Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy
Holy, Moses! The Pleasures and Perils of Revenge (Part II)
George A. Dunn
“Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.”
~ Leviticus 24:19-20
Do you think Jax Teller ever read the biblical book of Leviticus? Probably not. Yet he seems to have a solid, intuitive grasp of the so-called lex talionis, the law of retaliation that’s famously encapsulated in the formula, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” which dictates that the ideal punishment should be a perfect mirror the crime. According to Jewish tradition, the lex talionis is part of a body of law given by God to the Jewish people through the prophet Moses. So it’s no small irony that the prophet’s own namesake, August Marks right-hand man, Moses Cartwright, got to experience the “eye for eye” treatment at the hands of SAMCRO. In a recent episode of Sons of Anarchy, “Faith and Despondency,” SAMCRO ambushed Moses and his crew, mowing them down in hail of bullets that left only Moses alive. Jax then grabbed Moses by the throat and proceeded to unleash some Old Testament justice on him, ripping one of Moses’s eyes from its socket in retaliation for the eye he took from Bobby Munson. Then, as other members of the club pinned Moses to the ground, Chibs Telford sawed off the fingers of Moses’s left hand, once again mirroring exactly what he had done to Bobby. Finally, to cap off this showcase of poetic justice, Jax put a bullet through Moses’s skull, ending his life in the same way that Bobby’s had ended.
As I mentioned in my previous blog on Sons of Anarchy, the quest for revenge, along with its unforeseen and often-disastrous consequences, seem to be prime themes of the final season of Sons of Anarchy, Kurt Sutter’s saga of the travails of an outlaw motorcycle club in southern California, which draws unabashedly from William Shakespeare’s great tale of revenge, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. But the theme of retribution also weaves its way through the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, like a bloody red thread, so it’s not surprising that this season would feature a scene that was no doubt deliberately designed to evoke the most famous retributive formula in the western world in as graphic a manner as possible. But it’s not the first time that SAMCRO or its members have been the agents of some punishment that was intended to perfectly mimic the crime. In the final episode of season three, Opie Winston placed Agent June Stahl in the driver’s seat of her vehicle, instructing her to put her hands on the wheel so that she would be in the same position as his wife Donna was when she died from a bullet to the back of the head, a direct result of Stahl having painted Opie as a rat. “This is how she felt,” he tells Stahl, before splattering her brains across the windshield (“NS”).
Jax also wants the ones he holds responsible for the death of his own wife, Tara Knowles, to experience the very same pain they dealt out, their suffering mirroring that of Tara and Jax as closely as possible. “What you did to her, how you did it—I’m going to make sure you feel that,” Jax told Chris Dun, the Lin Triad member who Jax mistakenly believed had murdered Tara. After torturing Dun for a while, Jax finished him off with a carving fork thrust into the back of his head, the same type of utensil used to deliver the same fatal wound as the one that killed Tara, in a gruesomely literal compliance with the Leviticus 24:19 dictate that “Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return” (“Black Widower”). And the crowning finish of Jax’s original plan to destroy Henry Lin, the gangster who Jax believed ordered the hit on Tara, was to be for Lin to experience the same devastating grief that Jax had suffered when he lost the love of his life. After ruining Lin’s business, Jax planned to “look around his table, his men, his family, ask him who he wants spared. First person he points to, that’s who I’m killing. And then everyone else he cares about. I’m going to let him live in the agony of that for a little while. And then I’m going to end him, as slowly and painfully as possible” (“Toil and Till”).
Of course, Lin got wind of Jax’s plans before he could carry them to completion, which was enough to unleash Lin’s own crew of Furies against the club. After SAMCRO orchestrated an attack on a Lin Triad whorehouse, roughing up both clients and staff, Lin sent his men to slaughter the girls of Diosa Norte (“Poor Little Lambs”). A whore for a whore. But that brutal act of retaliation wasn’t the first time that innocent bystanders have been stand-ins for the eyes and teeth that the lex talionis demands as payment. When Agent Stahl killed Cameron Hayes’ son Edmund and framed Gemma Teller Morrow for the murder, the anguished father flew to Jax’s house in a grief-stricken rage and, while threatening baby Abel with a kitchen knife, mused out loud: “A son for a son seems about right” (“Na Trioblóidí”). And let’s not forget Damon Pope’s obstinate allegiance to the principle of a daughter for a daughter. “Now you feel my pain,” he told Tig Trager before burning his daughter Dawn to death before his eyes (“Sovereign”).
