The first episode of “Sons of Anarchy” does an excellent job setting up the basic themes of the series. Episode 1 reveals the power dynamics, struggles, and tension we will watch unfold over the seven seasons of the FX series. Positively received by critics and viewers alike, “Sons of Anarchy” follows Jackson “Jax” Teller as he navigates the complexities of fatherhood, love, family, and crime, as a member of the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club, also known as Sam Crow. In the ’70s, before Jax was born, his father John Teller and eight men he served with in Vietnam started a motorcycle club that morphed into a criminal organization.
In Episode 1 of Season 1, the audience is thrown into the illegal world of gunrunning, drug dealing, and the messy power dynamics between the gangs and criminal organizations that profit from these illegal activities. “Sons of Anarchy” explores the morally gray characters who inhabit this world from the perspective of a young man who was raised with the MC as his extended family. When we meet Jax in Episode 1, he finds a box of his deceased father’s things in storage. As Jax reads John Teller’s manifesto, Jax questions the activities the club is involved in and how he feels about being a criminal.
While on the surface, “Sons of Anarchy” is about the rise and inevitable fall of a criminal organization, the series has other themes introduced in Episode 1 that are explored throughout the series. Let’s explore some things that had more significance than you may have realized in Episode 1 of “Sons of Anarchy.”
On first viewing, you might entirely miss the first frame of the show. In the middle of a deserted highway, we see two crows eating what looks like a dove before moving aside for a motorcycle ridden by Jax Teller to pass that stretch of road. The symbolism is powerful here, although most of us probably didn’t think too much about it until we watched the last frame of the series where two crows are eating bread on the side of the highway as a pool of blood moves into the frame. Going all the way back to ancient Rome, crows are a symbol of death and tragedy.
We have perceived crows as omens of death for ages because of their association with scavenging and dead bodies. We also see crows and ravens as symbols of death in literature and art. We even see this association with death when we call a group of these birds a murder of crows. Doves have long been a symbol of purity and peace in Christianity associated with the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ. When we realize the two crows in the first frame, pecking at a white bird, are a perfect bookend with the birds in the last frame, pecking at bread, the symbolism is clear. Sam Crow will be the death of Jax Teller, and Jax is an obvious Christ figure.
A serpent in the garden
When the Mayan Motorcycle Club first appears in the series, the camera focuses on the snakeskin cowboy boots their club president, Marcus Álvarez, is wearing before entering the SOA’s gun warehouse to burn it down. In Christianity, the snake is a symbol associated with deceit, temptation, and the devil, going back to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, tricking Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge in Genesis. The implications of this association between the Mayans and an evil serpent slithering into the SOA’s own Eden, the town of Charming, are clear. While it is obvious from the many biblical references in “Sons of Anarchy” that negative Christian associations with snakes are what the audience is supposed to pick up on, it is interesting to look at the symbolism of the snake from the culture the Mayans came from.
In Mesoamerican mythology, snakes and snake gods like Kukulcán and Quetzalcóatl are associated with death and rebirth. In many cultures outside of the Judeo-Christian sphere, snakes and serpents have positive associations and are symbols of transformation. When the Mayans burn down the SOA’s warehouse, Sam Crow is given an opportunity to transform, moving in another direction away from the violent crime associated with gunrunning. The SOA’s complex and adversarial relationship with the Mayans is introduced in Episode 1 but continues to develop and transform throughout the entire series.
Jax’s son is named Abel
Jax’s son Abel is born prematurely in Episode 1 because of his mom Wendy’s drug use. Abel is a name with strong associations to the bible story of Adam and Eve’s son Cain killing Abel. It’s probably not a detail that stands out or seems particularly important while watching the first episode of “Sons of Anarchy,” but as the story develops, we come to realize much of the drama in this FX series is about the dynamics within a family built upon betrayal and lies.
