When I was in college, I got deep into Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy. Despite all its shaggy shortcomings and ridiculous tattooed navel-gazing, it had some great characters and portrayed the details of its hierarchical subject matter so well that I became engrossed by the inner workings of a motorcycle club. I didn’t even really believe all that stuff until I moved to an apartment complex next to an Oklahoman biker who worked as the treasurer for his law enforcement M.C. They didn’t shoot people up or run guns, but they certainly had a code—and a family made messy by internal jockeying for position. But it paled in comparison to the twisty, violent, even sexy trailer-park manifesto that was SoA’s Shakespeare-in-leather.
Now Sutter’s co-created a follow-up with Elgin James (who has walked the walk of Sutter’s outlaw fascination) about another literate biker embroiled in drama involving an M.C., fatherhood, legacy, and identity. Jax Teller may be gone, but almost everything about him seems to have made it into Mayans M.C.. And that’s not a bad thing, because the series does just enough to set itself apart. It also takes some time to prove it: The first two episodes, both directed by Norberto Barba, are a soapy yet confident set-up, with higher highs and lower lows than its meticulous (if overwritten) predecessor’s “duck takes to water” story.
Ezekiel “EZ” Reyes (JD Pardo, charismatic and jacked enough to provide the same mix of coolness and scraggly eye candy as Jax) is a prospect trying to get into the Mayans after unexpectedly getting out of prison. His old flame, Emily (Sarah Bolger, not to give too much away, but excellent at screaming), has left him behind; his worrying father, Felipe (the always-great Edward James Olmos), monitors the twisty deal that got him out of prison; and his Mayan brother, Angel (Clayton Cardenas), takes him under his wing. When Miguel Galindo’s (Danny Pino) cartel—which the Mayans are working for—gets hit, their asses are on the line, and the war for the border’s soul is in full swing.
That’s the set-up, with SoA’s trademark mix of personal, organizational, and multinational goals. Life was over, now it’s not. A misguided bad boy born again thanks to patches, diesel, and loyalty. Biking is a second chance at the American Dream, to make a difference for the future: It’s the show’s first big allegory, one that’s far too broad to make much of an impact, especially when the realities of American border control get scarier and scarier every day. But the trashy, on-the-nose class drama among cartel bigwigs, retaliatory rebels, and biker bums can be satisfying, even achieving, at times, the populist tone James and Sutter strive for. It’s thanks to the localism—the 50/50 split of Spanish and English; the almost entirely Latinx cast, made up of standouts like Michael Irby and Richard Cabral—that the series feels unique, despite being made up of many familiar parts.
And though its set pieces reminiscent of Better Call Saul’s cartel dives and The Sopranos’ early, small-time crime elements, Mayans M.C. still stands apart with its places. In cramped tunnels and busy streets. In a dog shelter brawl and a graveyard shootout, where some competent action choreography (you can always tell who’s shooting who, where the baddies are going, and how the good guys are trying to stop them) immediately sets high stakes, draws big guns, and shoots to kill. That it introduces a delightfully messy maze of relationships, power struggles, and factions while doing so more than makes up for some of its more formulaic aspects.
Inviting, bright colors help instill a sense of culture in this bright, arid border town, and I have to admit, I’m a sucker for the grimy, badly-groomed goofballs of bikerdom—especially when their schemes look this good. The dialogue won’t win any awards (the would-be road scholars behind the show value machismo over subtlety) but the series’ over-the-top, sometimes Mad Max-esque production design (a statue of St. Mary, strapped with bandoliers) bolsters its energetic cinematography enough to push past some of its narrative lulls. It’s junk-food drama, but with the prospect of the story getting even more deliciously convoluted and the approximately two hundred biker characters all getting fleshed out, Mayans M.C. is a properly satisfying follow-up to a series that always included a little more meat than it seemed.
Mayans M.C. premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.