Kurt Sutter’s Shakespearean outlaw drama, Sons Of Anarchy, lived up to its name by packing season after season with sex, drugs, crime—from petty to organized—and a struggle for power. Although Sutter’s creativity was questioned as the series rolled on, there were few concerns about whether Sons Of Anarchy cast white men in a negative light, or that the show’s storylines—which included exploitation of sex workers and rubbing elbows with the IRA—would become part of some politician’s platform.
But those concerns did initially float around Mayans M.C., the spin-off from Sutter and Little Birds filmmaker Elgin James that centers on the Latinx biker gang that was introduced on SOA. When it comes to crime, the Mayans are happy to diversify, dabbling in everything from drug running to racketeering. How much of their criminal activity is out of necessity varies among characters like poker-faced protagonist EZ Reyes (J.D. Pardo) and Mayans’ padrino Marcus Alvarez (Emilio Rivera), but there’s no doubt that they’re all deeply flawed people. But in the current political climate, that storytelling choice ends up being much more loaded on Mayans than it ever was on Sons.
During the Mayans M.C. panel at the 2018 Television Critics Association summer press tour, Sutter and James were asked if they were concerned that their crime drama would play into the negative stereotypes about Latinx people that have found their way into official White House documents. After pointing out that he writes about nothing but fucked-up people, Sutter deferred to James, who said he didn’t set out to make an aspirational show: “I could never write [that], because I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a functional family.” Although he acknowledged the importance of more socially conscious shows, James wasn’t concerned with replicating them: “I don’t write stories for society, I don’t make art for society. I make art for the people that society rejects.” It’s not that the burden of representation doesn’t weigh on James, who was one of just a handful of Latinx showrunners at the press tour. But as he told The A.V. Club in a post-panel interview, “There’s part of me that thinks it’s naive to think that there should only be aspirational stories [on TV]. I made certain terrible choices most of my life, and because of that cycle, I ended up in a gang for most of my life. I ended up incarcerated like a lot of people I know from underserved communities. Aren’t our stories valid, too?”
It’s been a bumpy ride, but Mayans M.C.’s first season has proven that James’ story and others like it are not only valid but also compelling, and a fundamental part of pop culture history—and, more broadly, the country’s. The series kicked off in August with a serviceable pilot that introduced Pardo’s EZ, a former golden boy turned ex-con turned prospect (which, of course, has double meaning here) in the Mayans M.C., whose brother and fellow biker, Angel (a roguish Clayton Cardenas), vouched for his admittance. Their father, Felipe (Edward James Olmos), owns a carniceria in Santa Madre, a fictional town near the U.S.-Mexico border, serving up world weariness along with bistec de lomo. For SOA fans, the first few episodes map out a familiar arc, as EZ shares Jax’s (Sons’ Charlie Hunnam) inner conflict over their clubs’ criminal dealings, as well as a penchant for journaling, but his position is inversely proportional—when the series begins, he hasn’t even earned his patch. Nor was EZ ever groomed to take a seat at the table; we learn through flashbacks galore that he was Stanford-bound before he shot a cop, derailing his life but not, as some might think, destroying it.
EZ’s pivot is meant to reflect James’ own trajectory of finding a family among other outcasts, a tale that still plays out in redlined communities. But he also represents the marginalized people who often find themselves navigating two worlds—he’s that first-generation adolescent who becomes the first member of their family to go to college, who retains their cultural pride while grudgingly assimilating, as well as the parent who migrated to another country in order to provide for their family. Pardo isn’t the only one playing an avatar; EZ’s father, Felipe, who viewers recently learned is actually a former Mexican Federale named Ignacio, is also caught between his past and present. Almost every character in this Latinx-led series is in some liminal state, including the Mayans, who regularly cross the border for reasons both personal and nefarious. For the latter, they’re usually in the service of Miguel Galindo (Danny Pino), the Ivy League-educated cartel boss who keeps Tom Wainwright’s Narconomics: How To Run A Drug Cartel on the same shelf as his copy of The Prince.
