Motorcycle Westerns

I wanted to pick up on an earlier thread about the post-western in general and films such as Sin Nombre and Frozen River in particular, and look at a currently airing television series that seems to be a kind of post-western, FX’s original series about motorcycle outlaw gangs, Sons of Anarchy. To quote from Neil Campbell’s earlier post and an article that helps define the post-western:

From the website ‘Five in Focus’ (on Sin Nombre): ‘The elements [of the western] are all there––the vast landscapes, the frontier justice, the gangs of outlaws, and a train noisily slicing through the frontier. They are just re-organized in a different way.’

Similarly, Sons of Anarchy, set in the town of Charming, California, but also including forays into the desert and into Nevada and Utah, utilizes the “vast landscapes” of the western in its frequent shots of motorcycles roaming across western highways. Replace the motorcycles with horses, and many episodes of Sons of Anarchy play like a conventional western, especially in the chase scenes. For example, in a season one episode, central character Jackson “Jax” Teller (played by Charlie Hunnam) and another club member hijack a tanker truck, and the scene is shot much like the classic western scene of men on horseback robbing a stagecoach.

Charming, California, is also a lot like one of those frontier towns in films such as Dodge City or My Darling Clementine, dominated politically by a group of outlaws who have the local sheriff under their thumbs. The Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original (SAMCRO or simply Sam Crow), both protects and dominates Charming. A vigilante group that works outside the law and predominately for its own interests, SAMCRO justifies its criminal behavior by policing Charming, particularly against a rival “south of the border” gang (the Mayans, a Mexican ethnic gang) and a white supremacist gang called the Nordics (and led by Ernest Darby, who is played by The X-Files‘s Mitch Pileggi, who often appears decoratively in a white sleeveless t-shirt). Further adding to the “westernness” of the series, Dayton Callie (Charlie Utter of Deadwood) plays the compromised Charming Chief of Police.

Unlike, say, Dodge City, our point of view characters are the outlaws rather than the new sheriff come to town to replace vigilantism with civilized justice.  This is good and bad, at least in the first season (season two has aired but I’m still a year behind). Early episodes dragged at times. Quotations from anarchists such as activist and philosopher Emma Goldman just seemed pretentious and inapt when applied to a group of outlaws who are essentially capitalists (the illegal weapons trade), even if working outside the “system.” Likewise, Jax had a tendency to read passages from his deceased father’s memoir about Jim Crow life in the early days (which tended to wax dully philosophical). Also, the outlaws versus law enforcement element of the show has bordered on Dukes of Hazzard-style farce, given that the police were either compromised by being in league with the outlaws or were generally incompetent.

Midway through season one, things have picked up, in part because tensions between the dominant gangs have ratcheted up. Perhaps most importantly, Sons of Anarchy‘s equivalent of Errol Flynn’s Wade Hatton has arrived to clean up the town in the person of Federal Agent June Stahl, who appears to be a worthy adversary for the “sons.”

Agent Stahl is played brilliantly by Ally Walker, who I know primarily through her work in the HBO drama Tell Me You Love Me, in which she played a character who could hardly be more unlike Agent Stahl, the motherly sexually inactive Katie. Agent Stahl is all cool cockiness and tough swagger. In the episode I watched most recently, “Better Half” (directed by Mario Van Peebles, who contributed Posse to the film western archive), Agent Stahl goes after the sons by arresting their wives and girlfriends in an attempt to get testimony against the outlaws.

Stahl believes she has information from a jailed ex-Sam Crow member, procured by arresting his wife.  However, in the interview area of the jail, he catches her off-guard, and, in a shockingly violent scene, slams her head repeatedly against a table. What’s interesting about all this is Stahl’s response. She shakes off attempts to help her, and, in the final scene of the episode, she stands in front of the camera, bloodied, and livid with a barely contained rage. The attack shatters her cool and cocky swagger, but what has been concealed by her mask of cocky toughness is the real toughness—and the potentially deadly anger—that’s underneath. Ally Walker’s performance is amazing in this scene, and, for the first time in the series, there really is a new sheriff in town. At this point, I almost wish the show would shift its focus and become the Agent Stahl show, as she has emerged as a far more interesting character than any of the outlaws.

I’ve pasted in an FX promo that features Ally Walker’s Agent Stahl:

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