The Sons of Anarchy Dilemma: Is it Time to Kick Jax Teller off Team Antihero?

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I was 14 years-old when I discovered Dean Moriarty in On the Road, and ever since then I’ve been drawn to antihero characters. I love flawed, selfish, and tragic personalities—they’re just more entertaining. We know what the hero is all about—heroes are bold, brave, compassionate, and generous. They’re predictable. They’re vanilla. But antiheroes are like napoleon ice cream—you might get one flavor,or a mix of flavors, but in the end it’s all one big blended mess. Many of us love the antihero because—let’s face it—morality is boring. Ambiguity is interesting.

We’ve met a lot of compelling antiheroes on television: Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan, Jack Bauer, Walter White, Don Draper, and one of my favorites, Detective Jimmy McNulty from The Wire. The FX Network has brought us fun-loving antiheroes too, like Tommy Gavin from Rescue Me, Louis C.K., and Sons of Anarchy’s Jax Teller.

I’ve particularly enjoyed watching Jax be the antihero. For six seasons, Jax and the club have been unlikely heroes, as a working-class biker gang dabbling in guns, drugs, prostitution, and pornography. Oh, and tons of violence. Like, their-unmarked-grave-site-is-at-capacity kind of violence. But, despite the shady deals and blood baths, viewers have stood by the Sons since 2008, because they protected Charming and seemingly avoided killing innocent people. Plus, Jax has been working for years to get the club on a legit path, to right the wrongs of his predecessors. The diary entries to his boys are enough to make you want to fall in line behind Jax’s pretty blue eyes.

But recently, those pretty blue eyes have been dark and hollow. We’re now six episodes into the final season of SoA, and Jax’s stare is more vacant than their bombed-out clubhouse. Instead of being the cunning, focused, and strategic antihero we’ve cheered for the last six years, Jax is singularly focused on avenging Tara’s death. He has frantically and irrationally lashed out at the wrong people, and nearly destroyed everything he’s worked so diligently for in the last few years. Now his family, the club, and the city of Charming is squarely in the center of a gang war and Jax is in the eye of the tornado.

At this point, traditional antihero narrative would still inspire us to cheer for Jax, because we’re always rooting for the underdog, right? Unfortunately, there is nothing appealing about this storyline, since we know Jax’s anger is directed at the wrong people. BTD (Before Tara’s Death), Jax would have gotten Gemma’s story checked out six ways from Sunday. ATD (After Tara’s Death), grief-stricken Jax ignores his cunning intelligence and foolishly listens to Gemma, a woman who lies more often than she tells the truth.

Worse yet, no one in Jax’s inner circle questions him about it! Our dear old Bobby, usually the enthusiastic devil’s advocate, is muted this season. He even had the nerve to tell Wendy it doesn’t matter if Jax knows what will happen next, “We’re with him.” Oh, I wish I could smack his forehead. Bobby, honey. It’s not okay to start a gang war that kills loads of innocent people (I’ve counted 22 so far this season). You know it, I know it, and Jax should know it too.  

And this is the problem with not only SAMCRO, but Jax’s antihero narrative as a whole. We’ve earnestly watched Sons of Anarchy for six seasons because of Jax’s special antihero status, and unfortunately I see that changing in a few significant ways:

Antiheroes are thoughtful.

They are dark, layered, complicated characters who wait for opportune moments, and deliberate before taking action. In contrast, Jax and SAMCRO, at this point in the series, mostly spend their days cleaning up the previous night’s messes. Sure, sometimes Jax can squeeze in a plan. But it usually has to be improvised, leading to more unforeseen messes down the road. Jax recently told Tyler that the club jumps “fast and forward.” While I commend the Sons’ agility, their unbridled enthusiasm is not always a good thing.

Antiheroes usually don’t rack up a high body count.

In fact, most antiheroes try to keep the collateral damage to a minimum—that’s the heroic part of their nature. This season, not only have the Sons killed more innocent people than gang members, but they’re awfully cavalier about it too. (Shout out to Tig who said, regarding Diosa, “We could leave the bodies on the floor and [men] would still come back, because they love pussy. Sorry. Too soon?” Yes Tigs. Definitely too soon.)

