In the past few years I’ve noticed a shift in the televised portrayal of the villain. Character shows such as Mad Men, the Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, and several other high-profile shows are now highlighting the complicated nature of humanity. Rather than black and white hero and anti-hero, we have character portrayals that feature more in-depth considerations of choices and the motivations that drive those choices. While few would agree with the behaviors espoused by these protagonists, neither can we hate them; instead, we’re drawn further into their world, a grittier one not shown on the mainstream shows.
High school chemist turned god-like meth creator. Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) journey from quiet grading to bloody drug kingpin is engrossing and incredibly well done. May I also say, that “Yo, bitch” and “Yo, Mr. White” have officially become standard in my vocabulary and I root daily for Jesse (Aaron Paul) to be a winner.
Sons of Anarchy
Sons of Anarchy follows the misadventures of the original chapter of a motorcycle club in Central California, the Sons of Anarchy. Sons of Anarchy are an obvious reference to Hells Angel’s (which has been classified as a criminal organization by the US Department of Justice) and likewise the Sons are arms dealers who sell IRA guns to drug lords. The arrangement is more complicated than just some gun runners though, the Sons of Anarchy are a respected organization in their small town of Charming; they own the police and in exchange for their cooperation and silence, protect Charming from drugs and gang violence. The show is further complicated by it’s Hamlet-esque plot line for the young protagonist, Jax (Charles Hunnam), who begins to doubt the Sons actions and wants to move away from arms dealing (although he manages his fair share of brawls, murders and the occasional knife fight).
Being from Northern California, the backdrops and town names are familiar to me, as is the sight of a large group of bikers cruising down a California highway. Even the sights of New Mexico in Breaking Bad seem homelike, with that crisp desert and blue sky. I find it interesting that both shows take place in the West—the home of cowboy justice; the Wild West still holds some draw to us and remains the place where fortunes can be made and men become men.
Anyone would say that Walter White from Breaking Bad is a raging egomaniac trying to become an alpha male (“I’m the one who knocks”) and that the Sons of Anarchy are territorial egomaniacs who seek to maintain their alpha male status. Both groups of men, while able to beat-up various other bad guys with impunity and whose criminal activities just serve to fuel their need to do so, constantly reiterate that their violent activities are necessary for the protection of their families.
Each group uses family and honor as a justification for their own aggressive desires, espousing an almost medieval chivalric code of honor, one where “the family” is paramount, but pride, strength, and respect are the true priorities. This portrayal of such harsh masculinity is one where the only way to reclaim one’s sense of honor and control, is through violence.
The men in each of these shows maintain this violence with constant rationalizations about how they and their protection is needed by the ones they love. Jax puts a man into the hospital with a horrific beating when he discovers that he sold drugs to his ex-wife. Walt kills Tuco and his cousin, up close and personal, because he believes that they might hurt his family. Vigilantism and backdoor deals are treated as the only way to keep their families safe, despite the obvious truth that it’s that very behavior which has brought them to that point.
There is an obvious hierarchy displayed by each group: either you’re smart enough to live outside of the law, or you’re a sheep. These men who embrace a counterculture lifestyle, place themselves, their intellect, even their consciousness at a higher level than those around them, as if they are entitled to live the way that they do because they remain free from it’s taint. Their honor remains intact because their motivation (family, freedom, love) is pure (or so they believe), a fact that places them above common gangsters.
However, the reasons for the justification have to remain pure as well, meaning that gender roles, must be strictly upheld, otherwise, what are they fighting for? Walt resents Skyler’s need to work, only being supportive when she is actually laundering money for him. His sexual dominance towards her increases as well, needing to feel in control of her behavior.
Sons of Anarchy especially uses gender roles with women pushed into two groups, prostitutes to be played with and passed around the men, and the legitimate “Old Ladies” who are the matriarchs. While these women (in particular Gemma and Tara) are afforded great respect, they are still expected to oversee the comfort and maintenance of the families, while also turning a blind eye to any wayward straying of their men.
The women in Sons of Anarchy are complicated and full of their own issues and ideas and even their own unethical and immoral rationalizations. For me, one of the most interesting arcs of the show has been to see the change in Tara, an intelligent doctor who becomes dangerous in her own right when she attacks a hospital administrator who has suspended her. Gemma is likewise fierce, being gun toting, punch throwing, and threatening all on her own.
Skyler and Marie are complicated protagonists as well, and not fully innocent either. Skyler starts to launder money, has Saul on her speed dial, and arranges for Ted Beneke’s intimidation (even finishing the job herself).
Yet, even as these women are somewhat outside of the norm because of their lifestyles, I think that both shows do a great job at featuring women who are varied and interesting, many of who have reclaimed their sexual nature in spite of the way that they are manipulated and treated by the men in their lives (Bitch Flicks contributor Leigh has a great article discussing this trend).
However, those considerations are secondary to this article. Rather, the focus is this question, what does it mean to be an “alpha” among humans? Is that drive still as present as these shows say it is? And, can you be an “alpha” without being a criminal?
---Rachel Redfern has an MA in English literature, where she conducted research on modern American literature and film and it’s intersection, however she spends most of her time watching HBO shows, traveling, and blogging and reading about feminism.