Handsome and erudite, brilliant and vicious, Miguel also moves between two worlds. In one, he’s established a respectable façade, complete with beautiful wife (Sarah Bolger as Emily, who’s not nearly as helpless as she looks); in the other, he’s a ruthless cartel boss who occasionally likes to do his own wetwork. Miguel isn’t nearly as conflicted about peddling heroin as EZ is, but they’ve both diverged from the straight and narrow and found themselves repeating some of their fathers’ mistakes, seemingly unable to break those patterns. More important, they each want to make sure that their parents’ sacrifices weren’t in vain.
Part if not all of that story will resonate with Sutter’s fans, but it might also feel familiar because it can be found at the core of many a drama about immigrants, their first-generation children, and the “American dream.” The Godfather saga is such an obvious inspiration for Mayans that Miguel and EZ casually reference the Corleone family in the midst of sizing up one another. Like Michael Corleone before him, Miguel also makes a bid for legitimacy, investing considerable funds to turn a deserted town into a kind of oasis. Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy can be found in other corners of the Mayans landscape, including in Emily’s storyline—she’s struggled with the realities of her husband’s business, but despite her mother-in-law Dita’s (Ada Maris) advice, decided she’d rather be a Connie than a Kay.
But Mayans hews even closer in spirit to J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, a slow-burn drama whose title belies a thoughtful look at immigrant communities in 20th-century New York. Set in 1981 (a year that reportedly earned the “most violent” moniker with more than 2,000 murders), Oscar Isaac stars as Abel Morales, whose family had to flee a post-La Violencia Colombia. Now a successful New York businessman, Abel dreams bigger than his contemporaries in the heating-oil business, many of whom are first- or second-generation Americans themselves. But they see Abel’s plans to set up his own refinery as presumptuous—as the “newest arrival,” he’s not just getting too big for his britches; he’s jumping in line. Ultimately, the real fight for Abel isn’t with some nameless truck hijackers, but the people he thought were his peers.
Isaac does a typically great job in the role, turning this eye-opening moment about social hierarchy into just as climactic a conclusion as a shootout. But he’s paid a high price for that revelation, not just in stolen oil but with his rapidly eroding morals. The line he said he wouldn’t cross keeps moving, either through his own nudging and rationalizing or the shifting of goal posts by considerably more influential people. Abel never ends up asking his wife Anna’s (Jessica Chastain) mobbed-up family for help, and successfully fights the union boss’ (Peter Gerety) mandate to arm his drivers, but by the end, he’s made the kind of backroom deals he once claimed were ethically questionable.
The line is sometimes a border on Mayans M.C., but it keeps getting crossed all the same. The series can be surprisingly subtle in developing this theme; some early reviewers even felt the show missed an opportunity to be topical. But it’s reflected in the stories of everyone from EZ and Miguel to Adelita (Carla Baratta), the leader of Los Olvidados, who have been the wild card throughout the first season. After seven episodes (the eighth airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern on FX), we now know that Adelita’s real name is Luisa Espina, and that her family was killed by the Galindo cartel with a little help from the Catholic church. Luisa is an even closer analog to Miguel, Michael (as in Corleone), and Abel than EZ—she can look beyond small, personal gains to the big picture. Last week, in the episode titled “Cucaracha/K’uruch,” she struck a deal with Miguel, the “devil” she’s waged a very public campaign against: Los Olvidados will help him keep his business running, and in turn, will use some of the profits to help those who have been hurt by the cartels and U.S. drug policy.
Mayans M.C.’s border setting does mean we also get timelier stories about undocumented immigrants and ongoing family separations, but it never loses sight of an older narrative—that of marginalized people as navigators, whether they’re traveling between countries, between socioeconomic classes, or just code-switching outside of their in-groups. It’s not quite as topical an approach as viewers (and critics) might have expected, but it’s just as authentic, compelling, and in the series co-creator’s own words, valid.