Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy
The Pleasures and Perils of Revenge (Part I)
George A. Dunn
“And where the offense is, let the great ax fall.”
~ Claudius in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V
In this current and final season of Sons of Anarchy, one thing has become unmistakably clear: Jax Teller’s thirst for revenge has set him and the club on a collision course with catastrophe, from which it is doubtful that even his seemingly endless store of ingenuity will be able to rescue them. As part of his elaborate plot to destroy Henry Lin—the Chinese gangster who Jax mistakenly blames for the murder of his wife, Tara Knowles—Jax is deliberately fomenting a war between rival gangs, while perhaps inadvertently enflaming a civil war within the Sons of Anarchy organization itself as a consequence of SAMCRO’s murder of the son of the president of the Indian Hills charter, Jury White. As the title of last week’s episode announced, Jax is “Playing With Monsters.” In the process, he also appears to be sowing the seeds what the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called a “war of all against all” that’s almost certain to end in a spectacular bloodbath that will, in the words of Henry Lin, “turn Mayberry into a goddam killing field” (“Toil and Till”). The slaughter at Diosa Norte in the most recent episode, “Poor Little Lambs,” leaves no doubt that Lin means business and that he can be every bit as vengeful as Jax.
In my chapter in Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy, the book I edited with Jason T. Eberl, I discussed Hobbes’s analysis of the psychological and social dynamics of revenge, showing how it applies to SAMCRO. Human nature being what is, we all feel a need to retaliate against those who we believe have wronged us, even when their transgression against us amounts to no more than a show of disrespect. The more delicate our self-esteem, the greater the need to repay the affront to our honor—and you’d be hard-pressed to find a group of men more sensitive to signs of disrespect than the members of your typical Outlaw MC. And therein lies the problem, according to Hobbes. Our retaliatory instincts become a threat to social peace once we throw that “outlaw” designation into the mix. That’s because once we “move off the social grid” into what Hobbes called “the state of nature,” we can no longer rely on the power of the police and the courts to interrupt the cycle of violence that revenge often sets in motion. As we’re seeing in the current season of Sons of Anarchy, retaliation begets counter-retaliation; friends, family, allies, and even bystanders get involved; and the scope and scale of violence steadily escalates until it becomes, in Hobbes’s worst-case scenario, an all-consuming conflagration.
When, in the first episode of the new season, “Black Widower,” San Joaquin County District Attorney Tyne Patterson sat Jax down for a talk, she was speaking as the mouthpiece for what Hobbes called the Leviathan, the legitimate political order that claims an exclusive right to the use of violence. As long as private individuals like Jax and Lin insist on acting on their perfectly understandable desire to seek an eye for an eye, there can be no peace in Charming or anywhere else. Relating how she lost both her son and her nephew to gang violence, Patterson reports, “I didn’t want anyone arrested. I wanted them all dead. Heartless, cold bullets to the back of the head, just the way they killed my boy. That’s a natural reaction, the desire for revenge. It’s a part of grieving. The difference is, in my world”—the world of the Leviathan that exists to inhibit our natural reactions when they become too destructive—“I knew that those violent desires would never become real. In yours, it’s a very likely outcome.” Patterson seems to have a good grasp of the Hobbesian dynamic that’s about to be triggered once Jax steps outside that interrogation room, but she clearly doesn’t know him very well if she thinks that outcome is only likely.
That the final season of Sons of Anarchy is highlighting the destructive fury of revenge should come as no surprise to anyone who knows something about the dramatic template from which Kurt Sutter, the show’s creator, has been working. In interviews, Sutter has acknowledged drawing inspiration from William Shakespeare’s classic tale of murder and revenge, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Earlier seasons have established Jax as an updated version of the gloomy Danish prince, haunted by the ghost of his murdered father, John “J. T.” Teller, from whom he receives regular communication from the great beyond through the pages of J. T.’s book The Life and Death of Sam Crow: How the Sons of Anarchy Lost Their Way. In the final scene of Hamlet, the prince runs his sword through King Claudius, who had murdered Hamlet’s father, married his mother, and usurped the kingdom. Of course, since it’s a Shakespearean tragedy, most of the other characters, including Hamlet himself, also bite the dust along the way and, as the curtain falls, the stage is littered with bodies, collateral damage of Hamlet’s vengeance. True to the Shakespearean script, Jax exacted his retribution on Sons of Anarchy’s own Claudius, SAMCRO President Clay Morrow, near the end of the last season, bringing some much-anticipated closure to the long-running conflict between the two. But, unlike Hamlet’s slaying of Claudius, Jax didn’t execute Clay solely as an act of private revenge but as an agent of the club as a whole, which had unanimously voted in favor of this meeting between Clay and Mister Mayhem. And that’s no doubt part of the reason that Jax’s revenge on Clay did not have the same catastrophic consequences for SAMCRO as Hamlet’s revenge on Claudius had for Denmark.
