Monday, September 14, 2015

'Sons of Anarchy' in Retrospect: How the Women Ruled the Club [Contributor: Megan Mann]

There are a few things that are immediately obvious about me: I love books, I frequently use caps lock, I watch too many movies, and I’m completely fanatical about Sons of Anarchy. So in honor of the premiere of creator and writer Kurt Sutter’s sprawling new medieval drama, The Bastard Executioner, tomorrow night on FX, let’s take a look back at a beautiful show that believed in a woman’s strength.

Just about a year ago, the final season of Kurt Sutter’s Hamlet-in-a-biker-gang drama debuted for its last ride. The show was seven seasons of murderous rage, vengeance, personal vendettas, Charlie Hunnam nudity, twisted humor and -- above all -- the power of family and community set against the gritty Northern California town of Charming.

There was plenty to love about this show. What Sutter and his writers did was weave a mythology both far removed from our everyday but also relatable. He made the intimacy of characters something you valued above all else. The writing was so rich and so complex that you felt as if these were your people, that they were doing everything to protect you. That’s something that my avid TV viewing brain immediately latched onto and marveled at.

But it wasn’t just the intricate storytelling or the eye candy that made this show so great. What the writer’s room managed to always, always, always get right was just how important and strong a woman can be. They never used a woman as a means to further a man or devalue them as key players. Three of the most important characters on the show were women: Gemma Teller, Tara Knowles, and Wendy Case.

Let us begin with the matriarch: Gemma Teller is one of the most fascinating characters of -- at least -- the last decade. While we began the show on her side as the wear-my-leather-all-day biker mama bear always out to protect her pack, we ended the show feeling just as deceived by her as Jax was. She went through a great deal throughout the series, and while the show could have written her as scared or closed-off, they took those experiences and wrote her even fiercer than before.

Being the mother figure for the club also didn’t hinder Gemma from being her own person. She was integral to the plot from the beginning and was in no way overshadowed by her male counterparts. Her relationships with Clay and later Nero were just as important as Jax’s relationship with Tara. She was a smart businesswoman and never let anyone tell her what to do. You could tell that Sutter appreciated the complexities of women as more than just side or supporting characters, as he wrote this character specifically wife Katey Sagal.

While Gemma was always encouraging Jax and the rest of SAMCRO to do what needed to be done, it was Dr. Tara Knowles that acted as the moral compass for Jax. Having been childhood sweethearts, Tara comes back to escape a stalker. And though she swears not to be dragged back into the turbulent gang life, she falls back into love with Jax. However, she doesn’t let that relationship define her. She wants a safe life for herself and, eventually, their two children and does everything she can to convince Jax to leave that dangerous life behind. When he contemplates risky, poor decisions, she’s the sounding board, reminding him that needs to think of the consequences and risks in relation to what’s really important.

It was Tara's love that helped keep Jax from slipping over the edge and into a place where he couldn’t crawl out from. She was determined, hardworking, and headstrong. Tara, though towards the end was double-crossing in her attempts to extricate her young children from the dark future that was surely awaiting them, was always motivated by her family and doing what was best to protect them. She started out soft, but quickly adapted to her surroundings and refused to let anyone step all over her.


It was fitting for Gemma to have killed Tara in the end. Gemma was doing what she thought was best for Jax, her son, and her grandchildren. However, she didn’t have the right information and was unaware that Tara had been doing all of what she had to also protect Jax and her children. Her murder wasn’t something done with a gun or a knife, in a way that the club would have dealt with it. It was done with a carving fork in the kitchen of Tara and Jax’s home. It showed that while they’re part of the darkness, they are also their own entities and exist outside of Teller/Morrow and SAMCRO. And without that catalyst of losing his moral compass, Jax wouldn’t have been set on the destructive path that guided the final ride.

Once Gemma had eliminated Tara, it allowed Wendy, a character who had started the show shooting heroin while super pregnant, to show just how far she had come and prove that she was one of the only lighthouses in a very dark sea of bikers.

In the beginning, Wendy is awful. She’s a drug-addicted disaster who gave her unborn child issues. Once she had Abel, Gemma made it clear that she was never to come around the child again. With her gone, it was easy for Tara and Jax to open the door to rekindle their love. And after being gone for a few seasons, Wendy comes back to the hospital to help other addicts as a means of staying clean. She wanted a clean start, a better life and a relationship with her son Abel, something that Gemma and Tara were never going to allow being fierce protectors and all.

She persisted and never allowed obstacles to stop her. When Jax tried to get her to back off, she finally took a step away. That is, until Tara knew that Wendy was one of the only people she could trust in overthrowing Gemma and getting her kids out of Charming. Wendy knew what kind of life Jax had led because of his father and understood that that wasn’t how she wanted those boys to grow up as well. She double-crossed and lied to help Tara and while that’s never encouraged, it was done in a way that had audiences understanding and sympathizing with the two women. Had they not, they would have fallen prey to Gemma’s ploys and repeated a dangerous cycle.

After the unfortunate situation with Gemma and Tara, it was up to Wendy to step in and follow through with what Tara had started. The Wendy we see at the beginning of the series is an echo, a shadow of the Wendy we see by the end. She had turned from druggie to friend, confidante and mommy and she didn’t even have a romantic storyline! Isn’t that great? A whole character who is in no way focused on a relationship, no matter how much she loves Jax and always will. That right there is a testament to the writing. She loves him but knows that it’s a terrible idea to be with him and never acts on it. She avoids certain disaster in an effort to keep herself healthy and sane and to keep the innocent lives of children out of harm’s way. Absolutely fantastic.

Of course, while the show couldn’t have moved forward without this integral trio of fierce women, there were a slew of other women who held their own on this male-dominated show. Agent Stall, deplorable as she was, never faltered in the face of this crowd, Lyla was soft but overcame many obstacles, Margaret Murphy always wanted what was best for Tara, Sheriff Jarry knew how to uphold the law while knowing the rules of the club, and Patterson knew that the club, more than anything, valued family and wanted justice to be served.

The writers of Sons of Anarchy never let the women fall into the background and become used as accessories. They were full-bodied, multifarious characters that the show would have been lost without. As I will be parked in front of the TV watching tomorrow’s premiere of The Bastard Executioner on FX, I will hope that they have taken what has made the women of Sons of Anarchy so multifaceted and strong and apply it to the women in this new world. With their previous success, I will only expect nothing less.

Thank you, Kurt Sutter, for understanding that women aren’t just objects to further the plot of men. Thank you for giving us the female characters we want on TV. Thank you for understanding that we’re just as complex and important as men, too. You’re a real gem.

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