How Sons Of Anarchy blew a chance to say something meaningful about race
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For a man who runs one of basic cable’s most successful drama series, Kurt Sutter certainly spends a lot of time defending himself. Hurling firebombs at television critics who dare to criticize Sons Of Anarchy has become a large part—perhaps even the defining component—of the Sutter brand. It’s clear that, like pretty much anybody who goes to the great trouble of creating something, Sutter is sensitive to a fault about how people react to that work. This is an understandable, human reaction, even when Sutter doesn’t deal with his emotions the way some other artists would. The issue is that some responses to criticism end up making more damning arguments than the critics ever could.
This is the case with season four of Sons, which I burned through over the weekend, and which was recently released on DVD. I was reminded of one of Sutter’s many blog posts from late last year, in which he posits an intriguing theory on why the boob-tube intelligentsia doesn’t understand his show. “The Wire, we ain’t, nor do we aspire to be,” he wrote. “For the record, SOA is an adrenalized soap opera, it’s bloody pulp fiction with highly complex characters.” It’s always a slippery slope to say that critics of a piece of artwork simply don’t understand it, but Sutter settles into a cogent argument. Because so much of the good television of the past decade-plus has also been relevant and has had something to say about the culture at large, it can be easy to forget that good television doesn’t have to be relevant. It has to be moving, funny, compelling, surprising, and respectful of its characters and its audience. It doesn’t have to be important. But the problem with Sons’ season four is that it swipes at relevance, then willfully, frustratingly cedes its opportunity to claim it.
I’m referring to the storyline concerning Juice Ortiz (Theo Rossi), which served as one of the main story engines in the season. In the first three seasons of Sons, Juice was the hacker and technology czar whose goof-around demeanor made him one of the show’s go-to guys for comic relief. But in season four, Juice’s character took a heavy, solemn turn when Lincoln Potter (Ray McKinnon) and Lieutenant Eli Roosevelt (Rockmond Dunbar) conspired to use Juice as their man inside SAMCRO, using as leverage the fact that Juice’s father is black, making him unfit for membership in the Sons. When this was revealed in “Dorylus,” the third episode of the season, it sent the fan community into such a tizzy that Sutter took to his blog to clarify the storyline. He explains that the refusal to admit members of African-American heritage is a “racial reality” in outlaw motorcycle clubs. “We delve into the delicate why’s and how’s of this racial bylaw later in the season, but it was one of those odd, historical barriers that I’ve wanted to explore,” Sutter wrote.
The comments on Sutter’s explanatory post highlight the feelings of confusion and discomfort the storyline brought up for SOA fans. In his A.V. Club review of “Dorylus,” Zack Handlen wrote: “We spent all of the second season dealing with a group of White Power assholes, and while Clay and the others aren’t the most politically enlightened folks around, I can’t imagine them getting too worked up if Juice’s heritage became known.” The fan and critical reaction to the storyline was based on several factors, of which the show’s second season probably looms largest. That season’s villain was Ethan Zobelle (Adam Arkin), who led a white-nationalist group bent on forcing the Sons out of Charming and intimidating them in order to stop them from selling guns to clubs of other races. The Sons appeared to bristle at the idea of Zobelle’s organization as much as its threat to the club’s sovereignty, and have, since the show’s inception, made many strategic alliances with motorcycle clubs of different races. Add to this the fact that Juice’s established Puerto Rican heritage never bothered anyone (an odd, but accurate inconsistency that seems to fascinate Sutter as much as anyone), and that the scene between Juice and Roosevelt never quite spells out whether the issue is the truth of Juice’s heritage or his intentional concealing of said heritage, and it’s hard to know what to make of SAMCRO’s attitudes towards race.
In Sutter’s semi-defense, the reveal regarding the SAMCRO policy against admitting black members was surprising, but not enough to strain credibility. One of my biggest problems with the show has been its tendency towards using offhand racial remarks as gallows humor. This has been on display since the pilot, when Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) and his gang find two Mexican women who were burned alive when the gang’s gun operation was robbed and set ablaze. Upon the gruesome sight of the bodies, Clay tosses off the line “Goddamn, fried and refried,” with a self-satisfaction seldom seen outside David Caruso’s performance in CSI: Miami. The examples are too numerous to list, but suffice it say that the Sons didn’t suddenly become racist to facilitate a storyline, they had been from the beginning.
