White. Brown. Black. Throughout Sons of Anarchy, labels of race often express the long-gestating tension between different gangs, especially when there’s a drastic shift of power on the streets. Since much of the final season has been concerned with the brutal war between Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and Henry Lin (Kenneth Choi), ethnicity has played an important factor in dictating everything from assassination to betrayal. Yet creator Kurt Sutter and his writing staff have often made SAMCRO slightly more progressive when it comes to forging alliances with gangs of a different skin color. “Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em” shows exactly why such flexibility might be their only key to survival.
With Lin now in custody thanks to a bit of gangland sleight of hand, Jax and his crew focus on dethroning August Marks (Billy Brown) by using one of his own criminal subsidiaries against him. Thanks to key intelligence relayed by Tyler (Mo McRae), the leader of the One-Niners, SAMCRO ambushes a key Marks player with the help of another African-American biker gang called the Bastards (led by the imposing Michael Beach). The bodies of these black men later become evidence proving that SAMCRO “doesn’t mix race with business,” a favorite phrase spoken by white supremacist Tully (Marilyn Manson) during the episode’s pivotal scene.
Interestingly, the one non-white member of SAMCRO sees his fortune change for the worse in “Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em.” After surviving Gemma’s (Katey Sagal) assassination attempt, Juice (Theo Rossi) returns to Stockton hoping to find an ally in Marcus Alvarez (Emilio Rivera), leader of the Mayans. Instead of respecting Latino ties, Marcus promptly turns Juice over to Jax in order to sustain a truce between the two clubs. This double cross expresses the way Sons of Anarchy subverts expectations of race to reinforce the gangster code. An informant like Juice represents the lower caste of character, someone not afforded the benefits of identity.
A similar breakdown in cultural respect occurs when Marcus kidnaps Nero (Jimmy Smits) because of his previous time spent helping Jax. The two men have been friends for decades, born from the same side of the urban tracks. But Marcus thinks Nero has gone astray, choosing his newfound white brothers in this race war. Even though their disagreement ends peacefully, it’s a sign that most of the characters in Sons of Anarchy no longer believe in cultural bonds as indicators of trust.
While race seems to be the overarching theme in this episode, it’s really just a way for Sutter to look at the disappointment felt by the sting of broken relationships. Gemma’s guilt over Tara (Maggie Siff) resurfaces inside the confines of a rural diner; she wanders in dusty and tired after having been left on the side of the road by Juice. Sitting alone in a booth talking to her deceased daughter-in-law, Gemma finally looks beaten down by the sense of guilt and guile that she’s felt across the show’s seven seasons. A kind waitress (played by an impressive Lea Michelle) attempts to make an emotional connection, but SAMCRO’s matriarch is too far gone to meet her halfway.
“Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em” looks at exhaustion as the underlining connection between all of these situations. Wayne (Dalton Callie) forces Gemma to share her false information about Lin with Sheriff Jarry (Annabeth Gish) because it’s the right thing to do, yet the look on his face expresses a withered desire to finally be rid of his connection with SAMCRO. Even Juice himself appears to be tired of running. How else would one explain his flagrant mistake of returning to the town where his enemies lie in wait? Whatever his motives, the episode ends with Juice’s fate left hanging in the balance.
Not an especially flashy episode, “Smoke ’Em If You Got “Em” does explore the racial fault lines Sons of Anarchy has often hidden far away from sight. But more importantly, it connects these seemingly rigid borders with the more universal idea of friendship and what this term means when you’re living and dying in the criminal world. If Jax has the advantageous desire to mix races under a single umbrella of brotherhood, others want to continue the tradition of maintaining strict segregation. Tully is a proponent of the latter; “We’re maintaining the brand,” he tells Jax, summing up perfectly why his racism is essentially a capitalistic venture fostered to strike fear and division into those who might stray toward multiculturalism.
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