You can take the boy out of Catholicism, but it’s hard to take Catholicism out of the boy.
If there’s a bright center of Truth, Beauty and Goodness on television, FX’s ultra-violent, sexually explicit (as much as possible on basic cable) outlaw-biker drama “Sons of Anarchy” may be the show it’s farthest from.
But, creator Kurt Sutter has admitted (including to me, directly) that he’s a product of Catholic education, and if you watch “Sons” regularly, you’ll see Church references and symbolism sprinkled throughout, perhaps most notably in his choice of a Catholic-school setting for last season’s school-shooting storyline, a decision not supported by the facts of America’s history of mass school shootings.
In a story I did for Zap2it.com, Sutter said:
“I went to parochial schools. I grew up and went to all Catholic schools. That’s my experience, so why not put my experience in there? I just mean in terms of how I was raised and the schools I went to.
I felt like, that was my experience, so I’m going to put that in there. So it was a little bit different. I didn’t feel like we were making a statement about the education system. Obviously, I’m making a statement about the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, blah, blah, blah, but I feel like, yes, there’s definitely some religious symbolism that I got to play with in there, that I felt, thematically … it has a bigger thematic impact than it did a political impact, which I think was good.
We can all argue whatever point he was trying to make, but short of reading Sutter’s mind, we’re left at taking him at his word.
I’m certainly not saying watching “Sons” is an edifying experience, but it can be a fascinating one — even if, in the show’s sixth and now-final seventh season, Sutter seems to have nearly run out of plot twists involving anything but sadistic murder.
I don’t know for sure whether Sutter was baptized Catholic, but there’s not doubt he was immersed in it in his youth. Evidently, something stuck. Whatever the state of someone’s soul or beliefs (and we can never really know about either of those), the eternal Truths of the Faith have a way of burrowing into the subconscious.
Then, sometimes they pop out at unexpected moments
Tuesday’s episode, called “Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em,” focused in part on Juan Carlos “Juice” Ortiz, who even among the broken souls of the biker gang, is particularly troubled, even suicidal.
His biggest defender in the club has been Filip “Chibs” Telford, played by Scottish actor Tommy Flanagan. Without going into Juice’s tangled history, he’s a fatherless boy with no one and nothing outside the club to support him (a theme Sutter also discussed with me).
Juice is currently on the outs with the gang and on the run, and not even Chibs will defend him.
Now he’s tried to betray the Sons, only to be delivered back into their hands, resigned to his, at least in his view, inevitable demise.
Rossi does a tremendous job of playing Juice’s fragility and vulnerability, as a shipwrecked soul desperately in search of a bit of wreckage to cling to. But make no mistake, this is no little lost lamb.
Near the beginning of the episode, Juice enters a convenience store, asks for a specific brand of cigarettes, and then brutally assaults the clerk and robs the place. The man winds up face down on the floor, with the cigarettes next to him. As you see from the photo at top, they’re named after St. Dismas.
Dismas was the Good Thief, or the Penitent Thief, who was being crucified at Jesus’ right hand at Calvary (and for what it’s worth, several TV recappers appeared to have Googled him).
As recounted in the 23rd Chapter of the Book of Luke, after Jesus has asked for forgiveness for those crucifying him:
“One of the criminals hanging there abused him: ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us as well.’ But the other spoke up and rebuked him: ‘Have you no fear of God at all?’ He said, “you got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it; we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He answered him, ‘In truth I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.'”
Unfortunately for Juice, it’s not forgiveness from Christ that he’s seeking, it’s forgiveness from Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the leader of the Sons. In the wake of his wife’s murder (by his own mother, Gemma, who’s content to let others pay for her sins), Jax has become an even more unrepentant and callous killer (and that’s saying something).
In a cigarette theme played out through the episode, Juice spares the life of Gemma (Katey Sagal). She later shares a cigarette break with a kindly waitress named Gertie (“Glee” star Lea Michele), who married because she got pregnant and now is on her own with a son named John (after her father).
Incidentally, there’s more than one St. Gertrude, but prayers are said to St. Gertrude the Great for the souls in purgatory and for living sinners (of which Gemma is most definitely one).
After that, Jax casually smokes a cigarette while a huge group of men are gunned down behind him. Their bodies are dumped later at a construction company once owned by Damon Pope (Harold Perrineau), a former drug kingpin killed by Sons member avenging his daughter’s death (the Sons are at war with his successor).
Entertainment site Vulture postulated that Gemma is Gestas, the Unrepentant or Bad Thief, but that doesn’t track, especially since she’s still alive and kicking. Gemma’s more like the anti-Madonna, who will sacrifice everything but herself for her son.
Of course, Sutter is apparently just playing with Catholic themes and images, as often happens in TV shows and movies, without an intent to glorify God. Makes one wonder what would happen if more good writers who were also faithful Catholic were running TV shows.
But thinking of St. Dismas and cigarettes, I found this story from the Hawaii Reporter about Medal of Honor recipient and Servant of God Father Emil Joseph Kapaun. A World War II and Korean War-era Army chaplain, he was often in the line of fire.
As the story says, “On two occasions, bullets came so close to hitting him that they shattered the cigarette he had hanging out of his mouth.”
Father Kapaun’s life ended in a Communist Korean prisoner of war camp, where he did all that he could to minister to and care for his comrades — including doing what he could to procure food and drink for them.
Says Hawaii Reporter writer Duane A. Vachon, “Father Kapaun learned how to move with stealth, like a cat in the dark, make off with whatever provisions he could collect, and bring them back to his starving family. On these excursions, all the men would pray to the ‘Good Thief, Saint Dismas,’ for the brave Father’s safe return — if he were caught, the punishment could be death.”
Father Kapaun has gone to his reward, and the fictional characters of “Sons of Anarchy” will meet their final ends — as dictated by their own creator — this season.
At one point, Chibs, in speaking to a female police officer (Annabeth Gish), with whom he’s having an affair, says “I was raised a Catholic. Everything’s a worry for me.”