Jax Teller as a Tragic Hero
By Jason Eberl
In calling Jax Teller a “tragic hero” we need to parse out carefully what each of these words means in this context. Some may balk at the notion that there’s anything “tragic” about Jax’s death in the final scene of “Papa’s Goods.” After all, he died with a wistful smile on his face, apparently at peace with himself and his fate, and for one last time thumbing his nose (and firing a few bullets) at authority to cement into history his “outlaw” status. On the other hand, some may object to calling Jax a “hero” since he arguably threw his life away when he could’ve headed down to Norco with Wendy and Nero, and raised his boys as the father he always wanted to be—not to mention that if he’d separated himself from SAMCRO a couple years earlier, he probably could’ve lived happily in Oregon with Tara and the boys, but then the series would’ve been cut way too short!
The “heroic” nature of Jax’s death, in my view, is grounded in the fact that he died having satisfied his “heart’s desire.” This phrase refers to a person’s commitment to something that has great value for him over-and-above his ordinary desires for things like food, whiskey, sex, and cool tattoos. The desires of a person’s heart lay at the center of an interconnected web of beliefs and desires and, when such desires are unsatisfied or frustrated, a person becomes “heartbroken” and other, more peripheral goods lose their attraction. We see this when Jax, heartbroken over Tara’s brutal murder, can see only vengeful violence as a good worth pursuing throughout Season 7. Unlike in previous seasons, we see Jax taking no joy in getting the best of SAMCRO’s enemies; nor does the free-spirited sexual life the rest of the club enjoys give him any solace until quite late in the season. Even then, sex becomes more about self-healing (in the case of the prostitute Winsome) or pure lovemaking (in the case of Wendy)—long gone is the young stud whom we first meet in one of his apparently frequent condom purchases. Interestingly, when the clerk counsels him that it’s cheaper to buy them in bulk, he demurs that buying just “a box at a time keeps me humble,” but his sly grin betrays his lack of seriousness in that comment (“Pilot”). Jax won’t be properly humbled until after having suffered the heartbreak of nearly losing Abel, Opie’s and Tara’s deaths, and Gemma’s ultimate betrayal.
In his previous blog entry on SOA, my co-editor of Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy, George Dunn, discussed the biblical foundations of Jax’s motivation and arguable justification for revenge against Moses Cartwright and other according to lex talionis. In his final sacrifice, I see Jax emulating another biblical character, but not the one might think given Jax’s cruciform pose in those final moments of his last ride. Rather, I’m thinking of Samson, who also struck a cruciform pose tied with his arms stretched between two giant pillars supporting the Philistine palace in which he was displayed as a beaten and blinded prisoner. As you may recall from Sunday school, Samson used his great strength to pull down the two pillars and thereby crush himself and all the gathered Philistines, who were the sworn enemies of the Israelites. How did Samson gain this strength since his capture by the Philistines resulted from the betrayal by his lover Delilah, who infamously cut Samson’s hair and thus he lost his superhuman strength? Some might think that Jax, too, lost some of his mojo after his stint in Stockton prison between Seasons 3 and 4 resulted in his glorious blonde locks being cut. As I compare the moral lessons echoed in the lives of both Samson and Jax, I’ll be following an interpretation of the former by philosopher of religion Eleonore Stump in her book Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Like Samson, Jax needed to be humbled. In earlier seasons we witnessed his cunning and ruthlessness leading to success after success in outwitting the likes of June Stahl, Clay Morrow, Damon Pope, and Galen O’Shea. As Unser warns the new Sherriff Althea Jarry, “Jax Teller is formidable, as smart as he is dangerous” (“Toil and Till”). Similarly, Samson racks up a long list of victories against a ferocious lion and multitudes of Philistines on at least three occasions, and he also escapes near-capture three times before he’s ultimately taken. He even flaunts his strength and cunning before his enemies, sneaking into their city to sleep with a Philistine prostitute and get away with it, tearing down the gates of the city and setting up them at the top of a hill, just to prove that he can! (Judges 16:1-3) This is reminiscent of Jax’s dumping the bodies of August Marks’s slain crew right on the front doorstep of Pope Industries (“Smoke ’em if You Got ’em”).