As tragic—and unconscionable—as this tit-for-tat of violent retaliation can be when innocents get caught in its crossfire, the truth is that many of us still find something deeply satisfying about the symmetry and balance that the Levitical principle of “eye for eye” represents. After all, it’s not for nothing that Jax chose to take out Moses’s eye, rather than inflict an equivalent amount of pain in some other manner. There’s something about such a punishment that just feels fitting and right, even if a bit shocking. When the punishment so closely mirrors the crime, we often refer to it as “poetic justice,” which suggests that there’s something aesthetically pleasing about the right punishment delivered in the right way. It’s not entirely unlike the satisfaction we derive from a well-composed piece of art, like the Reaper tattoo emblazoned on Jax’s back. In both cases, the elements are beautifully balanced and symmetrical, related to each other in a way that feels orderly and right. Both the Reaper and “eye for eye” retribution are admittedly grim, not in the least bit pretty, but does that mean that they can’t be, in their own way, a source of delight?
No doubt the idea of deriving aesthetic pleasure from a well-executed act of vengeance strikes many people as downright barbaric, though the writers of Sons of Anarchy probably haven’t misread the aesthetic sensibilities of their audience if they’ve concluded that hoisting villains on their own petards is a crowd pleaser. Is our enjoyment of symmetrical reprisals a guilty pleasure? Is it even perhaps, as some might contend, an utterly sordid pleasure, one that civilized people should renounce? If so, then we civilized people would also have to renounce Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, the original “Scared Straight” fieldtrip, which features a grisly compendium of poetic justice that would probably make even Otto Delany squirm a little bit. And, edifying tours of hell aside, the ideal of making the punishment “fit” the crime—if not by precisely mirroring the nature of the offense, then at least by reflecting its severity—is actually pretty basic to our ordinary conception of justice. We don’t typically demand an eye for an eye, but our criminal justice system does prescribe certain ranges of penalties for certain types of crimes, scaled according to the gravity of the offense. Even if we can’t replicate for the perpetrator the precise character of the pain he inflicted on his victim, we at least want him to experience something of proportionate intensity. In this way, a just punishment is said to restore the “balance” that had been disrupted by the crime, an idea represented in the familiar image of Lady Justice holding aloft her set of scales, symmetrically arrayed when the punishment is just as weighty as the offense. Justice, wrote the philosopher Immanuel Kant in The Philosophy of Law, “is just the principle of equality, by which the pointer on the scale of justice is made to incline no more to one side than to the other” (196).
But can we really compare the bloody vengeance dished out by SAMCRO and other denizens of their outlaw world with the exalted ideal of justice? Many people equate the two, but there are some philosophers who paint a hard line down the middle of the road, placing retributive justice on one side and outlaw revenge on the other. Revenge, in their minds, has nothing to do with just retribution, for only the latter is guided by a concern for proportion and balance. “Retribution sets an internal limit to the amount of the punishment, according to the seriousness of the wrong,” writes Robert Nozick in Philosophical Explanations, “whereas revenge internally need set no limit to what is inflicted” (367). In contrast to the rational and dignified Lady Justice with her scales that measure out penance in the right proportions, Nozick seems to imagine the agent of vengeance as driven by an insatiable, uncontrollable, and utterly reckless desire to inflict an endless amount of harm on his adversary, like a rampaging Tig Trager crashing his car full-speed into an outdoor café after being told that One-Niners had shot his club president, Clay Morrow. Nozick concedes that “the revenger may limit what he inflicts for external reasons”—such as perhaps the need to hightail it to safety in the aftermath of the aforementioned full-speed crash—but he claims that the limits of what one will do when spurred by an appetite for revenge are never set by the nature of the offense, but only by other, unrelated considerations.
