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

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!