Although I watched the first season of the FX series Sons of Anarchy when it originally aired in 2008, I was never fully committed. Part of the problem was that SOA premiered the day after the final season of The Shield had started, and there was no way I could give myself over completely to a new show, when I was so completely engaged in the conflict between Vic Mackey and Shane Vendrell. Still, I watched Sons of Anarchy with the sort of reluctant trepidation usually found when one starts dating again after a long relationship has ended. I mean it wasn't over between me and The Shield yet, I was still lamenting the end of The Wire, and really wasn't sure if I wanted to get into bed with a new series. Still, I was willing to test the waters and play it by ear. And then, with only three episodes to go in the first season, I found myself hooked, giving myself over to the Sons of Anarchy like some drunken bimbo.
The Shakespearean tale of a motorcycle gang and their criminal enterprises, Sons of Anarchy takes place in the fictional Northern California town of Charming. The name of the town alone is an indication of the story that awaits, for only in a town called Charming could there be so much sorrow and tragedy. The Sons of Anarchy, also know as SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original), rule Charming with an iron fist, operating a gun running business that supplies weapons to drug dealers in nearby Oakland. SAMCRO has law enforcement in their pocket, while at the same time waging wars with the local members of the Aryan Nation who are trying to open Charming up to drug trafficking, and a rival motorcycle club, the Mayans.
SAMCRO is led by Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), one of the founding members of the club, and a cold-blooded, calculating killer. Next in line is Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), whose late father was the founder of SAMCRO. Jax's mother Gemma (Katey Sagal), who is now married to Clay, is the sinister matriarch of the family, placing the importance of the club over everything else. The rest of the Sons of Anarchy include a line-up of hard-drinking, chain-smoking sociopaths that do the bidding of Clay, even when it includes murder.
The series starts off strong as the rival Mayans blow up SAMCRO's gun warehouse, setting up a major part of the season's storyline. SAMCRO needs to come up with a new place assemble and sell their guns, which ties up all their money; but with no guns to sell, they have no way to make money to buy more guns to keep making money. Basically they are screwed. While all of this is going on Jax's ex-wife Wendy (Drea De Matteo) goes on a drug bender, overdoses and gives birth to their son ten weeks premature. Facing the mortality of his newborn son sends Jax down a path of self-reflection. When he stumbles across the memoirs of his dead father, Jax begins to question everything about his life and the world around him.
Introducing most of the characters and plot elements that will make up the run of the first season, the pilot episode does a great job of setting up the story that will unfold. Jax is introduced as a young Prince Hamlet being guided by the voice of his dead father. Meanwhile, Gemma, Jax's mother, is something of a cross between Lady Macbeth and Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, while Clay is King Claudius, who is both stepfather and uncle to Hamlet.
As the series continues, several new characters are introduced. Among them is Opie (Ryan Hurst), Jax's best friend who has done a five-year stretch in prison, and is now torn between his loyalty to SAMCRO and his family, who want him to go straight. Deputy Chief Hale (Taylor Sheridan) is committed to cleaning up the town, and not becoming a pawn of SAMCRO the way his boss (Dayton Callie) has, but when an AFT agent (Ally Walker) comes to town to bring down the gang, and uses questionable tactics, Hale discovers that maintaining his strict moral code isn't easy. Meanwhile, as Jax struggles to cope with the health of his son, he rekindles a relationship with Tara (Maggie Siff), the love of his life who fled Charming years earlier, and has now returned as a doctor. As the gang scramble to raise the money needed to purchase a cache of weapons from Ireland, and thereby keeping their criminal empire afloat, Clay begins to take more and more risks, endangering more lives, and putting him at odds with Jax, who wants to take SAMCRO back to something simpler, like what his father started decades earlier.
As an overall series, Sons of Anarchy is solid. Season One starts off on a good foot, and maintains a decent pace for the first five episodes. Things are mildly bogged down by the soap opera-ish love entanglements, but those are pretty minor overall, and balanced out by some great subplots and individual scenes that keep things from ever getting stale or tired. Between episodes six and ten, the series starts to feel like it has peaked early, and won't get any better than when it started. All of that changes, however, with the eleventh episode. In Episode Eleven, ATF Agent Stahl (Walker) arrests Opie and Bobby Elvis (Mark Boone Junior) for their involvement in the murder, and in the process sets it up so that Opie will appear to be an informant to the rest of SAMCRO. This drives a wedge between Jax and Clay, and culminates in an emotionally charge twelfth episode that's so powerful its surprising it isn't the season cliffhanger. By the time the final episode of the season comes around, everything has fallen into place for a conflict that can only end in tragedy, as Jax must decide where his loyalties lie.
Fans of shows like The Shield and The Sopranos should enjoy Sons of Anarchy, as it revels in the sort of moral ambiguity that defined those other series. This is a show where the goods guys are bad, and the bad guys are just worst. The whole thing works, thanks to the solid writing and direction, and a cast of actors that bring emotional depth to the characters. Sagal is great as the ruthless Gemma, and she plays well off Perlman's Clay, who is an aging king struggling to hold on to his kingdom, despite his crippled hands that remind him his days are soon to pass. The rest of the cast also deliver solid performances, with Kim Coates standing out as Tig, Clay's go-to guy for the dirty work, and William Lucking as Opie's father. But the real stand out performance of the series is Hurst, who as Opie has developed into a crucial character with an amazing emotional range.
Sons of Anarchy will never be as good as a show like The Wire, and I doubt it will ever reach the heights of The Shield. But as it stands, the first season is well worth watching, holds up to repeated viewings, and has set itself up for a second season that could be very good.