In Season 7, however, as George details in his previous posts, Jax goes on a blind, rage-fueled rampage of vengeance and, in the process, is outwitted and out-violenced at various points by both Marks and Henry Lin. As he suffers various defeats, most notably in the case of Bobby’s imprisonment, torture, and eventual murder, Jax humbly admits to Chibs, “I’m out of my depth here, man. I completely underestimated August. He’s smarter than I am” (“Separation of Crows”). Samson’s self-motivated violence also leads to his defeat, tortuous suffering, and eventual humiliation.
Samson’s destiny was forged before his birth when, like Christ, an angel announced his conception to his mother and proclaimed that he’ll be born a “Nazirite” dedicated to the service of God and be a savior for the Israelite people. Like Gemma, Samson’s mother “had plans” for him. As a sign of Samson’s dedication to God and Israel, no razor was ever to come to his head. It’s not that Samson’s long locks held any mystical powers, but rather were a sign of his commitment to his destined purposed. As Samson matured into his heroic vocation, he became, as Stump describes him, “prodigious in his feats of strength, virtually invulnerable to the weapons of his enemies, and fearsome in his vengeance on wrongdoers” (p. 233). Sound familiar?
Whenever Samson acts on behalf of Israel, God’s power “rushed on him” to endow him with superhuman strength (e.g., Judges 14:19, 15:14); however, whenever he acts on his own behalf, either to save himself or in seeking personal vengeance against his enemies, Samson has to rely only on his own natural strength. We likewise witness how successful Jax is by virtue of his strength, courage, and cunning when acting on behalf of SAMCRO, but then struggles when battling Lin and Marks out of personal vengeance for Tara’s murder.
When Samson is finally captured, it isn’t because his own strength has left him, but because he lacks divinely-infused power due to his disdain for God and his Nazirite status—exhibited by his revealing the source of his strength to Delilah. Samson’s dismissive attitude towards his holy vocation reflects Jax’s eventual disdain for J.T.’s “hippie shit” vision for the MC. Especially after discovering his father’s betrayal of his family through his Irish affair, Jax considers J.T. to have been “weak” (“Brick”) and starts to de-identify himself and his leadership of the club with J.T.’s.
Samson’s capture affects not only him, but the whole of Israel; and we see how Jax’s quest for vengeance threatens the MC, embodied in the deaths of West and Bobby, along with Colette and the girls of Diosa Norte. Samson had the potential, in both natural abilities and divinely-infused strength, to be a true hero to Israel; instead, “By what he did with the life he was given, Samson made a sort of abortion out of himself” (Stump, p. 229). Having destroyed himself spiritually and morally, Samson must endure physical suffering in order to effect his healing. Having suffered many forms of torture—including being blinded (shades of Oedipus)—Samson makes a final humble supplication to God, to whom he’s been silent for so long, to restore his strength enough for him to vanquish his enemies. He doesn’t ask God to destroy his enemies for him or to save him, but to give him the ability to do the deed himself. While fans continue to speculate about the meaning of the homeless woman who appears at critical moments throughout the series, her giving Jax the blanket that he then uses in his assassination of Marks can be interpreted as a similar form of divine blessing for a final act of vengeance. Both Jax and Samson cases, while they commit this last violence out of personal vengeance, thereby save their respective people in the process: Samson kills all of the Philistines and the Israelites come to occupy their land; and Jax kills Marks, who otherwise would be a continued threat to the MC, and thereby allows the MC and its allies—the Niners and Mayans—to gain control of Marks’s Oakland and Stockton territories.