I’m not convinced. While Nozick’s description of the revenge-seeker may be a good fit for emotionally overwrought types like Tig, we can think of plenty of instances when members of SAMCRO sought revenge in ways that were constrained by a sense of measure. Clay slept with Cherry to punish Half-Sack Epps for his ill-advised testimonial to Gemma’s womanly allure (“Clay’s old lady gave me a serious MILF chubby”), a punishment that was, in Clay’s mind at least, proportionate to the offense and sufficient to settle the score (“Patch Over”). And it even had a bit of an “eye for eye” quality to it, since it involved paying back in kind what Clay undoubtedly felt was a disrespectful trespass on his own sexual domain. It was certainly an act of revenge, but Clay didn’t seek to do unlimited harm to Half-Sack. Contrary to Nozick’s belief that a concern for balance and proportion is entirely foreign to the desire for revenge, one can seek revenge as Clay did, with very specific goals in mind and without having to toss every inhibition to the wind. In fact, as viewers of Sons of Anarchy know so well, the intelligence and self-control required to execute certain acts of vengeance are among the things that make them so enjoyable to watch.
The relationship between judicial retribution and revenge is complicated and ambiguous, more so than Nozick seems to recognize. For example, unlike the impersonal administration of justice by the courts, vengeance is usually, as Nozick rightly insists, driven by a passion that derives pleasure from witnessing the suffering of its target, against whom the avenger has a personal grudge. But even that’s not always true. The pursuit of revenge can be sweet, but it might also be experienced as a disagreeable burden or even as an utterly abhorrent duty. As we come up on the final episodes of Sons of Anarchy, the burning question is what Jax will do with his bombshell discovery that it was really Gemma who killed Tara and that it was his mother’s lies that led the club down the disastrous path that resulted in the mutilation and death of Bobby Munson—to name only one of the most recent and by far the most beloved casualty of SAMCRO’s campaign of vengeance—and that now imperils the club’s very existence. “What about Gemma?” Nero Padilla asked Jax, as they discussed how Jax will move forward after this revelation. Jax answered with a cold, hard stare. At this point we don’t yet know what Jax will do, but that silent response and his subsequent conversation with Nero tell us that he hasn’t yet ruled out introducing Gemma to Mister Mayhem.
Lex talionis demands a life for a life. To let Gemma’s crimes go unpunished is the same as condoning them or maybe even making oneself retroactively complicit in them. Blood cries out for blood, for nothing less is a sufficiently robust expression of the abhorrence we must feel when confronted with such crimes.
Something along these lines is perhaps running through Jax mind right now. Though the horrible deed he’s forced to contemplate is likely, as Nero warns, to leave “a wound that’s too deep to heal,” that may not be enough to deter Jax from what may feel to him like a sacred duty owed to Tara and his club to avenge the wrongs they have suffered. If in Jax’s mind Gemma’s actions have signed her death warrant—and that’s the big if hanging over these remaining episodes of this final season—there will certainly be no repeat of the personal satisfaction that Jax took in bringing down Lin. We’ll soon find out whether the template from which Kurt Sutter is working is not Hamlet after all, but rather the Greek tragedy of Orestes, who kills his mother Clytemnestra to avenge the death of his father and is then driven mad by the horror of his deed. In any case, we shouldn’t let the pleasure people often take in revenge blind us to the fact that it can also be felt as a painful, even odious, moral obligation.
