A depressed prince, the heir apparent, returns to his home to find his widowed mother has taken up with his morally questionable "uncle." Haunted by the ghosts of his past, the prince is unable to make a decision regarding his fate and must ultimately die to escape his tortured existence – it's the storyline of one of the greatest TV dramas of the 2000s: Sons of Anarchy (S.O.A.). It's also the plot of Shakespeare's masterpiece Hamlet, of course. The centuries-old narrative accurately describes FX's Sons of Anarchy, and that's just what creator Kurt Sutter intended.
There are no new plot lines, according to many literary theorists, just recycled and reinvigorated versions of the same basic story. From Greek mythology through Shakespeare's canon and beyond, the tortured, fatherless prince is a tale as old as time.
Perhaps this is why S.O.A. resonates with audiences; it's part of the reason why Sons of Anarchy was great. On the surface, a darkly violent motorcycle gang runs guns, drugs, and sex workers. Underneath, there's a critically important exploration of white privilege, racism, and sexism in the package of a neo-American Western. The reasons Sons of Anarchy is super smart abound; you just have to dig a little beneath its rough-and-tumble exterior to find them.
One of the most beautifully frustrating things about the show's protagonist Jax Teller, played by Charlie Hunnam, is the warfare he constantly wages within himself – illustrated in the moments when he knows the morally righteous thing to do and submits to his baser instincts anyway, as well as in the scenes where he commits acts of violent retribution as part of some chivalric code that feels misguided, out of place in modern life. Jax is morally ambiguous; he does what's wrong when he knows what's right; he loves truly and deeply. He is not, to put it mildly, an uncomplicated hero.
In reality, Jax represents all of us, and it isn't always pretty. His morality is convenient and can be bought and sold in favor of self-serving pursuits. Jax is the best of the worst in a world he is consumed by, and maybe that's the best any of us can hope for. Jax is plagued by his own morality, just like his dead father, and he cannot rest until he answers for his sins. He wants to leave the life – to make something better for his heirs – but he cannot transcend his upbringing.
"When the time comes she needs to tell my sons who I really am. I’m not a good man. I’m a criminal and a killer. I need my sons to grow up hating the thought of me." - Jax
So much of Sons of Anarchy participates in the genre tradition of the American Western. Motorbikes stand in for horses. Jax, our prince, our anti-hero, our destined-to-die protagonist is a modern cowboy with white kicks and a motorcycle forever between his legs while he searches for answers about his father's mysterious death. Small groups wage ceaseless war against one another for turf and status. Vigilantism serves up justice and retribution. On the most overt level, the show is perversely misogynistic, as most Westerns tend to be. Members of SAMCRO run guns, drugs, and sex workers.
However, beneath its crusty, well-worn Western tropes, Sons of Anarchy also turns some of the expected tropes of the Western on their heads. For example, scholar Garrett Castlebury notes that in Season 2 of the show, Gemma Teller (Jax's mother) is gang raped by another local group in an act of retribution. This moment is tellingly complex; for, on the one hand, it's a scene of painful and unmistakable violence against a woman at the hands of a large group of men, and there's nothing new or innovative about that plot line. However, on the other hand, the group that attacks Gemma is comprised of local white supremacists – not Native Americans as it would be with the typical Western – a telling illustration of what mortal threat looks like in the contemporary US.
The majority of the sex in S.O.A. is casual and meaningless, and given the constant stream of sex scenes and extreme violence, most viewers become de-sensitized to the fever pitch of flesh on the show. Undoubtedly, some of the content involving sex is meant to be disturbing (see Gemma's Season 2 sexual assault as an example), but female submission is also expected in a world where women are akin to the other commodities the motorcycle club runs. Women, for the most part, are not allowed identities or sexual preferences other than being someone's 'old lady' or someone's wet dream.
However, this lack of agency and identity certainly cannot be used to describe Gemma and Tara, Jax's mother and old lady, respectively. In fact, there's an argument to be made about the show's real and prolonged interest in what a quietly unshakeable matriarchy looks like beneath the male bravado. Gemma might be the most terrifying (and is certainly the most formidable) character on the show. The two women do respectful battle throughout the majority of the series, and their actions and reactions are intrinsically tied to the decisions of the male characters. Moreover, it's not until we see girl-on-girl violence, or woman-on-woman violence, that the audience is shocked enough to chat about it at the water cooler for days to come. Gemma murdered Tara in a famously brutal scene in the show's final season (there really could only be one alpha), and the Internet blew-up.
What? Women are murdered and objectified by men everyday. What's this cognitive dissonance Sutter unleashes upon us when a woman is the killer?
Sometimes, a large cast can result in some pretty flat characters. Often, a gratuitous character is non-essential to the plot but makes for a more colorful story, so their flat, undeveloped wanderings go on much longer than they should in a show's run. Sutter, however, developed some pretty complex characters with unique motivations that both advanced the story and garnered legions of loyal fans.
Take Opie, for instance. Jax's best friend should have been a supporting character, but, instead, he was developed far beyond 'best friend' status, becoming one of the most memorable characters of the series. And it wasn't just Opie either (though his death was one of the most mourned on the series). Chibbs, Tig, Juice, Bobby, Half Sack, Unser, Nero – each of these was a complex, richly developed individual with many episodes devoted to building their psyches and backstories. This feature is certainly an edge the series has over Shakespeare's original.