Saturday, March 15, 2014

Violence is the solution - the dramatic devices of "Sons of Anarchy"

Warning: Mild spoilers for "Sons of Anarchy", seasons 1-3 and all seasons of "Breaking Bad" following. Strong spoilers will be marked. I have myself not viewed seasons 4 and up of SoA, so please refrain from spoilers in the comments and keep to general statements.

To state that violence is solving practically every plot of "Sons of Anarchy" seems like a bit of a redundant statement. It's about an extremely violent motorcycle club, after all, who makes a living by engaging in gun trafficking and whose idea of a good time is to shoot at rival gangs. While we follow the exploits of Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the protagonist of the show, we see multiple threats to the clubs, its members and their friends arise. There's also some in-fighting going on, especially between Jax and the gang leader, Clay (Ron Perlman). But while violence certainly isn't conspiciously absent from other TV shows, in "Sons of Anarchy", it's use a general solution for all problems extends the plots itself - which diminishes the artistic quality of the show drastically. 
Freedom seldom rides, though.

Comparing "Sons of Anarchy" to "Breaking Bad" is kind of a natural fit. Both screened in more or less the same time frame, both feature not exactly sympathetic main characters with a nack for violence, and both feature criminals going on their not exactly kid-friendly enterprises. In Walter White's case, this is cooking meth, in Jax Teller's case it's selling weapons to all the kinds of people who shouldn't have them. The difference, however, is how the show itself treats the violence, and here "Sons of Anarchy" falls considerably short. 
Say my name.
In "Breaking Bad", the violence to which its main characters resort fundamentally changes them. Walter White evolves into a nasty, dangerous human being, his own character flaws massively enhanced by the power over life and death he's starting to wield. In the end, everything that once could've been nice about him is gone, has made way for narcistic self-absorption and a capacity for quickly seeing insult everywhere coupled with a desire to avenge it. 
I stick a gun at your face!
"Sons of Anarchy" depicts a different environment, one in which such violence is not socially abhorable behavior but on the opposite socially required. Whenever Jax flinches to exert violence of the most brutal and swift kind, he's chided by his peers and loses standing with them. In the first half of the first season, this is presented with a good load of ambiguity. The Sons of Anarchy are bullying a small town in America to their own needs as a safe havens, engage in gun fights with their rival gang on the open street and impose their code of honor on everyone. As a consequence, many people suffer. The Sons aren't likeable in this part of the series. Their violence must have a recoiling effect on the audience, just like Walter White does later. What we see is a fascinating, yet ugly look inside a motorclub. But quickly, the show's creators chicken out.
First victim of the chickening-out: Gemma Teller.
The violence that the Sons use to end all conflicts (you can make a drinking game with every time someone mentions "retribution") starts to seep into the screenplays as well. Not only do the characters view violence as the solution to all their problems, the screen writers do too. The show quickly abandons its attempts at depicting a despicable yet somehow fascinating subset of society and opts instead to go from a character driven drama to a plot driven drama. In that respect, the comparison way more apt than "Breaking Bad" would be "The Walking Dead" or "Lost". In respect to its screenplays, "Sons of Anarchy" does have much more in common with these two shows than with "Breaking Bad". 
Let's solve the mystery of OH MY GOOD LOOK, TIME TRAVEL!
Whenever the plot hits a wall in "The Walking Dead", zombies uproot the group and reset everything. Whenever the plot hit a wall in "Lost", a new mystery was thrown at the group and the old one abandoned. And whenever the plot hits the wall in "Sons of Anarchy", they kill everyone involved, no questions asked. The similarity to "Breaking Bad", where Walter White also kills his enemies and therefore resolves long-standing plot problems, is only superficial. Let's look at two of the most striking examples.

Spoiler for Breaking Bad season 4/5 and Sons of Anarchy season 3/4 coming. New warning when spoiler is over.

When Walter White kills his arch-nemesis Gus Fring in season 4, this transforms him into the major kingpin. From this point on, everything he used as a justification to engage in drug trafficking is gone. He essentially has his freedom and enough money to make a cut. Not a ton of wealth, but enough. The trade also endangered everyone multiple times over, and his family is near total collapse. When he continues despite this, he is deeply changed (such memorable quotes as "I won" and "I am the one who knocks" come from this development era of Walter White). 