So the distinction that philosophers like Nozick want to draw between revenge and justice—with the red-hot passion of the one opposed to the cold sober reason of the other—isn’t as cut-and-died as it’s sometimes made out to be. No less than the official justice meted out by an impartial court of law, the pursuit of revenge by outlaws like Jax Teller and SAMCRO can be guided by a sense of proportionality and roused by a sense of moral duty. In fact, since people have been seeking private revenge on behalf of themselves and their loved ones since before the dawn of human history—and, indeed, if we accept what many anthropologists and primatologists are telling us, since long before our species Homo even became sapiens—the high-minded ideals of symmetry and just deserts enshrined in our criminal justice system are basically just a refinement and codification of the “eye for eye” principle that SAMCRO lives by. The “outlaw justice” that the Sons of Anarchy dispense is not only much older than the legal system that they spend much of their time trying to dodge, but is also in a sense its prototype.
Still, despite the deep satisfaction we’re able to derive from revenge, despite its ancient evolutionary pedigree, despite everything it shares with the justice doled out by the courts, many people these days have become extremely uncomfortable with the idea of vengeance, viewing it as something dangerous that we ought to discourage, especially when the agent is some private individual. Why is this? The problem can’t be that revenge is wholly irrational, lacking all sense of limit and proportionality—we’ve already seen that that’s not true. There are, of course, the innocent casualties, who have made a substantial contribution to the body count in this season of Sons of Anarchy, but perhaps some of that bloodshed could have been avoided if the avengers had focused their wrath at the responsible parties rather than innocent bystanders. And then there’s this problem, which the current season of Sons of Anarchy has highlighted with a vengeance (so to speak): Without the safeguards afforded by due process, it’s too easy to go after the wrong guy. Yet our judicial system also makes mistakes, prosecuting the innocent (such as Tara Knowles, who’s hounded by the law for a crime she didn’t commit) and letting the guilty go free (such as Agent Josh “Stalker-Boy” Kohn, who suffers no legal consequences for his obstinate defiance of a protection order). In many cases, the victim may be in a better position than the courts to identify the real offender, though admittedly SAMCRO has a pretty crappy track record on that score recently.
To understand the real problem with private vengeance, we need to turn again to the thought of contemporary philosopher René Girard, who I discussed in my last Sons of Anarchy blog. “Why does the spirit of revenge, whenever it breaks out, constitute such an intolerable menace?” asks Girard in his Violence and the Sacred. “Vengeance professes to be an act of reprisal, and every reprisal calls for another reprisal. The crime to which the act of vengeance addresses itself is almost never an unprecedented offense; in almost every case it has been committed in revenge for some prior crime” (15). When both parties to a conflict feel that they are in the right, the act whereby one party seeks to settle the score becomes for his adversary a new source of grievance. As philosopher Elizabeth Wolgast has put it, the two sides employ “different arithmetics,” so, though both may be aiming at symmetry, the result is simply a steady escalation of violence. However, when a legal system is in place that can punish on behalf of victims and has enough violence at its disposal to deter any retaliation, then “an act of vengeance is no longer avenged; the process is terminated, the danger of escalation averted” (16).
Of course, relying on the legal system to settle its scores is not an option for an outlaw MC like the Sons of Anarchy. There is, however, another alternative to violent retribution: forgiveness and mercy. In this connection we should bear in mind that the lex talionis, “eye for eye,” is at its heart a principle of restraint—the punishment should not exceed the crime in severity. An eye for an eye—but no more than an eye for an eye! Interpreted in this way, the Mosaic Law leaves open the possibility of even an greater exercise of restraint, the possibility of leniency or even forgoing punishment altogether.
That’s also normally not an option for an outlaw like Jax Teller, who has internalized a code of honor that requires him to project an image of strength, self-confidence, and bravado that lets the world know he’s no chump who others can traipse over with impunity. As I pointed out in my chapter in Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy (which I edited with Jason T. Eberl), restoring one’s tarnished honor after suffering an insult or an injury is an acute imperative in the world of outlaw bikers, since they can’t depend for protection on the police, but only on the fear inspired by their reputations. From the start of this season, Jax has been willing to imperil everything he loves in order to punish the ones he held responsible for Tara’s death. Now he finds himself at a crossroads, forced to reassess the costs of revenge.
George A. Dunn is the editor, with Jason T. Eberl, of Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy.