Jax & Tara: So Charming, and talk about a violent romance…

In which we veer Off Topic for a thought or two. Off the topic of books, that is, but not off the topic of violence and romance. Which have been connected since…. well, since forever, probably, but certainly since Shakespeare…

Up until last week it still seemed vaguely plausible to read SONS OF ANARCHY, possibly the most self-consciously badass show on television, as a contemporary romance with an uber violent motorcycle club setting.  As most SOA fans know, the show, created and authored by Kurt Sutter with his wife Katey Sagal in a leading role, is also quite self-consciously Shakespearean.

At the center is Jax (Hamlet), tormented by doubts about the criminal activity of the club founded by his dead father, and forced to seize the kingship from his murdering “uncle” Clay (Claudius), who had married his mother the queen, Gemma (Gertrude).  But apart from Jax/Hamlet, the show has always been more of a Shakespeare melange than a linear re-interpretation of any one play.  Female characters in particular are less obvious, and I’ve always felt that there were rather too many Ophelias ending up in madness and disaster (and not all of them female — Opie? Juice?).  And there’s a lot of Lady MacBeth in Gemma’s ruthless clannishness and opportunism.

Maggie Siff and Charlie Hunnam as Tara and Jax

Since the beginning six seasons ago, there’s also been a central, hot romance — the story of young lovers Jax and Tara (Ophelia #1?). In Romeo and Juliet fashion, they frequently act (hastily) on misinformation.

SPOILERS – don’t read further if you plan to watch and haven’t yet seen all of season 6.

I won’t review or summarize the episode or the nested storylines and plot twists leading up to it, but I couldn’t let last week’s season finale pass without comment. Of course this show is not a romance. It’s a testosterone-soaked adrenaline-rushed FX show aimed, at least on the surface, at the edgier side of the male action-adventure audience. It’s not my usual cup of tea. Except, curiously, that it is. There’s something about the central romantic conflict between angst-y Jax and sullen Tara, and the quasi-feudal bonds of love and loyalty among the club brothers.  But if anything, Jax and Tara have always been doomed lovers, and I doubt many viewers actually thought there would be an HEA for them. The reason I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them in the context of my recent (and very sporadic) blogging, is because this complicated couple represents a violent romance where the violence wins. And wins big. Tragically and horrifically big.

Not only is there no impossible, breath-taking, last-minute escape into the HEA for this couple, but here, in a ridiculously-named fictional California town called Charming, the heroine is murdered by the wicked queen in a crazy bloodbath that ends with the hero – the erstwhile Prince of Charming –  looking like the perp.

Which kind of makes me realize how truly fantastical and alchemical a well-written suspenseful and violent romance novel is.  I’m thinking about books like The Turncoat, subject of my initial post about violence in romance; the spy novels of Joanna Bourne, or other historicals with wartime settings; badass steampunk sagas like the Iron Seas series by Meljean Brook; or even something like Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series set partly in the grimy underbelly of Victorian London. Not to mention the current crop of biker-themed contemporary romances. How utterly and magnificently far-fetched that the romance genre can  proffer dark and gritty settings rife with violent characters, heroes and heroines who may have all manner of violent skills, attributes, propensities or histories, on the one hand, while on the other hand guaranteeing, for the central couple anyway, true love, redemption, and a Happy Ever After.

Tara’s gruesome demise, foreshadowed so many many times as she kept trying to rationalize her decision to live within the violence of the club, and then flailed around with bizarre false-pregnancy plotting and other doomed efforts to get out and get a fresh start, is in many ways a much more logical ending for a love story between two characters steeped in such a culture of routine criminal activity and violence.

What really stood out here, though, was the way this particular murder was feminized. Drug-altered Gemma (sleepwalking like Lady MacB??), having been fed misinformation by a hapless secondary character (Retired sheriff Unser, who has been compared to the monk in Romeo and Juliet), believes she must do “what we have to do” to eliminate Tara as a threat to the club. Surprising Tara in the kitchen, she uses the weapons at hand — an iron, a sink full of water, and a large grilling fork — to brutally attack and kill her daughter-in-law. No guns (even though Gemma would always have been packing), and not even a knife. Just the domestic detritus of a messy kitchen. Both Tara and Gemma had rejected the traditional “old lady” role and the relegation to the domestic sphere that goes with it — Tara was a successful surgeon (until one of Clay’s murderous schemes ended up maiming her hand a couple of seasons ago) and Gemma as the biker queen never stayed out of club business even though she wasn’t ever afforded a seat at the Table. This was not their first physical conflict, and both have had moments of fighting tooth and nail with other female antagonists. As much as Tara resisted, she had been effectively schooled by Gemma in the Charm(ing) School of Kill Or Be Killed.

Sons of Anarchy Season 4

Maggie Siff (Tara) and Katey Sagal (Gemma); FX publicity image, via ugo.com

It was also intriguing that earlier in the episode Gemma was in the same kitchen (Jax and Tara’s), scrubbing the sink and then telling Juice she just had to do something to get the place clean for Jax because Tara wasn’t great at housework. At that time they believed Tara was on the run, escaping into witness protection with Jax’s two small sons. Was Gemma’s sudden cleaning obsession a version of “out, out, damn’d spot”? Her guilt even then, before she’s done the darkest of deeds, about the lies she’s had to tell herself to justify raising her two sons to be gangster biker stone-cold killers?

I haven’t read any of the new(ish) crop of motorcycle club contemporary romances, and have yet to read the much-discussed Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley (actually I’m not sure I will read it). So I can’t speak to the direct or indirect influence of Sons of Anarchy on the romance genre, but there is SAMCRO romance fanfic to be found, and plenty of posts recommending biker romances for fans of the show, like this one from Heroes and Heartbreakers.  And there are some intriguing literary and/or feminist readings of the show itself that have fueled my pondering of Sutter’s curiously potent blend of romance, violence, Shakespeare, and gender-based tropes — I found this and this especially interesting. Also if you watch the show and like to read review/commentary, the recaps at Television Without Pity are not to be missed.

I remain in awe of the power of romance novels. A good romance novel is pure alchemy, turning the base metal of genre conventions and oft-repeated plots into solid gold, and making us believe romance can trump violence and dysfunction, in spite of what we know to be true about the challenging world in which we live. Watching this season of doomed biker romance reminded me just how powerful — how truly badass — a good romance read is.

This is likely my last post for 2013, so Happy New Year from Badass Romance! The blog isn’t quite a year old yet. I’ve learned many things as a newbie blogger, including how challenging it is to make regular posts and how hard for me to write concise posts…. thanks to all who have visited and taken the time to read and comment. I look forward to continuing the conversations in 2014!

6 thoughts on “Jax & Tara: So Charming, and talk about a violent romance…

  1. Emma says:

    This is a terrific post and my thoughts about it, and the show, will be brief and half-formed. My thesis about Sons of Anarchy is that it interestingly offers both the romance–in the episodic, adventure story sprinkled with love sense of the word–of the world it’s portraying and a dismantling of romance. It’s the thing and the critique of the thing, if that makes sense.

    One of the most important moments for me in terms of Tara’s arc occurred in the second season (maybe?) when Tara confronted the hospital administrator, threatening and then assaulting her in order to keep her job as a doctor after Tara had instructed one of the club members on how to manipulate hospital policy.

    Until then, we’d seen Tara loving Jax but hating the violence of the club life. She’d been a sort of stand-in for the audience–assuming that most viewers are not connected to the MC world–a way for us to experience it, have the customs explained, and, most importantly, represent our emotions about what we were seeing: conflicted, horrified, but intrigued.

    In that moment when she hit the administrator, she became a violent actor (even more so later on when she killed Gemma’s dad’s nurse), and her role changed.

    So really did the show. From the third season on, SOA became much more unrelentingly violent and the characters more uniformly amoral. Tara and Jax’s claims that they wanted out sounded more and more tinny and ineffectual as each season passed, to the point where I began to wonder if they were even fooling themselves anymore.

    I’m not saying that Tara got what she deserved. Indeed, no death on the show other than Opie’s seemed quite as violent or awful. I had suspected Tara was going to die for a long time and had dreaded it. I do think that she had accepted the ethos of the MC world.

    Other show try to do this. Mad Men comes to mind: in its early seasons it indulged the nostalgia of the audience but now, it’s about Don Draper’s decline. In both cases, the audience seems to be resisting. (I’m basing this off the buzz on Twitter and on reviews.) People like the super cool, philandering Don; they don’t like it when he’s weak and frail. Similarly, I think people like it when Jax pulls of another crazy scheme. I think some people liked it when Tara hit the administrator and said, “Now that’s assault.” I was horrified.

    With Tara gone, and with no character on the show who’s clean, who is in a position to hold up a mirror to the audience to critique our reaction to the violence, I don’t the show has anywhere to go but to barrel toward an everyone dies Hamlet or Macbeth-esque ending. But I don’t know that the political point–if one is intended–with have landed with the majority of the viewers.

    I haven’t really touched on your very good points about the popularity of MC romance (I haven’t read much of it but what I have read seems like polished SOA fanfic) and Shakespeare, but for what it’s worth, those are my 2 cents.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Thanks so much for weighing in – I missed the twitter buzz about the last episode and as I was trying to formulate my thoughts for this post I wondered how you were feeling about it since we had shared mutual dread for Tara’s likely demise. One of the essays I read in my brief foray into semi-highbrow SOA analysis talked about Sutter’s use of the morality play, and I think there was always the intention to take everyone and everything down into a very dark place. My own arc with the show is similar to yours, perhaps — I got hooked early on and then kept watching after the second season in spite of the unrelenting downward spiral. You’re right about that pivotal moment for Tara, which was also about feeling her own power (after needing Jax to rescue her from the creepy evil stalker in season one). I think many viewers embraced it for this reason, and the show proffered that as a safe way to accept a newly violent heroine… meanwhile it was clearly an indication that she had altered internally in a fundamental way, and that the use of violence would become part of her as it was part of everyone in her immediate family circle, except the kids.

      I love your take on the show as both “portraying and dismantling” romance. I kind of blurred my language in the post – the word “romance” is in there in at least two or three different ways — meaning romance the genre, romance a book that is a romance novel, and romance a relationship between a couple in real life and/or a storyline about two characters in a book or other cultural production.

  2. I don’t watch this show–probably never will, since I’m too squeamish for violent shows not set in a supernatural world–but I love this sentence: “A good romance novel is pure alchemy, turning the base metal of genre conventions and oft-repeated plots into solid gold, and making us believe romance can trump violence and dysfunction, in spite of what we know to be true about the challenging world in which we live.”

  3. Jessica says:

    Great post! Nothing much to add, but having just glommed seasons 1-5 in about a month (don’t worry. I was already spoiled for Season Six’s conclusion), I feel that after the first two seasons the Jax/Tara storyline veered pretty sharply from anything resembling romance. In the first two seasons, you had the denied attraction, the saving-the-heroine-from-an-inferior-suitor, the passionate consummation, jealousy sex in a bathroom (!!), and a terrific speech from Jax:

    “Jax: Not fair? You wanna know how many women I’ve slept with over the last 10 years?
    Tara: Don’t do this…
    Jax: Hundreds! Maybe more, I don’t know. I barely see their faces. I married Wendy because I was lonely. Because I got tired of the endless disconnect. It was just a sad time-out. Because when I’m inside someone, there’s only one face I see. When you came home, it was like some kind of sign to me. Like my past coming around to give me another shot to do this different; better. And now that chance is running back to Chicago.”

    As a romance reader, I could identify those elements as familiar. But… then their relationship became much less important to the series, and pretty much a downer overall. I can hardly recall a scene after the first episode of season 4 when they actually smiled at each other. Even their wedding was tense! I never saw the possibility of an HEA, at least the way I understand it, after it became clear Jax would never leave SoA, SoA would never return to what it was (based on brotherhood, not greed), and that Tara would never be a surgeon again.

    As for the motorcycle romances, after I got into SoA, I thought I might like them and tried both Motorcycle Man and a Joanna Wylde, and DNFd both. I have no idea why my love for SoA doesn’t translate. But it wouldn’t be the first time I was unable to switch media!

    • pamela1740 says:

      It’s so great to have this reality check from someone who’s watched the early seasons recently — I’ve been watching week by week since S2, and the different phases of Jax & Tara had become blurred for me. I do remember how painful it was, in episode after episode, for years, to watch them struggling to actually believe in their own HEA potential. Especially Tara, and of course she became ruthless and death-wish-y once she finally stopped believing they’d ever get free of the club and the crime.

      I haven’t made a final decision about Motorcycle Man, but I suspect it’s something about the specific cast and characters of SoA that keeps me interested, and not necessarily the biker setting. So I’m not rushing to read biker romances.

      I must admit I’m a bit jealous of your glom and getting to watch 5 seasons in one big run. The Jax quote you caught is perfect. He really had that romantic love-of-my-life feeling about Tara and for so long he really thought he could reconcile all the crazily conflicting priorities.

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