No Exit from Elsinore: ‘Sons of Anarchy’ Kicks Even Badder Ass in Season 5
Spin classes are often studies in staged enthusiasm, but in L.A. they are more theatrically over the top than any I’ve done in Europe or other parts of America. Most instructors here have ambitions to be performers, and that hour of class several times a day is their moment to shine up there on a mini-stage for all of Hollywood to admire and follow, riding that high-tech stationary bike like Paul Revere summoning the healthy into battle, accompanied by a throbbing emotional slash aspirational soundtrack they have carefully selected themselves for maximum drama, equipped with a mic through which they bellow and inspire.
At the beginning of a spin class I took a few days ago, the instructor-singer-actor-dancer asked the room as we warmed up, “Who saw Sons of Anarchy this week?” As Tuttle once observed, Golds Gym Hollywood is the gayest gym on the planet, but Sons has to be the least gay show on TV; there hasn’t been a subplot where one of the bikers or even a villain has been closeted, or had a minor drunken pink moment, much less been an outright homo—it would be unthinkable. (I’m not counting that brief bit when the gang landed in prison, wherein the token plot-motivating pederast, an obese mountain of non-white creepiness, was beaten to death; prison gay isn’t real gay.) The biker bitches are likewise hardly any queen’s idea of fabulous. And everyone dresses terribly, and it’s all messy and violent, nobody’s hair is washed, and so forth.
So it was safe to say that nobody in the room had seen the episode that had so traumatized our instructor-singer-actor-dancer. Nobody except for me, but I’m a queer sort of homo: I can’t bear Project Runway, Glee and the like, but I’m hooked on macho shows like Breaking Bad and Sons. My common ground with my fellow more quotidian sodomite is Downton Abbey. I am a total weeping, nostalgic, romantic fag when it comes to that show.
I raised my hand and commiserated with the instructor-singer-actor-dancer about the episode, and then we launched into a seated climb and began the class. At the very end, after we had cooled down, looking like we’d just participated in a wet-tee-shirt contest featuring buckets of our own sweat, our heart rates back to reasonable levels, he said, “Great class. And rest in peace, Ope.”
He was referring to the horrific, thunderously surprising death of a main character on Sons, Opie, played by Ryan Hurst. Why the thunderous surprise? Opie was by far the fans’ favorite character, more so than Charlie Hunnam himself. For the creators to eliminate the protagonist’s beloved sidekick, and so early in the season, was a major risk. But it paid off: Sons’ ratings are soaring. Between this fictitious killing and the real-life death of former cast member Johnny Lewis after he murdered his landlady, the show is pushing the limits of bad-boy danger in every way.
Only the creators and the cast members really know why Opie was bumped off. Perhaps it was necessary to ratchet up the narrative, but it could be the problems were internal. Rumors roar off that testosterone-laden set every now and then about the show’s creator, Kurt Sutter, coming to loggerheads with his cast. This past summer, Hunnam refused to join Sutter at an important industry panel for the Television Critics Association after they had a falling out (apparently it has since been patched up, but you can take that publicity plant for what it is). And late last week, Deadline reported that Sutter had a major blowout with another longtime cast member, Tommy Flanagan, who plays the affable Irishman, Chibs.
Disagreements are routine on any film set, especially on an emotional drama that is essentially a relentless Shakespearean tragedy. The pace they shoot TV is fast and grinding, and these actors are particularly impassioned and dedicated. So the occasional skirmishes are certainly not worth reporting; however, when Nikki Finke sits up and pays attention, it means that whatever happened was pretty fucking intense.
Sons isn’t just compelling drama that is steadily becoming more got-to-watch addictive as this season evolves, it is possibly the most intellectually stimulating show on TV from a literary point of view. I’m not exaggerating when I say it is a relentless Shakespearean tragedy: it is an adaptation of Hamlet set in a biker club in Northern California, a hyper-macho tribe with as many intricate rituals and cultural rules as any royal court. Except it’s as if Sartre has adapted the play as an existential nightmare—call it No Exit From Elsinore. Being the heroes, the protagonists can never die as long as the series runs—and it has been extended for another few seasons—so they end up living these quasi-Promethean cycles of almost dying, almost getting out of an impossible situation, only to see it get worse and worse, but never bad enough to stop the narrative. Opie, who was Horatio to Charlie Hunnam’s Hamlet (Jax), is the first of the characters transliterated from Shakespeare’s piece to have finally been allowed off stage.