The antiheroes’ victims should be worse than the antiheroes.

We’re supposed to be A-Okay with this season’s SAMCRO killing spree, because their victims are flawed too. Sorry guys, I’m not buying it. Sure, the pawn shop dealer was a two-timing liar, and the pastor was a cheating, pantyhose-wearing crook, and the girls at Diosa were prostitutes, but none of that justifies their deaths. This is especially true for the poor hotel owner, who Juice killed because of miscommunication. The whole point of Jax’s road to redemption is to stop the senseless killing—that’s why we loved him, in past seasons, as an antihero.

Antiheroes usually seek redemption.

Antiheroes are usually tormented in some way, and seek to end that torment through redemption. Walter White saved money for his family. Dexter targeted society’s most evil. Both Don Draper and Jimmy McNulty tried to sober up. Even Tony Soprano started to mend his ways, after being shot. Likewise, all signs pointed towards Jax’s redemption, and I was looking forward to seeing it this season. Alas, Tara’s death awakened the monster within, and I think he has become more like Clay than we thought possible. Before, Clay did things to benefit Clay, and Jax did things to benefit the club. Now, we’ve watched six episodes of the club aimlessly following Jax’s selfish demands, and I can’t help but think we’re looking at Clay 2.0.

Antiheroes are supposed to be altruistic, even in unconventional ways.

Antiheroes always have a sort of moral code that the audience understands and supports. Even though the Sons are murderous thugs on wheels, we usually get their moral code (hurt bad guys, not innocent people), and happily go along for the ride. In contrast, the final season started with Jax telling the club that Tara’s death forced him to throw morality out the window. Only the audience knows that the club is going after the wrong people. This is a frustrating position for the viewer—how can we be emotionally invested in a vengeance plotline, when we know it’s all based on a giant, horrible, misunderstanding? And our only payoff is waiting for Jax to know the truth? This season would have been so much more effective if Kurt Sutter led us to believe that the Chinese really did murder Tara. Then we’d be behind our antihero, like a row of leather-clad ducklings on the open road.

Speaking of Kurt Sutter, in 2011 the SoA creator/writer/producer/director wrote in his blog, “How do I keep the show rich, complex, and authentic and yet entertain the fuck out of people? It sounds easy, but it’s not.” And I agree with Sutter—viewers have high expectations for this show, and we’re not easy to please. So here’s my suggestion to make it easier on everyone—bring back the antihero. Help us keep cheering for Jax. Give Gemma the payback she deserves. Give the club a reason to be altruistic again. Make it easier for us to like SAMCRO, because it’s kinda tough right now.

That’s the problem with creating antiheroes—you have to keep the characters dark enough to be interesting, but virtuous enough to be likable. Kurt Sutter has had experience with this before. He worked as a writer/producer/director on The Shield, the critically-acclaimed FX drama, featuring the famous antihero Detective Vic Mackey. Season Five ended with Shane killing team member Lem, and later pinning it on the Salvadorians. (incidentally, Walton Goggins plays Shane, and he also appears on SoA as the marvelous Venus Van Dam.) Likewise, Sons of Anarchy’s Season Six ended with Gemma killing her daughter-in-law Tara, and later pinning it on the Chinese.

My point? In The Shield, Vic eventually realizes Shane is the murderer and the season gets a lot more interesting. I can only hope the same happens for Jax and Sons of Anarchy. We need to shift gears and get back on the road to redemption, and that only happens after Jax discovers the truth about Gemma. Until then, watching this show is like watching your favorite team on a six-game losing streak. It’s painful, it’s depressing, and I definitely don’t need it stretched in to 90-minute episodes.

Morality is boring, but so is reckless immorality. Let’s bring back the ambiguity of season’s past, and get Jax Teller on Team Antihero again, where he belongs.

Emily Worden is a Boston­-based freelance writer and author of Make. Sell. Repeat. The Ultimate Business Guide for Artists, Crafters, and Makers. You can follow her on Twitter.

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