When, on the other hand, Agent Stahl reveals Jax's deal to rat out the IRA, they murder her in cold blood and conveniently destroy all evidence in their simultaneous killing of their enemy Jimmy and a buttload of earlier crimes. This solves all of their problems and allows the show to just jump ahead 14 months into the start of season 4, where supposedly a new enemy will threaten them. Like with the mopping up of the Neonazis in season 2, everything is resetted to the status quo.

Spoiler over.

The Sons of Anarchy at the beginning of season 4 are exactly the same as in the beginning of season 1, with only the mildest character development having taken place (most notably the softening of characters that could be seen as too repelling for the audience or that were needed for plot reasons, such as Gemma, Tara and Alvarez). In contrast to "Breaking Bad", killing people does not pull the Sons deeper and deeper into horseshit and continually blocks their way back into society, but instead just solves their problems. Despite the unbelievably high body count they are raking up (especially in season 3), there are no consequences. For a group so inapt at long-term planning (this inaptitude is a major plot point over and over again and fits totally with the nature of the club and the social rules and hierarchy displayed), it's astonishing that the blood trail is never ever followed up. 
This man kills more people than Oldboy.
It also incredible that killing so many people, among them officers of the law, doesn't make them more repellent in the eyes of the viewership or everyone else associated with them. This is achieved by the cheapest tricks from the book: although the Sons of Anarchy are a repellent bunch of violent assholes prone to violence, the main characters are never in serious danger and their enemies are simply just so much worse. This gets to the point of caricature. Whether their enemies rape the wife of a Son or whether Agent Stahl puts Frank Underwood to shame in her totally unbelievable acts of gruesome crime for her own career advancement, they are always so clearly and purely evil that the Son's own brand of lynching justice seems like justified and will recieve a satisfied and acclaiming reaction by the audience. And that, my friends, is just cheap appealing to the smalles common demoninator. It's bad writing and bad television. Violence shouldn't be a solution. It should be a deliberately used element of storytelling. This is where "Sons of Anarchy" fails miserably, and where "Breaking Bad" succeeded.

8 comments:

  1. Have you seen The Shield? SoA creator Kurt Sutter came from that show. I'd be interested in reading a comparison between SoA (which I haven't seen) and that show, in particular regarding Vic Mackey's use of violence and occasionally murder to get out of jams. (My opinion is that The Shield handled it well, that there were serious consequences for Vic, though they were very delayed.)

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    1. See here:
      http://thenerdstreamera.blogspot.de/2012/09/series-i-stopped-watching.html

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  2. Heartsbane of HornhillMarch 17, 2014 at 12:45 PM

    Hey lets face it, a lot of shows are going to fall short of breaking bad. Doesnt mean they cant be entertaining.
    As much as Sutter uses violence like the dry erase board eraser at the end of the year, at least he attempts to set up a feasible reason behind the plot moving forward.
    The DEA/FBI/ATF seem to constantly cut corners or "be dirty" particularly Stahl. That and the constant "we'll offer you a deal to sell out..." seem to be the loophole Sutter always uses.
    At times I miss the Hamlet-like plot, but those Jax introspective journal sessions with his dad were a bit much.
    The things this show excells at are when the club is just hanging out partying, or having "church/votes"
    Most Gemma scenes she is pretty great in this role.
    And one of the things I wish they did more of, the peeks into an MC, Patch Overs, the rules, their rides for charity, and the other MC specific stuff Im forgetting .
    Also the endless chases are a guilty pleasure, even if they have a highly successful survival rate for Motor Cycle crashes.
    Dont forget, they're just a group of Harley enthusiasts with a garage/clubhouse.

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    1. Heartsbane of HornhillMarch 17, 2014 at 12:48 PM

      Also they have good music.

      Oh and I forgot to mention, good article/topic.

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    2. Stahl was where the series really lost me. It was just way too much. Belfast was already pretty unbelievable (I mean it's the UK not the Wild West), but that stuff...just stupid. And even more insulting, that absolutely chicken "Oh, didn't I tell you, we just had a vote on it" to avoid bowing to their own rules. The club gets totally unbelievable as a gang.
      I also like the scenes you mention (though Gemma is a bit white-washed by now), but they don't really excuse those stupid scenes they tend to call "plot" anymore.

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    3. Heartsbane of HornhillMarch 17, 2014 at 4:48 PM

      Its really strange you posted this, im at the end of season 4 and Tigg is about to visit the 9ers because "this is on me"
      Thats another tool they use alot.

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    4. Heartsbane of HornhillMarch 17, 2014 at 5:03 PM

      Also the "im getting out after this one last thing"

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  3. I've got another: "I've got to protect this family."

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