In the early promo for the new season of Sons of Anarchy, the titular motorcycle club members and their loved ones fight an all-out brawl in slow motion. Jax (Charlie Hunnam) is front and center, pulling forward in the shot as his stepfather Clay (Ron Perlman) puts him in a chokehold. The dramatic image mirrors the show’s ongoing Hamlet-esque storyline, wherein Jax and Clay duke it out for power while each also grapples with his own troubled past.
“Straw”, Season Six’s premiere episode, delivers on the promise of this drama, by way of the usual propulsive action and bloody violence, as well as Kurt Sutter’s typically cutting dialogue. At the same time, though, SOA‘s mythology is becoming more nuanced, using already developed storylines about family tensions to refer to broader social issues, especially gun control and violence within communities.
As the new season begins, Jax offers an opening soliloquy as we watch a boy of 10 or 11 in a parochial school uniform. This silent, serious child is unknown to us, but he appears repeatedly during the episode, sitting on benches around the town of Charming, scenes intercut with those featuring Jax’s two boys, interacting with club members and coping with the absence of their mother. Tara (Maggie Siff), we recall, was hauled off to jail with great fanfare at the end of last season.
The images of Jax’s sons laughing and playing with gang members like Happy (David Labrava) serve as a backdrop for the show’s new exploration of the effects of violence. Sons of Anarchy has moved from asking whether a brutal criminal (for instance, Jax) can still be a moral person to asking whether his sons’ innocence might be salvaged, essentially because he wills it.
This central questions shapes the action in “Straw”, premiering 10 September. Whether we are trying to figure out why we see the unnamed boy over and over again or are waiting with bated breath as Tara attempts to survive in the violent dorms of county jail, we contemplate the fate of innocents. We’re invited to worry for Tara, whose anxiety is illustrated in close-up shots of her tearful eyes and half-lit night fight scenes, reminding us that she is essentially not of this biker world. The woman with whom Tara is most often contrasted, her mother-in-law Gemma (Katey Sagal), is notoriously rough and ready to fight, able to handle herself in any situation (as was illustrated by Season Two’s harrowing rape scenes). Tara, a pediatrician, appears here shrinking into her bunk instead of standing up for herself.
Such images raise questions about whether Jax and Tara’s relationship can endure the constant, club-related violence on which the series is so often focused. A brief scene where Lila (Winter Ave Zoli), the widow of Opie (Ryan Hurst) clings to Jax as the camera zooms in on her sobbing, “I want Opie, I want Opie,” reminds us that relationships are often destroyed by the incarceration or murder of club members.
This season, that trajectory takes the form of choices: Clay must decide whether he wants to face the same fate as Opie and Otto (Kurt Sutter) in prison or to sell out his brothers to save himself, while Nero (Jimmy Smits) ponders about the very different futures of his child, his escort business, and his cousin (Dave Navarro). Other choices haunt Tig (Kim Coates), whose daughter was murdered by a rival gang lord at the end of Season Five. When he confronts a Persian porn filmmaker, we learn how far Tig is willing to go in order to protect those he perceives as innocent.
All of these storylines are premised in the idea that humans are shaped by the structures that contain them. In previous seasons, Sutter had Jax quoting Emma Goldman and seeking ways to get the club out of the gun business. Viewers could hope that Jax, the type of romantic criminal seen only in outlaw fiction, would find a way to get his badass biker gang to pursue a life free of illegal activities. So far, no one, not even the charismatic and intelligent Jax Teller, has been able to resist the pull of the social institutions—families, clubhouses, and churches—in which they find themselves.
Disgruntled yet loyal club member Otto provides one of the most salient examples of the power of nurture over nature. Otto, who killed a nurse and then refused to testify during the last season, is sent to solitary confinement by his victim’s brother, former US Marshall Lee Toric (Donal Logue). Close ups of Otto’s anguished face suggest that not even an outlaw biker can withstand the crushing power of the legal system.
And yet Toric embodies another problem. When he taunts Clay—“You know why I was such a good lawman? I never gave a shit about justice”—we see that the upright lawman is also forged by violence, the desire for vengeance and the cruelty of punishment, as opposed to justice. No guard helps Tara when another inmate steals her blanket, but the guards overseeing Clay’s transfer to a dangerous cellblock are visibly excited by the prospect of his beating.
As we observe the dire state of the so-called justice system, we see how Sons of Anarchy has expanded its focus and its targets. The show doesn’t only deliver fast-paced action and fine performances, but also, increasingly, poses questions concerning responsibility. A couple of montages in this episode’s final 20 minutes specifically consider viewers’ part in violence, as our pleasure helps to sustain it.