It isn’t until you’ve adapted Hamlet that you understand the infinite possibilities the play offers, details that seem irrelevant when you watch or perform it on stage in its original form, but which can be accentuated when it is transformed by different circumstances and settings. Many years ago, I developed my own version, Aditya, set in an Indian court during the rise of the British Raj in the early 19th century. Hamlet was now an Indian prince who was sent by his forward-thinking father to study at Oxford to learn English and the ways of the British. His English friends from school, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern characters, really are recruited as spies by the East India Company, which in the end marches in and takes over the principality, using the murder of the Englishmen as a pretext. The invading Norwegian army under Fortinbras is something that Shakespeare tosses in there at the end as a deus ex machina, but oddly that part of the play tends to become more important to the plot when it is set under different circumstances.
Sutter brings the Norwegian army trope closer to the forefront of Sons, just as I did in Aditya: SAMCRO, the bike club that is the mini royal court of Denmark, is continuously assailed by antagonistic outside forces of increasingly malevolent nature, which are trying to take them over. That is standard for many episodic dramas: introduce a baddie at the beginning of the season, grow him until he’s a seemingly unconquerable kraken, have the heroes vanquish him, reset. But what is not standard is that external pressure combined with the examination of the internal strife at court. Walter White in Breaking Bad also has problems at home while trying to stay ahead of the game with his meth business, but his domestic issues pale in comparison to what Jax has to deal with in SAMCRO. Game of Thrones is too broad and unfocused, its protagonists scattered across a world we have never experienced and never will. In Sons, we never lose sight of King Jax’s court and the familial schisms that might tear SAMCRO asunder at any given moment.
One trope from Hamlet that Sutter was wise to drop in this season, finally, was the brooding prince bit, the ‘To Be or Not To Be’ nonsense, which took the form of Jax’s voiceover narration in the first few seasons. The old king’s ghost was rather cleverly transformed into diary that Jax’s father had kept before dying in a trumped-up motorcycle accident, which the Gertrude character, Gemma—gorgeously, seductively performed by Katey Sagal—and Claudius/Clay (Ron Perlman) want destroyed, along with certain letters implicating both of them in the father’s murder, which Jax eventually discovers the truth of. But the voiceover episode after episode weakened the dramatic flow of Sons substantially; I believe Jax’s struggles and quandaries could have been examined more imaginatively rather than through a tepidly thoughtful voiceover. (I am one of those writers who uses voiceover only in the most dire emergency, when no other device can be deployed to move the drama forward.)
It is Charlie Hunnam’s personal voyage that is most inspiring to watch. As I’ve written before on this site, I cannot think of another actor—except perhaps Channing Tatum—who has worked so hard to overcome the dulling of his native talent by his extraordinary good looks. If you compare his performance this season to Nicholas Nickleby in 2001—you probably can’t compare them because its unlikely you ever saw that slice of gummy tripe—you would hardly believe it’s the same person. And, boy, is he so much hotter now than as a 15-year-old twink on the British version of Queer As Folk.
My quick personal story about Hunnam: Shortly after Nickleby came out, I was casting my own film. During an initial meeting with the actor who was considering the lead role, I happened to mention Charlie Hunnam for one of the other roles; when it comes to selecting hunnies, I’m always wary of letting lust do the decision making and not my professional assessment of someone’s talent, so I prefer outside opinions. The actor said, “If you even think of casting Charlie Hunnam, I won’t do this. I’ve worked with him before and he’s terrible.” Impressed by the opinion of such a senior thespian, I immediately thought that Hunnam was all that was wrong with Nickleby, that the blame for its suckiness lay firmly on his then-slight shoulders. But in retrospect it was simply badly directed. Everyone sucks in it, even Jamie Bell, even Nathan Lane. Apparently the director, Doug McGrath, fell sick in the middle of the shoot and it was completed by the director of photography. Ah, well, there you have it: The cast look great, but they’ve been reduced to talking life models from drawing class. Typical DP directing.
The role of Horatio cannot be vacant long in a never-ending Hamlet, and it would seem that one of TV’s finer talents, Jimmy Smits, is stepping in to be Jax’s right-hand man. It’s going to be an uphill battle for him to replace Opie in the hearts of viewers, who are growing more legion by the day as ratings for the show bound upwards. However, the new character is more complex than Opie was, and Smits a far more accomplished and seasoned performer than Hurst.
In season five of this No Exit From Elsinore, Hamlet is no longer the prince, but the ruler. Claudius has survived, barely, but has been forced to abdicate. Gertrude and Claudius are no longer together, which has only ratcheted up her menopausal plotting and scheming—how Sagal plays her and the way she is written is completely in line with the ruthless, conniving queen in my Indian version, not the dithering, misguided housewife in the play.
Again, when you inject another context into the original drama, give the characters different motivations, and don’t seal it off at the end with their deaths, what you are left with is a nearly unlimited series of clever chess games, each as varied in their possibilities as the pieces themselves are constant in their moves and appearance. While the cast and crew have worked their asses off to make this show a hit, I feel a little more credit should go to Shakespeare for creating such a universally adaptable piece.