Because the entire club had a hand in dispatching Clay, this particular act of vengeance actually has more in common with another one of Shakespeare’s memorable murders, the assassination of Julius Caesar by a band of conspirators in the play that bears his name. As the contemporary literary critic and philosopher René Girard has argued in his brilliant book on Shakespeare, A Theatre of Envy, the collective murder of the Roman dictator exemplifies the workings of the “scapegoat mechanism,” in which a beleaguered and splintered community finds renewed unity and purpose by directing all of its pent up hostility against a single individual, some hapless “scapegoat” who they can saddle with the blame for all their troubles. “Nothing unites men like a common enemy,” writes Girard (186), although he also points out that a collective murder can unify and pacify a community only if the whole team is on board, everyone agrees that the scapegoat really is the cause of the community’s woes, and the poor victim has no allies in a position to retaliate on his behalf. The secret to escaping the Hobbesian logic of escalating violence is to make sure that your victim is so isolated that his death won’t elicit further reprisals. Clay’s murder satisfies every item on the checklist, making it an ideal “bonding-activity” for an MC that had recently gone through hell and needed an outlet for its anger. Jax has probably never read Shakespeare or even heard of Girard, but he’s certainly savvy enough to understand how the “scapegoat mechanism” works and to figure out how he can put it to work for his aims.
Without a doubt, Jax meant for the killing of Clay to be a watershed for the MC, a cathartic repudiation of what it had become under the former president’s leadership and a palpable demonstration of their shared commitment to the new direction in which Jax intended to steer them. Embodying all that had gone wrong with the club, Clay is offered up as a ritual sacrifice whose execution serves as a healthy purgative and the prelude to a new beginning for the MC—both inherently “sweet,” as all revenge is said to be, and serviceable as a source of renewed solidarity. Of course, assigning a positive value to revenge may not sit right with some people, even when its immediate consequences seem to be salutary. But somehow that doesn’t stop us from enjoying all those action movies and crime thrillers that seem to be premised on the assumption that revenge is both necessary and good. Consider the tremendous satisfaction we derive from watching the bad guys dispatched in a final frenzy of violence in the typical action movie, a dénouement that is apparently a necessary precondition for reinstating the rightful order of the world after a brush with apocalypse. That’s not much different from what the execution of Clay accomplished for SAMCRO, the chief difference being that we’re getting our catharsis secondhand.
If Sons of Anarchy were a more conventional drama, the bloody death of the show’s designated villain would have been the final act of redemptive violence that ushered in the happy ending. Peace would reign at last in Charming, with the MC prospering in its legal porn business and Jax, now gainfully employed in a bike repair shop in Oregon, enjoying domestic bliss with his successful wife and his two boys. But that’s no way to end a Shakespearean tragedy, so in the final episode of the previous season, “A Mother’s Work,” Jax arrives home to discover the bloodied body of his wife lying dead on the kitchen floor. That season ended with an image of Jax doubled over in grief, but it didn’t take long for grief to turn to grievance and for his howls of heartache to become a roar for vengeance. Minutes into the new season, it was already clear that the tragedy of Jax Teller was back on track.
The revenge tragedy was a popular theatrical genre during Shakespeare’s times, much like action movies or crime thrillers today, with its own set of conventions that dictated the general outlines of the plot—a murder, extended scheming on the part of the avenger, a steadily rising body count, more innocent victims, and a bloody paroxysm of violence at the end. All are on display in Hamlet and, since Sons of Anarchy seems to be following the same script, that’s exactly what appears to be in store for us in this final season. But there’s one more convention of the genre that Hamlet and Sons of Anarchy both openly flout, though each in a different way. And in so doing, they taint the pleasure that we’re normally able to take in the blood-soaked dénouement of a tale of revenge, while at the same time perhaps offering us something even more valuable in return, the possibility of gaining some real insight into the dynamics of revenge.
In the standard revenge tragedy, vengeance was required of the protagonist as an inexorable moral imperative, a sacred duty owed to the innocent victim. Everything else, including the demands of self-preservation and the hero’s qualms about shedding blood, were expected to take a backseat to his overriding obligation to become heaven’s chosen instrument for punishing the guilty. Even when his single-minded pursuit of his mission left a trail of carnage in its wake, the hero could still count on the audience’s sympathy so long as everything done was in obedience to the imperative of vengeance. As an ancient Latin dictum succinctly puts it: “Fiat justitia ruat caelum” (“Let justice be done though the heavens fall”). But revenge can cloak itself in the mantle of justice only if a couple of crucial conditions are met: first, the victim whose death is being avenged must really be innocent and, second, the alleged perpetrator must really be guilty. Absent these conditions, the act of revenge can’t really offer the audience the emotional and moral catharsis that comes from witnessing a grave moral wrong being redressed. It’s a fact of human nature, one that explains the enduring appeal of tales of revenge, that retaliatory violence feels right and can even be relished when it can be framed as a straightforward case of good versus evil—but less so otherwise. And it’s precisely this sort of relish that Sutter, following in Shakespeare’s footsteps, seems intent on denying us in the final season of Sons of Anarchy.