Abel’s birth in Episode 1 nicely foreshadows these themes and is bookended in the last episode of the series when we see Able in his car seat, being driven away from Charming, ostensively to live a life not tainted by the sins of his father’s motorcycle club and their nefarious activities. In the last shot of Able, you see him holding Jax’s ring that says, “Son.” This image leaves you with a foreboding sense that some family shadows are easier to escape than others.
Charming as a symbol for Eden
In Episode 1, we meet Darby, a white supremacist leader who manufactures and sells methamphetamine. Darby has moved back to Charming after his release from prison and is associating with his skinhead cronies again. After Wendy’s drug use leads to Jax’s son being born premature and with congenital disabilities, SOA sets up a sit-down with Darby. When Darby is told to keep his drugs off the streets of Charming, Darby tells Clay, SOA president, and step-father to Jax, “If the Devil wants in, he will find a way.”
Here we have another overt reference to the Devil and a more subtle association with Charming as Eden. In Episode 1, Charming is presented as an idyllic suburban town in the San Joaquin Valley of Northern California where the Sons of Anarchy live and work. A place they are protective of, wanting to keep both competition and drugs out. By the end of the series, Jax has concluded Charming isn’t Eden; it is Hell, and he wants his children as far away from Charming as Wendy can take them.
A syringe tucked into the Bible
In Episode 1, Jax’s ex-wife Wendy is admitted to the hospital for an emergency cesarean after she shoots up crank. Wendy is threatened with criminal charges, and she is in bad shape. She is detoxing from drugs, feeling guilty and horrible for what she did to her unborn child. This is when we see what Gemma, Jax’s mom, is capable of. Gemma gives Wendy a syringe, with enough crank to overdose, tucked into the pages of the Bible, suggesting to Wendy, “turn to Jesus.”
This action is Gemma’s way of telling Wendy to stay away from her newborn baby, Abel. In Episode 1 of the series, the audience learns how immoral and intense Gemma’s inner momma bear is. We learn early on that despite Gemma’s love and devotion to her son Jax and the club; she is both willing and capable of doing awful things when she thinks she is protecting her family. This sequence foreshadows the crime she commits at the end of Season 6 when Gemma murders Tara, incorrectly believing Tara is cooperating with the authorities against Jax and the club.
Jax’s death is foreshadowed in the first episode
When Gemma tells Jax that his son, Able, will make it because he is a Teller, she elaborates about how Jax’s father, John Teller, died, getting hit by a semi while on his motorcycle, holding on for days after the accident. Gemma says, “Tellers don’t die easy,” causing Jax to respond, “We just die bloody.” She responds it must have something to do with their Irish ancestry. In the last episode of the series, Jax dies like his father John, in a scene using blatant Christ imagery, further cementing the associations between Jax and Jesus. With his arms spread wide, Jax crosses the double yellow line and rushes into a semi-truck going in the opposite direction. Jax sacrifices himself for the sins of the Sons of Anarchy.
It isn’t just in the last episode of the series we see these associations between Jax and Jesus. It all starts in Episode 1 of the series, continuing through his associations with sex workers and porn stars. We see parallels with Jesus and Jax in the way he interacts with homeless women in Charming throughout the entire series. Show creator Kurt Sutter confirmed the biblical connotations when he wrote on Twitter, “Arms outstretched as the son dies, thorns, bread, blood. If I hit you over the head any harder with Christian symbolism, the Vatican would’ve sued me for copyright infringement.”
Religious iconography and symbols
“Sons of Anarchy” is rich in religious iconography through the first episode of and this continues throughout the entire series. Most of the imagery and symbolism is Christian, with a particularly Catholic bent, with clergy playing important roles in a few storylines.