Like Samson’s re-orientation towards his divine father just before his death, Jax is able to reconcile his feelings about J.T. just before he meets his ultimate fate: “I know who you are now and what you did. I love you, dad” (“Papa’s Goods”). Samson, having reconciled himself with God, arguably dies a glorious death in fulfillment of his divine vocation and his own heart’s desire of being a hero to the people of Israel. Jax, having reconciled himself with his father, also dies having fulfilled his heart’s desire of safeguarding his family, protecting his boys from the life he’s led, and preserving the MC that he loves. Milton thus writes of Samson’s death in his epic poem Samson Agonistes (ll. 1721-4):
Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
Or knock the breast, no weakness, no contempt,
Dispraise or blame; nothing but well and fair,
And what may quiet us in a death so noble.
Nevertheless, I would argue that Jax’s death is still “tragic” as he ultimately suffered from despair that he could’ve changed and, as Nero counsels him, “honor Tara’s wish” to get away and raise his boys in peace (“Suits of Woe”). Jax believes his death is the only way he can both “honor Tara’s wish” and preserve SAMCRO—and maybe he’s right. But he also believes he can’t change and that, even if SAMCRO weren’t at all at risk, he still couldn’t be a good father to his boys. In the conclusion of my essay, “Virtue and Vice in the SAMCROpolis: Aristotle Views Sons of Anarchy” (http://media.wiley.com/product_data/excerpt/74/11186415/1118641574-22.pdf), I state, “The particular mix of virtue and vice that comprises Jax’s moral character may, in the end, be exactly what SAMCRO needs at this moment in its history” (p. 14)—and the two remaining seasons that followed my writing that sentence seem to have borne out its truth. Jax, like most human beings, has a moral character comprising both virtues and vices—perhaps a bit more of the latter than the former. Vices, just as much as virtues, are embedded dispositions (habits) of character; but that doesn’t mean they can’t be reformed, albeit with difficulty.
Jax, however, despairs to Nero, “This who I am. I can’t change.” Theologically, in the context of Chibs’s “Catholic superstition,” this constitutes the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” that is the only “unforgivable sin” (Mark 3:29; Matthew 12:32; Luke 12:10). What makes it unforgivable? In discussing the biblical story of Job, Eleonore Stump argues that the “framing” narrative of Job is about God’s enduring love for Satan, despite knowing that Satan will never reform and willingly accept God’s love for him (ch. 9). According to classical Christian theology, as formulated in the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.), the Holy Spirit is the “third person” of the Divine Trinity who “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Interpreting this difficult theological doctrine, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225 – 1274) conceptualizes the Holy Spirit as the inexhaustible love between the Father and the Son (Summa theologiae Ia, q. 37). Furthermore, the Holy Spirit manifests itself—according to neo-Platonic metaphysics that conceives of being and goodness as inherently diffusive of itself—into creation in general and into the existence of each individual person who is created in the imago Dei—the “image and likeness” of God (Genesis 1:27). God’s love for each individual person—including both fallen angels like Satan, and fallen human being like Jax—is thus unconditional and inexhaustible. Jax’s tragic despair stems from his inability to acknowledge that he could still be lovable—whether by God, Gemma, Wendy, or his sons. His despair manifests in his exhortation to Nero, “When the time comes, she [Wendy] needs to tell my sons who I really am. I’m not a good man. I’m a criminal and a killer. I need my sons to grow up hatin’ the thought of me.” While there’s a pragmatic purpose in Jax’s intention that his sons not go down the same destructive path he has, there’s nevertheless a concomitant existential despair in Charlie Hunnam’s delivery of these lines.
Aware of the difficulty—if not impossibility in Jax’s tragic self-evaluation—of changing vice into virtue, particularly when ensconced within a vicious social milieu, Jax makes clear to Nero that he and Wendy need to get his boys anywhere but Charming. This raises the question, though, if Jax is aware of how poisonous Charming and SAMCRO is, why is he willing to sacrifice himself to protect the MC? Jax could’ve gotten away with Nero, Wendy, and the boys if only he hadn’t gone on a final killing rampage. The answer, as discussed by James Edwin Mahon’s chapter in Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy, is loyalty, which is arguably a virtue even when it may be misplaced. Jax could agree with his father all he wants about the inherently destructive nature of the MC and its various business dealings “off the social grid,” but he can’t deny his deep, abiding love for his brothers in the club. And if it seems strange for Jax to love those who are willingly complicit in a social environment that bred the likes of Clay and Gemma, just consider the parallel of Sheriff Althea Jarry’s apparent love for Chibs despite her ultimate—but evidently emotionally painful—rebuff. “Althea,” by the way, refers to a wholesome, healing plant in the Greco-Roman region; Jarry might’ve provided such a healing opportunity for Chibs if only he could break away from the MC that he now leads.
So, we come to a final moral evaluation of Jax’s last willful action: gunning the engine of his father’s Panhead and letting go to allow fate to take its course. Did Jax commit suicide? Again, we have to be careful and precise with our terms here. As Kurt Sutter stated in the post-finale “Anarchy Afterword,” he didn’t think Jax came to his final decision until he saw the semi rounding the bend. Whatever his motivation was in shooting at the Highway Patrolman and taking off, death apparently wasn’t a certainty yet. When Jax lifted his hands from the handlebars, he didn’t steer himself into the oncoming semi. In this sense, his death was arguably a bit Christ-like, reminding us of the latter’s statement to his father, “into your hands, I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). This links up with Sutter’s statement that having the same truck driver (played by Michael Chiklis) both give Gemma a ride to her own destiny and be the one who hits Jax speaks to something fatalistic, maybe even a bit mystical, conjoining their respective deaths. Perhaps, if J.T. is more than merely a collection of words in a manuscript at this point, this was his ultimate revenge against Gemma, confounding her “plans” for Jax.
Gemma’s plans, of course, included her own death at Jax’s hands, actually having to talk him into it, saying, “You have to do this. It’s who we are, sweetheart” (“Red Rose”). What Gemma, too immersed in her own socially-reinforced vicious nature, couldn’t realize is what Nero, having (along with Wendy) suffered his own “dark night of the soul,” has sufficient wisdom to know: “But a son killing his mother, Jax that’s a wound that’s too deep to heal. And I know you, hermano, that’s gonna swallow you up, that’s gonna destroy you, man” (“Suits of Woe”). Not disagreeing with Nero, Jax nevertheless, like Gemma, is too ensnared by the vices that have shaped his moral character, confessing to Nero afterwards, “I did what I know how to do, what Gemma knew had to be done” (“Papa’s Goods”).
I use the term “tragedy” in reference to Jax’s death because Gemma set him up for his ultimate despair. This doesn’t belie her love for him, “from the deepest, purest part” of her heart; but her love isn’t tempered by wisdom. Perhaps Jax’s love for his boys isn’t either, since he ultimately leaves them without himself as a virtuous fatherly example to emulate. But, then again, he does leave them Nero, whom Jax declares to be his “best friend.” If we imbue that heartfelt label with Aristotle’s definition of “true friendship,” then Jax is acknowledging, as a reflection of whatever virtue he does possess, the inherent virtues embodied by Nero. Nero didn’t succumb to despair when facing his own darkness and is now able to be the type of father to his son (as well as Jax’s) that Jax despaired of being all the way back in Season Three when he witnessed Abel in the arms of “a father who didn’t torture and murder a man yesterday” (“Bainne”). In his final confession to J.T., Jax exemplifies both wisdom and despair, “A good father and a good outlaw can’t saddle inside the same man. I’m sorry, J.T., it’s too late for me. I was already inside it.” I thus maintain that Jax is a tragic hero, while Nero and Wendy are among the finest exemplars of virtue in the SOA saga.
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