Things I Learned From… Sons Of Anarchy

So, season four of Sons Of Anarchy has just aired in the UK, and we SAMCRO fans are still catching our breath after that shocking finale.  But, shock reversals and big finishes aside, we can learn a lot from this series about engaging an audience in a story world that lacks conventionally ‘likeable’ characters.

Producers and script editors talk a lot about characters being likeable.  Whether your main character’s a saint or a murderer, there should be something about him that the audience can bond with, admire or envy.  The Man With No Name may be a cold-blooded killer, but he defends the weak and the helpless when no one else will.  James Bond is a heartless womanizer, but he’s handsome, rich and sophisticated.  A New York Mafia boss may be a criminal, but he’s just trying to get by in a corrupt, greedy society that discriminates against Italian immigrants.  And so on.

So where’s the likeability in Sons Of Anarchy?  Well…  The gang members are criminal, racist, occasionally misogynist, violent and deeply amoral.  The female characters may not resort to violence as much, but they’re manipulative, selfish, and emotionally cruel, often to each other.  The cops are corrupt or working their own strange angles, the locals are out for money and power, and the one “legitimate” industry that features heavily in the action is a porn movie business.

Okay, that didn’t work.  Quick, let’s find some redeeming features!

The characters must love their families, right?  Well, a lot of them do, but that doesn’t seem to stop them committing acts that could get them jailed or bring danger to their loved ones.  And personal relationships are pretty rocky, too.  Domestic violence, father-son rivalry, mothers manipulating daughters-in-law, and lies, lies, lies.  Family ties are not a positive influence in this show.  When someone mentions ‘family’, they’re as likely to be using it to pressure someone into a crime as to be inviting them to a pot roast.

Okay.  Maybe they’re loyal to each other?  That’s what a gang’s about, right – a surrogate family?

Actually, loyalty to the club, or to each other, is in pretty short supply.  Characters have betrayed each other out of sexual jealousy, fear of jail, fear that the other person betrayed them first, and fear that their own crimes would be exposed to the others.  The club president has left a trail of violence trying to keep his past actions secret, and been violently ousted by his own step-son.  No one’s really come out of this looking good on the loyalty front.

So why are we still watching?  Why are we fascinated by these characters?  Why do we care about their fates?

Two things, I think.  Firstly, Kurt Sutter and his team of writers understand the power of what some screenwriting gurus call “the freedom to act”.

Most of us don’t have the freedom to act in our daily lives.  We daren’t tell our boss what we really think of him, we’re scared to ask out that girl we like, we know we’re never going to sell the house and move to New Zealand like we’ve always wanted.  We’re constrained by politeness and social rules.

This is why fictional characters who have the freedom to act – who do what they want and don’t care about the consequences – are enormously attractive to us.  Lester in American Beauty starts telling his boss and his family exactly what he thinks, and we love him for it.  Dirty Harry takes down the bad guys, and to hell with the regulations – and we love him for it.

The characters in Sons Of Anarchy have absolute freedom to act.  They’re outside the law, outside the conventions of society, and that’s the way they like things.  If they want something, as individuals or as a group, they go get it.  Sometimes it blows up in their face, but at least they had the courage and the single-mindedness to try.  The Sons are trying to put their idea of a better world into action.  It might not be our idea of a better world, but we admire them for acting on their desires.

And secondly, Sutter and his team have sold us on the faded dream that SAMCRO represents.  The 60’s-influenced ideal of no rules, no conformity, just like-minded individuals living in their own way, outside conventional society.  The Sons have fallen a long way from that, but we see the echo of John Teller’s dream in everything they do – and we long to see them return to that lost golden age, become the unequivocal heroes that we like to imagine they once were.  And as long as we think there’s a chance of that, we’ll keep watching.

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