There are rosaries and crosses, bread and wine. Even in Episode 1, when the SOA burns down the Mayans’ warehouse in retaliation, they use Mexican prayer candles to start the blaze. But we don’t only see Christian symbolism — the biblical references also go back to the old testament. When Jax and the SOA go to a local bar looking for Darby’s skinhead cronies, Bobby Elvis walks in with his pendant, a Hebrew symbol for the word Chai, worn visible on his chest. This act is one of defiance and pride. Bobby walks into a den of neo-Nazi’s wearing a symbol that means life in Hebrew. These links to the bible continue throughout “Sons of Anarchy,” later including a character named Moses.
The symbolism of crows
In the first episode of “Sons of Anarchy,” we learn that the Charming chapter started with the original nine members known as Sam Crow, and this name continues to be an alternate club name for the members of the SOA. They even call the women who hang around their parties “crow eaters.” Gemma has a crow tattooed on her chest. We see the two crows in the first frame of Episode 1, and crows continue through the series as a motif. We often see them flying overhead before something bad happens, or someone dies, and all of this starts in the first episode, with the very first frame.
Later in the first episode, we see SOA riding their motorcycles in a V formation as birds fly in the sky. Crows are everywhere in this first episode. One is sitting on a stop sign as Jax walks away from Ope’s house with a backpack filled with explosives. The MC is repeatedly linked to crows throughout the entire series, making the symbolism of crows very important. In the final minutes of the show, we see nine crows flying overhead as Jax drives down the highway to his bloody end.
There is another famous story that “Sons of Anarchy” references throughout the series, and it begins in Episode 1 of Season 1 — “Hamlet.” These multiple Hamlet references start with Jax saying, “it’s hard being king,” to his stepfather Clay as they walk away from their burned-down warehouse. Clay responds, “you should remember that.”
As we learn more about Jax, through the questions he asks his mom, Gemma, about his father John Teller’s plans for Sam Crow, the allusions to “Hamlet” become more than just a reference here and there. In fact, Digital Spy has touched upon this, as well, noting, “The appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s kingly father is replaced in the show by the discovery of JT’s secret writings in the pilot, which sets Jax on the path of vengeance against his father’s murderers.” Simply put, this series is a modern version of Shakespeare’s famous play about a young Prince of Denmark and the ugly betrayals within his family.
More Hamlet connections
Later, in Episode 1, the “Hamlet” ties continue when Gemma tells Clay she doesn’t want the ghost of John Teller confusing Jax. She wants her son following in the footsteps of the right father. If you recall your Shakespeare, some thought the ghost of the king haunted the halls of the castle after his untimely death. When we saw the first episode of “Sons of Anarchy,” these references probably went unnoticed, but as the seasons wore on, it became more difficult to ignore the similarities between Jax and Hamlet’s lives (via Bustle).
When we finally learn Gemma conspired with Clay to kill John, it is clear; Gemma is Gertrude, Clay is Claudius, and Jax is Hamlet. Poor Tara is Ophelia. She even dies with her head submerged in water. The body count in this series and the way friends and family betray each other is enough to anchor it in the realm of tragedy.
In Greek tragedies, our hero always has a tragic flaw – the fatal flaw that leads to their downfall. As Achilles’ heel was his tragic flaw, it seems Jax has a fatal flaw in his heart. In Episode 1, there are multiple references to the Teller boys being born with a hole in their hearts. First, we learn Abel has been born with a congenital heart defect, later we learn Jax had a little brother, Thomas, born with a hole in his heart who did not survive. But Jax was born with this defect, too, although he grew up to be strong and healthy, this flaw sitting under his sternum waiting to destroy his life.
It isn’t until later on in the series we learn this defect came not from the Teller line but from Gemma. Gemma has a scar on her chest from the open-heart surgery that saved her life. Although a genetic heart defect is a tangible thing that can lead to death, it is the symbolism of a hole in your heart that whispers which will lead to Jax’s downfall. Love can make you blind, and Jax didn’t realize until it was too late that the snake in his garden was his mother, Gemma. Gemma poisoned his mind, manipulated the Crows, and killed Jax’s wife, Tara, leading the Crows into a bloody last season and a reckoning Jax could not escape.