If you are reading this blog, chances are you are either a fan of Sons of Anarchy or the show has peaked your interest in some fashion. Those less familiar with the show may have a basic understanding that the plot revolves around a motorcycle gang from California, and may assume that violence and corruption are the major themes in the series. However, the first episode of Sons of Anarchy showed viewers that the series will have depth and character development, in addition to portraying the rebellious antics of a respected and sometimes feared gang.
Before delving into the content of the first episode, I want to provide readers with a brief history of the “motorcycle gangs” that Sons of Anarchy seemingly embodies. In 1901, George Hendee (a former bicycle-racing champion) and Oscar Hedstrom (a bicycle designer/fabricator) founded the Indian Motorcycle Company and began selling the first motorized bicycles to the general public. Two years later marked the inception of the Harley-Davidson Company, and also the very first motorcycle club- the New York Motorcycle Club. The motorcycle clubs in the early 1900s were concerned with issues such as safe riding and improving road conditions for all riders. It wasn’t until approximately 1945 that “outlaw” motorcycle clubs began to surface. During these years, thousands of young men were returning back to the United States after World War II, and many of them were riddled with after-effects such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In an attempt to find solace with individuals who were engaged in the same catastrophes and horrific experiences, many veterans formed brotherhoods and rode motorcycles as a “leisure” activity to help integrate them back into a “normal” society. However, by law, only motorcyclists and motorcycle clubs registered with the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) could race motorcycles. Many of these war veterans were not registered and had no desire to register, leading the majority to form their own groups and race outside of AMA jurisdiction. Groups such as the “Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington” (POBOB) and the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club were formed, and such groups rejected the charter of the AMA while formulating their own set of rules.
After the Vietnam War, the term “one percenters” began to gain traction with motorcycle gangs. The “one percenters” used a diamond-shaped symbol to denote their status and established geographic boundaries- especially in California- where each motorcycle club would operate independently. The concept of “one percenters” allegedly still exists among motorcycle groups today, and has a direct correlation to the fictional gang portrayed in the Sons of Anarchy.
In the opening scenes of the pilot episode, the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Chapter (hereby referred to as SAMCRO) receives confirmation that their warehouse storing illegal firearms was destroyed by the Mayans, a rival Mexican gang. Immediately, it is clear to viewers that the Mayans “invasion on SAMCRO territory” could be construed as a potential action that solicits a “turf war.” To connect the fiction with the non-fiction for a moment, there is an implication that SAMCRO territory is a known commodity among those in the surrounding areas (including rival gangs) and that specific territory was likely dictated by a higher power (i.e. “one percenters”) in the gang world. The pilot episode does not shed any immediate light on how exactly the city of Charming, California became SAMCRO territory, but the implication is certainly made that no one conducts business in the city without approval from SAMCRO. The theme of territorial control continues throughout the episode when Clay (the leader of SAMCRO) visits with a representative of the 1-9er’s, a gang who was expected to the beneficiary of the illegal weapons before the Mayans purged them. Clay insists that the meeting with the 1-9er’s happens on “their territory”, with the implication that such an action is a "show of good faith" while also keeping the 1-9er’s representative within his comfort zone. Territorial control is a theme through the final sequence of the episode, when SAMCRO discusses ways to invade the Mayans territory and retain their stolen weapons. It is evident that a misstep or leaving trace evidence reverting back to SAMCRO could have the potential to cause a gang war. Despite the feelings of unhappiness and disdain towards the Mayans, this was not a path that SAMCRO wished to walk down. At the conclusion, SAMCRO invades the Mayans warehouse and takes back their weapons, leaving the warehouse torched and killing any Mayan security presence. The destroying of any potential evidence linking SAMCRO to the Mayan warehouse is a matter of personal protection and territorial protection. Without concrete evidence, one gang is not likely to retaliate against another gang because of the complicated implications that could arise.
As I mentioned earlier in the post, viewers who are unfamiliar with Sons of Anarchy may assume that the show is based solely on the outlaw behaviors of a motorcycle gang. However, even the first episode provides insights into family and brotherhood that may even overshadow the violence and corruption as the season continues. Viewers are introduced to Jax, the right-hand man to Clay and son of the deceased John Tulley (who founded SAMCRO). Jax discovers some old materials that belonged to his father, including a memoir that he wrote entitled "The Rise and Fall of SAMCRO." This discovery sets off an internal struggle that viewers are immediately thrust inside of. On one hand, it is evident that Jax wants to embody the motorcycle club that his father helped create, but on the other hand it is also apparent that the club his father founded may have different norms than the present one. It seems as though Jax's father was hoping to establish a club based on 1900s values with brotherhood and togetherness at the forefront. However, the current SAMCRO has more post-Vietnam values in terms of becoming involved with weapons, drugs and smuggling. Jax tips his cap as to which direction he is leaning a couple times in the first episode. The first time is when SAMCRO is heading to the Mayans warehouse, and Jax recommends that Opie (an explosions expert recently released from prison) stay home with his family instead of coming with the group. In that instant, Jax was looking out for his "brother" Opie, whose wife was less than enthralled at Opie's alignment with SAMCRO. Jax chose to give Opie a "get out of jail free card" instead of forcing him on the mission, even though his absence would upset Clay. The second instance where Jax chooses a path less-violent is when SAMCRO is taking back their weapons at the Mayan warehouse. Jax had taken one of the Mayan's prisoner and Clay told Jax to "finish him" by shooting him in the head. Jax hesitates at this request, and only obliges out of reaction once he is shot by another member of the Mayan gang. Jax's values- even after just one episode-appear to be different from some of the other members of SAMCRO, who appear to shed no tears when shedding the blood of others.
Throughout the episode, we also learn that Jax has an ex-wife (Wendy) who is pregnant with their child:
Wendy is portrayed by Drea de Matteo in the show, and in the first episode the audience learns that Wendy has a drug problem, including taking drugs while being pregnant with her and Jax's baby. Drea de Matteo portraying a woman married (or in this case- formerly married) to a man involved with organized crime is not a unique roll for her. de Matteo played Adriana La Cerva in The Sopranos where she was the wife of Christopher Moltisanti, the protege of Tony Soprano:
Just as Christopher Moltisanti was expected to take over the crime operations in The Sopranos once Tony Soprano retired, it is already evident in the first episode that Jax is the heir apparent to SAMCRO once Clay is no longer able to serve the role. It will be fascinating to see how de Matteo's relationship with Jax compares to the marriage she had with Christopher on The Sopranos.
As the first episode begins to wrap up, Wendy is brought to the hospital because she is found at home unconscious. The drugs that she has been taking forced the doctors into an emergency operation to remove the baby. While the baby ends up surviving, he (named Abel) is born ten weeks premature and has a deformity in his heart and stomach. The relationships between Jax and Wendy will be something to keep an eye on as the series carries on. Will they reconnect over their new son, or will they continue to remain separate and distant? We will have to wait for episode two and beyond....
* The information regarding the history of motorcycle gangs can be credited to William Dulaney and his article "A Brief History of Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs" in the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies