First World Values or Tribal Values?
On Jax, Tara & the Sons of Anarchy
The First World has a plan for you.
You’re supposed to go to college. Learn what to do, what to say, what to think, how to feel. Someone gives you a good grade, pats you on the back and tells you that you’re a “critical thinker.” Then you get a job, pay back your loans. You work to buy a house or a condo that you’ll never really own and fill it with new appliances and tasteful furniture and lots of nice things. On Fridays, you meet your interchangeable co-workers and fair weather friends for top shelf foo-foo drinks at that new restaurant you read about in your local lifestyle magazine.
It’s not so bad. It’s what people do. Even the commies in China are getting McMansions now.
I feel the pull of it. I like nice things. Sometimes I want one of those fake Craftsman houses in Happy Valley with the caramel shag carpet. I want to fill it with chunky Crate & Barrel furniture. I want a home theater and a garage with a brand new set of tools. I want to go to Home Depot and do home improvement projects. Build a deck. Remodel the bathroom. I’d even mow the lawn.
It sounds nice. Comfortable. Safe. I used to install home gyms in houses like that. Those people seemed happy enough. Could I be like them if I wanted to? Maybe I could.
A lot of guys I know feel that tug. If you’re reasonably intelligent and well-spoken, you know you have the keys to that world. And for a while, there’s time. As you get older, doors start to close. Sometimes you make a decision that closes a door forever. Eventually, after enough doors have closed, you realize that your life in Happy Valley was just a daydream, and that you will never be the kind of man who lives in that house.
* * *
After five seasons, Sons of Anarchy is about a lot of things, but one of the major recurring themes of the show is the conflict between normal First World America and the violent, patriarchal, tribal world of a criminal motorcycle gang. The Tribal World exists within First World territory, like some kind of outlaw reservation, a state folded into a state. The Sons are outsiders within, expatriates adrift in the same world whose rules and norms they rejected. Some members of the gang were born into the life, like the gang’s leader, Jackson (Jax) Teller. Various other characters, including several law enforcement officers, move between worlds, as intermediaries. Tara, as Jax’s wife and the mother of one of his children, is the main character who is trying to keep a foot planted firmly in each world. Tara is a pediatric surgeon—an unlikely profession for an “old lady.”
Tara is everything the First World wants us to be. She’s an educated, highly skilled woman who works in healthcare. She could work and be well paid anywhere in the world. Tara has all of the keys to a safe, comfortable, socially respectable bourgeois lifestyle.
Tara was Jax’s high school girlfriend, but she left their home town of Charming to escape his gang’s influence and seek a First World life. However, after becoming a physician, she returns to Charming to escape an abusive romantic relationship with an obsessive ATF agent. She seeks help from Jax, who murders her abuser, and the couple is reunited by this act of violence. Eventually, Tara gives birth to Jax’s second son, Thomas.
Over the course of her involvement with Jax and the Sons of Anarchy, Tara is constantly forced to make choices that could end her medical career. She tends to the wounds of club members involved in shootings and beatings. Club members and enemies harass her or interrupt her at the hospital, and create tension with her supervisor, Margaret Murphy. In one episode, she and Margaret are hostage together by one of Jax’s enemies. In a later episode, Tara’s hand is broken in another kidnapping attempt, and for some time it is uncertain whether she will ever be able to operate again. Still, as she becomes more deeply involved with the club, she takes greater risks, even using her professional identity to “volunteer” at prison and interact with a former member of the club.
In early episodes of the show, Tara is highly conflicted, and her “sensible” First World rationales guide her arguments and decision-making. She maintains a cautious distance from the gang, and is still frightened and emotionally traumatized by the criminal, tribal, violent activities of the gang. She is a traveler from the First World, just passing through the Sons’ tribal world, always trying to lure Jax away from the gang to a safer life with her. However, as she becomes increasingly involved with the gang, as she sees things she can’t un-see, as she bonds with Jax’s mother Gemma and others, as she becomes more a part of their world than part of the First World, she starts making more and more decisions for the good of the gang. She becomes more willing to do whatever is necessary, and she makes fewer First World arguments against the Jax’s activities. Global morality gives way to tribal morality. What happens to outsiders is less consequential, and the well-being of insiders becomes more important. She comes closer and closer to going “all-in.”
However, all of this is predicated, at least in theory, on the idea that Jax and Tara are eventually going to wrap up club business and retreat back to the First World. In the fifth season, as the body count rises and it becomes increasingly evident to Tara that the violent dramas of the club will keep pulling Jax back into the mix, she tries to force an exit. She receives an offer from the Providence medical group in Oregon, and she tentatively accepts it. In the final episode of the last season, Tara is implicated in a murder as a result of her club business at the prison, and arrested. After this, her future in the First World seems uncertain.
* * *
For Jax and Tara, Oregon offers a normal, safe life. If Tara manages to beat the rap for her part in facilitating a prison murder, her offer with Providence (a real hospital here in the Portland area) may stand. Jax and Tara could, conceivably, run away to Oregon and buy a house—maybe one of those homey craftsman deals with the caramel shag carpet. Maybe I’d catch a glimpse of them at the New Seasons or the Whole Foods when I make my Sunday morning run for my favorite local brand of kombucha and check out what organic produce is on sale. Jax could trade in his kutte for an REI version of same, his motorcycle boots for a comfy pair of Keens, and maybe hold on to those chilly weather thermals.
But, while it might be a tempting daydream, what does life in Happy Valley really offer Jax? Who would he be?
Sure, he could work at a motorcycle repair shop, maybe even start his own. But he wouldn’t be the President and leader of a motorcycle Männerbund. He may escape danger, but he would also give up power, authority, and exploit. He would give up adventure, because adventure dies in the absence of danger. With the Sons, he’s the chief of a tribe that lives and dies with him. The Sons aren’t merely an activity group, they are a complete world, a family more connected and interdependent than most families in the First World—who maintain a polite distance—could ever be. He has the love and respect—and occasionally the hatred—of men who he has gone to battle with and gone to prison with. He’s never going to get that from casual conversations during group hikes in the gorge with Bob the insurance agent or Ken the green architect. He’s never going to get that from the kind of couples who mix socially with physicians. If Bob or Ken ever found out about Jax’s life with the Sons, about his prison stints, about the men he’d killed…they’d keep at arm’s length. One wonders if they’d even want him as a Facebook friend. He’s already closed a lot of doors in the First World, if he ever had the keys at all. He’ll always be an outlaw. He knows too much.
If Jax follows Tara to Oregon, to safety and a life in Happy Valley, can he ever be more than…Tara’s husband? The tag-along kitchen bitch of a successful pediatric surgeon? That doesn’t sound like living, it sounds like retirement.
But then, Portland is where young people go to retire . . .
* * *
The First World—the global world—espouses universal values. It is a capitalist technocracy. Men and women are merely a mobile collection of skills and assets to be traded. If you follow the plan and you don’t challenge the values that make all men and all women equally exchangeable, you can access its wealth and enjoy the measured indulgences and the comfort and security the First World offers.
Tribal values are specific values. What is good for everyone, or good for the system, matters less than what is good for the survival and prosperity of the tribe and its members. The tribe is “us,” and the tribe cares about what is best for “us.” What is best for “them” —for the global citizens, for the global system—is a secondary consideration.
The First World and everything it offers have a buy-in price. In the First World, your status as a global citizen must outweigh your commitment to family, to friends, and to your tribe. If members of your family or your tribe commit a prohibited act, you are expected to betray your personal allegiances and inform the proper authorities. Commitment to the values of the global system must supersede commitment to anything or anyone else. First World relationships are more disposable than tribal relationships, so human connections tend to be more superficial. After all, you may receive a job offer in another city or even another country that offers a career or lifestyle upgrade. Deep ties will only hold you back. Relationships are “for now.”
The Tribal World comes at the price of closed doors. If you’re not following the plan, your motives will (understandably) be considered suspect to everyone who is following the plan. Your interests may come in conflict with First World interests. You aren’t part of the global “us.” For Jax, and this has been the case with Tara and others on the show, the violence and criminality of his tribal world can splash out into the First World and burn anyone he is close to. However, for members of the tribe, identity comes not from an occupation or even a skill set so much as a place in the tribal hierarchy and a sense of belonging, a sense of collective identity. There is all of the Shakespearean drama, plotting and backstabbing that attends passionate human relationships, but those relationships are “forever.” When former club president Clay was excommunicated from the group for his treachery, there was a tremendous sense of loss as one of the sons blacked out his tattoos and the rest observed. Without the club he gave his life to, he is “just some guy,” another disposable man adrift in the First World sea.
Some men, like Jax or other men surrounded by gangs or involved in some sort of separatist group, are born into a Tribal World. The First World can never be more than a daydream or a form of early retirement.
Those of us who were born into the First World, who have or who started out with the keys to open its doors, face Tara’s dilemma. The comforts of the First World are all around us, and we may feel somehow attracted to them, even entitled to them, but something about the Tribal way also beckons. Like Tara, we may eventually have to decide if we are all-in or out. It may be decided for us. Or, as doors to the First World close, we may slowly come to the realization that we will never be the kind of people who live in Happy Valley.
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