Katey Sagal’s authorial voice

Gemma Teller Morrow, baddest bitch; image courtesy of latimes.com

I recently blew through the first two seasons of Sons of Anarchy, the FX series about SAMCRO, an outlaw biker gang based in the fictional Northern California town of Charming. I didn’t care if it was a retelling of Macbeth. But other things did pique my interest.

For one, between Wendy O’Brien casting Sons and Camille H. Patton and Christal Karge’s work on Justified, dammit if FX doesn’t want to make a home for former Deadwood players. Two actors from Deadwood factor prominently in Sons‘ first two seasons. Paula Malcolmson, who I love as Trixie, shows up in the third season (no spoilsies). If Robin Weigert and Kim Dickens show up in season four as the president and old lady of a rival gang, I will fall apart. Dykes on Bikes! Make that show happen!  

Following how casting directors continue to be haunted by the specter of HBO original programming’s peak years, I was pleasantly surprised to see Drea de Matteo in Sons‘ first season as Wendy, the reformed heroin addict/baby mama to SAMCRO prince Jax Teller. She was the heart of The Sopranos and it’s nice to see her in something good instead of Prey for Rock & Roll and Dueces Wild.

To dovetail casting issues into masculine camp, was Henry Rollins ever well-suited to play the brainless muscle for a white supremacist business owner looking to put the stranglehold on Charming? When I watch Sons, I tend to feel like Britta in that Community episode where she watches Winger fight a mustachioed Anthony Michael Hall: every time a biker hugs a brother, I’m just waiting for them to make out. Obviously Rollins is no stranger to queer ‘shipping.

Young Hank Garfield, using his bicep as a billboard; image courtesy of sfweekly.com

As someone who eats queer machismo (is there any other kind?) like so much candy, I love the theme song, “This Life,” by Curtis Stiger and the Forest Rangers. Only in the context of the opening credits, of course. For one, it was written for the show. For another, I have little use for the song’s wangdangdoodlery on its own. But I’d imagine that the Sons would listen to this while fixing up bikes in their garage and pump their fists to the lyrical propaganda. Of course the ‘CRO doesn’t fly in a perfect line, but the Sons have to believe it does.

The musical selections on the show is pretty interesting. Music supervisors Bob Thiele, Jr. and Michelle Kuznetsky sneak in a considerable amount of indie-friendly rawk. A lot of Black Keys in the first season. A Devendra Banhart cut in the second season. Some Don Cab. And of course Black Flag’s former front man gets to follow RZA’s example and show off the band’s logo from time to time. 

Two pop classics are prominently featured in Sons. Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” ties up a scene in season one. The Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” underscores an especially harrowing scene involving Katey Sagal’s character that sets up the climax for season two. They are sung by the actress. As Sons uses pop music as a narrative device–following The Sopranos‘ sterling example–this puts Sagal in something of a unique position. She gets to create one of the defining female characters in recent American television and comment on what’s happening to her.

This gets to the real reason I watched Sons: Katey Sagal is Lady Macbeth. I’ve been a casual fan for years. I liked her voice work as Leela on Futurama. Plus, like my dad, I could never understand why Peg Bundy is deemed unattractive by her husband when it’s obvious that Sagal is a stone fox.

Sagal is pretty incredible as Gemma Teller Morrow on Sons–by turns conniving, haunted, loyal, sexy, vulnerable to aging, resilient, and hard. SAMCRO dictates that her station is as old lady to biker king Clay Morrow and queen to biker prince Jax, but she’s more Tony Soprano than Carmela.

Gemma’s relationships with some female characters are starting to develop in compelling ways. I’m hoping Cherry reappears in season three. Gemma begrudgingly respects Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff, Fashion Club President Rachel Menken to Mad Men viewers), a doctor who rekindles an old romance with Jax following her return to Charming. Knowles’ past delinquencies also suggest that she may have quite a bit in common with Gemma.

The writing improved considerably after the first season as well, so I didn’t have to suffer through Gemma admonishing Tara that a handgun isn’t something you just throw in your purse and forget about like a used tampon. Um, writing staff: I don’t know a woman who’d absent-mindedly throw a bloody tampon back in her bag. Just sayin’. Maybe they’ll intervene with Gemma’s relationship with ballbusting ATF agent June Stahl (Ally Walker), as they seem to move toward at the end of the second season. In season one, they have an antagonistic exchange that’s a few undone buttons away from a softcore scene. Also, if wardrobe could find a pair of pants that do Walker justice, that’d be cool.

While I don’t assume Sons creator Kurt Sutter is an ardent feminist, I think it’s cool that he created such a complex role for his wife to play. Depending on how you read the series, you could argue that Gemma is the show’s protagonist. As Sagal notes in an AV Club interview, she primarily worked in comedy prior to taking on this role. Also, given the dearth of well-drawn female characters, especially for women over 25, Sagal’s performance is pretty exceptional. It’s also why I hope actresses like Connie Britton, Khandi Alexander, Edie Falco, and Jennifer Beals–maturing foxiness aside–keep booking acting jobs.

That Sagal’s experience as a backup singer and solo artist are put to use alongside her acting skills in Sons suggest that her contributions are not only vital, but central. Here’s hoping Sagal’s character picks up a mic (draped with scarves) at some point in the fourth season. Biker skirmishes are essentially musical interludes anyway, so why not have actual rock chicks singing? I bet Tara can accompany Gemma on guitar. This blogger requests a cover of “Night Train.”

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