Shakespeare violates the first of these conditions, the innocence of the victim. As Girard points out in A Theatre of Envy, “It cannot be without a purpose that Shakespeare suggests that the old Hamlet, the murdered king, was a murderer himself. However nasty Claudius may look, he cannot look nasty enough if he appears in the context of previous revenge” (273). If the one whose death must be avenged isn’t simply the innocent victim of pure, unprovoked malice, but rather someone who, from the perpetrator’s point of view, had it coming, then the act of vengeance begins to look less like righting a grievous wrong and more like perpetuating an already ongoing cycle of violence. In Girard’s analysis of the play, Hamlet has such a notoriously hard time warming up to his task precisely because he’s burdened with insights that make it impossible for him to frame the conflict in terms of the simplistic dichotomy of good versus evil that ordinarily gives the demand for vengeance its sense of moral urgency. As Girard writes, “the crime by Claudius looks to [Hamlet] like one more link in a long chain, and his own revenge will look like still another link, perfectly identical to all the other links” (ibid.). How many of the conflicts that SAMCRO has had with other organizations—and not least of all its current war with the Lin Triad—also fit this description? If we as viewers find ourselves taking sides in these conflicts, it’s not because SAMCRO has justice in its corner or is any less blameworthy than its adversaries, but simply because we happen to like these guys.
Whereas Hamlet suffers from a crippling overabundance of insight, Jax’s problem in the current season of Sons of Anarchy is just the opposite—he warms to the task of revenge too quickly, when he should be cooling his blindingly-white tennis shoe heels and reflecting on what his actions are costing him and his allegedly beloved MC. And Sutter’s revenge tragedy departs from Shakespeare in yet another respect, for, unlike the murdered King Hamlet, Tara is about as innocent as they come, her death having been the result of a terrible misunderstanding. But Sutter violates the second condition that must be met for a revenge tragedy to deliver a satisfying moral catharsis—the necessity that the target of the revenge be really guilty of the crime for which he’s being punished. Henry Lin, like virtually everyone else that SAMCRO deals with on a regular basis and like the members of SAMCRO themselves, is guilty of some truly horrible atrocities—from the mutilation of poor Chuckie Marstein to the massacre at Diosa Norte—but ordering his henchman to murder Tara is not one of them.
So, though we can’t help but admire the zeal and cunning with which Jax unfolds his plan, we can only shake our heads in grief and dismay at how totally misguided it is, especially in light of its most recent repercussions, the “poor little lambs” sacrificed on the floor of Diosa Norte. As Socrates observes in Plato’s dialogue Crito, zeal is a fine thing when rightly directed, but, for someone who’s treading the wrong path, “the greater the zeal the greater the danger” (46b). As with every self-appointed avenger, Jax’s zeal is fueled by his unwavering moral certainty that his cause is righteous enough to justify the havoc he’s wreaking in every corner of his world. And now that Lin has retaliated in a way that’s sure to stoke Jax’s rage and entrench his resolve more deeply than ever, there’s about as much chance of him abandoning his mission as there is of Gemma Teller Morrow being elected the head the Charming PTA. Jax’s moral certainty keeps his focus on destroying Lin razor sharp, at the same time as it blinds him to everything that might deter him from his destructive choices.
Jax wasn’t always so blind. In fact, the scales seemed to be falling from his eyes at the end of the previous season, as he came to some uncomfortable realizations about himself. “I have tremendous remorse for the acts of violence I’ve committed, both planned and spontaneous,” he wrote in his journal. “But what brings me the most sorrow is that I’ve learned to justify this behavior. I always find a reason, a cause, a need that allows me the karmic lubrication to stuff my guilt into a savage compartment. I’ve become the thing, the one I hated. … Now my sense of doubt and fraudulence barks so loudly in my head that most of the time I can’t hear anything else” (“A Mother’s Work”). We might read this Hamletian soliloquy as a prescient critique of what Jax has become in the current season, now that he’s silenced the barking of his conscience and stuffed his doubts into that same savage compartment where he had been storing his guilt. “He’s looking for any excuse to rage,” Nero Padilla tells Gemma (“Poor Little Lambs”) and he’s clearly found one in the supposed moral imperative of revenge.
Of course, as viewers we know too much to share Jax’s moral certainty and zeal. But, though our knowledge may taint the pleasure we can take in his acts of vengeance, it does afford us a certain measure of distance, which is needed to gain the sort of insights into the dynamics of revenge that are unavailable to those who are completely in its thrall.
My next blog post on Sons of Anarchy will consider some of the other lessons this season might have to teach us about the nature of revenge. In the meantime, keep your eyes on the road ahead, because I have a feeling that there may be some treacherous turns coming up.
George A. Dunn is the co-editor (with Jason T. Eberl) of Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy.
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