swiss-engineered timing. The device is overworked. Things are set up such that it must be. Ambivalent about the psychology of the pack, Sons of Anarchy exists to ask whether honor among thieves is or is not to be.