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DVD Review: Sons of Anarchy – Season One – Motorcycles, Family, Blood, and Elvis Impersonators

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The outlaw lifestyle is always attractive to dip into and examine from a safe distance. There has to be more than pure sensationalism to draw you back for an entire TV season of the thing, though. Sons of Anarchy has that. To sum it up very succinctly this is a biker world with Shakespearean overtones.

What that means is that despite the motorcycles and the bikers and the various nefarious activities they get up to, the central core and themes deal with the more personal aspects of family and extended family and the politics that involves.

SAMCRO, as the motorcycle club calls itself, is a tightly structured powerhouse reminiscent of a feudal system where you earn your position by right, by blood, and by the sword. There is no doubt whatsoever that these are bad guys with questionable morals. They live in the little town called Charming and have an understanding with the police force that allows them to reside there peacefully as long as they don't do business where they live.

Some concessions have been made to the viewers' sensibilities, like the fact that SAMCRO primarily deals guns to earn a living and therefore are not as morally objectionable as the drug dealers. They also steal, cheat, and rob, provide dubious protection, and help other criminals (including the police chief). The weapons come via the "real IRA" who have a political agenda and that, again, says something about the interesting moral line the creator of the series is treading.

In terms of structure, the story centres around Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the son of Gemma (Katey Sagal) and John Teller who only appears as a ghost, a voice-over reading from a manuscript. His adopted father is Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) who is also the president of the motorcycle club Sons of Anarchy. In the beginning of the season we also meet Jax’s estranged ex-wife Wendy Case (Drea de Matteo) who is pregnant with their baby and still using drugs. This is to play a pivotal role in what sets Jax on his journey, namely the premature birth of their son Abel. No matter how jaded a TV audience might be it’s still sufficiently shocking to see a woman seven and a half months pregnant looking for a vein to shoot up in. Abel is born prematurely and spends the first couple of episodes in neonatal intensive care. Jax is forced to take on the responsibilities of fatherhood in the midst of all the other things that are happening around him.

Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff), Jax’s old girlfriend, also plays an important role in the direct family structure since she is working as a doctor at the local hospital and immediately gets involved in Jax’s son’s care. She also has a long and complicated history with the family, particularly Gemma, and the past is never buried completely in this narrative, since her own past, her’s and Jax’s past and the future plays heavily into the later part of the season.

The second layer of family is the members of SAMCRO: Chibs (Tommy Flanagan), Tig (Kim Coates) (Tig), Jucie (Theo Rossi), Piney (William Lucking), Opie (Ryan Hurst ), Bobby Elvis (Mark Boone Jr), and the prospect Half-Sack (Johnny Lewis). Each of these members have their own struggles that impact the action. Opie, for example, has just gotten out of prison after having spent five years incarcerated for a crime related to SAMCRO. His wife Donna (Sprague Grayden) really wants Opie to quit the life after he gets out and a lot of the action concerning where his loyalties lie comes in to play in the later part of the series when the ATF takes a special interest in SAMCRO.

The next level is society. The Sons of Anarchy have a complicated relationship to authority, which is pretty much a given, seeing as they put anarchy in their actual name. The peaceful little town of Charming is rife with conflicting emotions about the club, and local law enforcement is headed up by Chief Unser (Dayton Callie) who is about as bent as they come and Deputy Chief Hale (Taylor Sheridan), who longs for change and is more of a straight shooter. At one point or another SAMCRO has been able to manipulate other officials into owing them favours, which works for them. Real outside threat comes from the ATF, especially through the tough-as-nails ATF agent June Stahl (Ally Walker).

SAMCRO has external enemies, The Nords, The Mayans, and The Niners, all representing other ethnic groups with other values. They also have all the internal strife of any group living by the sword this way. Loyalty is in question, not only between the old king (Clay) and the young prince (Jax) — but also between the various members of the group. Opie, for example, has to deal with his wife wanting him to get out of the life on the one hand and SAMCRO trying to bring him back to the fold on the other, a plot line that moves effortlessly between the personal and private and the public when the ATF gets involved and tries to pray on this weakness to create the illusion that Opie has betrayed SAMCRO.
Jax is living under his stepfather's rule and there are hints of dark secrets in the Teller family's past. Jax finds a manuscript that his father wrote that mostly deals with what his intentions were originally when it comes to what Sons of Anarchy was supposed to be about. Jax's father was a Vietnam veteran and obviously came back with some different ideas of how to live his life. Those ideas are presented in a voice-over as Jax reads the manuscript and again, this just enhances the underlying themes of family, society, and politics and how far the club has drifted from what was originally intended. Katey Sagal gives a stellar performance as the tough Gemma. I can't say enough nice things about how she is every bit as frightening as the big leather-clad henchmen of SAMCRO, especially when she is dealing with the other ladies attached to the club. She rules by force, but also by manipulation.
It is rare to see this much complexity in a narrative like this one, and I am reminded of a documentary I saw about an undercover agent who infiltrated a motorcycle gang and lived the life for years. His experiences of the violence and the life of an outsider are echoed here.

The overall arc of the first season focuses on how Jax is going to balance becoming a father with the demands his lifestyle makes on him in terms of how dangerous it is making a living selling illegal firearms. He connects with his father's original intentions, and has to try and reconcile that with what SAMCRO has become. The need for change is obvious, and as the season draws to a close we get closer to the point where change is not only needed, but also necessary.

The writing is smart enough that you feel like you have been allowed in to the dusty backrooms where the characters show their true selves. There is a strong sense of family and loyalty, but it's underscored by bloody violence, criminal behaviour, and a deep paranoia.
There is also excellent music, smart plots, beautiful sets, and really cool bikes.
And did I mention that one of the Sons of Anarchy performs as an Elvis impersonator?

Sons of Anarchy is created by Kurt Sutter. It stars Charlie Hunnam (Jax Teller), Katey Sagal (Gema Teller Morrow), Ron Perlman (Clay Morrow), Tommy Flanagan (Chibs), Kim Coates (Tig), Maggie Siff (Tara), Johnny Lewis (Half-Sack), Theo Rossi (Juice), Ryan Hurst (Opie), William Lucking (Piney), Dayton Callie (Chief Unser), Taylor Sheridan (Deputy Chief Hale), Theo Rossi (Juice), Mark Boone Junior (Robert Munson), Ally Walker (June Stahl) et al.

This first season set consists of 13 episodes: "Pilot," "Seeds," "Fun Town," "Patch Over," "Giving Back," "AK-51," "Old Bones," "The Pull," "Hell Followed," "Better Half," "Capybara," "The Sleep of Babies," and "The Revelator." There is also some neat bonus material, a “making of…” and 29 deleted scenes, and some information about the ink, the bikes, and the casting.

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