But why wouldn’t they be? They operate in a world in which racial segregation is the norm; all of the clubs are racially homogenous, and no one seems to mind. They deal with one another when there’s a strategic advantage for doing so; otherwise they keep their distance. Racial self-segregation is a reality for at least some facets of most people’s lives—say, at churches or bars—but for the Sons, it’s that way all the time. It would be weirder if they weren’t a little racist. But as far as the audience sees these characters, having general racist attitudes toward people they seldom interact with in a meaningful way is one thing, but barring African-American members as a matter of policy is another entirely. The Juice storyline had a tremendous potential to influence how the audience viewed the Sons as an organization, because judging from the response from the commentariat, no matter how many awful things viewers had watched SAMCRO do, codified racism just wasn’t going to fly.
My initial reaction to the Juice storyline was the same confusion as many others had, but it was quickly supplanted by excitement, and a newfound respect for Sutter’s ambition and audacity. What Sutter was trying with the Juice arc was a contemporary take on the “passing” narrative, which is as daring, provocative, and relevant a story as I can imagine a television drama telling right now. We’ve learned a lot about how race shapes people’s perceptions and experiences, and one of the largest takeaways is that even as America has allegedly become “post-racial,” having a racial self-identity isn’t any less important to people now than it was in the past. In 2000, The U.S. Census Bureau amended its method of collecting information on race such that respondents could select more than one race, yet in the 2010 Census, 97% of respondents selected only one. This includes Barack Obama, who gets the lion’s share of the credit for ushering in the post-racial age, yet only selected black on his form. That the nation’s most prominent biracial is not conflicted about his racial identity makes a modern take on racial passing a narrow target. Obama’s election didn’t vanquish racism, but it effectively slayed the cultural idea of the “tragic mulatto.”
That’s what made Juice’s story a tough sell; Sutter and his team would have to establish both that the Sons would care a great deal about the truth of Juice’s ethnicity, and that Juice’s involvement with the club was important enough to him to remain a member in spite of it. In today’s racial climate, neither makes sense on its face, which is why contemporary stories of racial passing are practically non-existent. To the degree that passing narratives still exist, they’re typically gender-based, like Boys Don’t Cry, or more recently, ABC’s reviled sitcom Work It. In 2006, FX premiered a docuseries called Black. White., in which a black family and a white family swapped races with the aid of makeup, and it arrived on a wave of hell-yes-we-did promotion, as the network made the audacity of the idea the show’s main selling point. To tell the Juice story in post-Obama 2011 is even more audacious, as it means to represent an actual character rather than a social experiment. Why would Juice pretend not to be black in order to join a motorcycle club? Why is it so important to him? After Roosevelt found out, couldn’t he just skip town, or say he wants out and start a new life elsewhere? In a passing narrative set during slavery, the motivations for a black person to pass as a white one aren’t as necessary to spell out; there are obvious advantages to doing so. But what was Juice getting out of any of this? After three seasons, was Sons Of Anarchy going to aspire to being more than “bloody pulp fiction?” Did the show have something to say about race in America?
The answer, unfortunately, was a resounding “no.” Much like the other storylines teased at but never fully realized in season four of Sons, Juice’s arc was introduced in a tantalizing way, only to have its boiling pot abruptly turned off. After stealing from his club, then killing a member to conceal the theft, Juice attempts suicide and fails, and Roosevelt ultimately agrees to bury the information so the club will never find out. (That excludes Chibs Telford, played by Tommy Flanagan, who responds with a giant shrug when Juice confesses his secret.) For all its potential, the Juice storyline was ultimately a remix of the “There’s a mole inside the club” riff, and the lofty themes it introduced were never fully fleshed out, nor were the particulars of the club’s policy delved into later in the season as Sutter promised. Tons of sizzle, no steak.
Granted, Juice is a regular but minor character, and in a 13-episode season, it might have been unrealistic to expect that Sons would have time to devote to digging into his psyche. But failing to deliver on its promises has become a larger problem for the show, as the skeptical critical response to the season-four finale bears out. Alan Sepinwall put it best in his write-up:
…if Kurt Sutter doesn’t want to send his main character away, doesn’t want to kill off his chief villain, doesn’t want Juice to suffer any real consequences for what he’s done, then that’s fine. His show, his characters, his rules. But if I might make a suggestion: if you don’t want any of those things to happen, don’t spend an entire season building up to how they have to happen, then back out at the last possible second. Tell different stories—the kind you actually want to follow through with all the way.
Juice’s story could have been one of these stories precisely because of his relative lack of importance to the show’s larger game plan. It would have likely meant parting with the character, but it would have accomplished a lot: It would have demonstrated that Sutter is willing to finish what he starts, and if handled deftly enough, would have bridged the gap between the bloody pulp Sutter’s making and the culturally relevant show he believes his critics think he’s failing to make. In spite of Sutter’s protestations, the issue isn’t a chasm between what the critics think the show is and the show he’s trying to make, the issue is the fact that sometimes, Sons Of Anarchy isn’t successful as either one of those shows.