Back in 2008, like most fans of Kurt Sutter, I was swept away by the concept of Sons, a modern reimaging of Hamlet led by the iconic Ron Perlman, Katey Sagal and a supporting cast of powerful character actors like Dayton Callie, Kim Coates, and Tommy Flanagan. What a show! I laughed, I cried, I felt a deep and likely creepy love for Tig. The show peaked and peaked and peaked. And then, to be frank, it crapped out. Collapsing into itself, not so much like a dying star, but exploding under the weight of its own self-importance.
Mayans does not disappoint. While Sons was eventually swamped in the morass of an Oedipal complex gone really, really, wrong, the spin-off seems to be firmly locked in the present. In 2006, when Mexico’s then-President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels, things in that country went sideways and quickly. Since that time, Mexico has experienced an unprecedented spike in drug-related crimes including trafficking, murder and kidnapping. The fallout of this ongoing disaster, coupled with the current conservative political climate in the U.S. provides fertile ground for storytelling. What we loved about Sons, the complex characters and scathing social commentary, we find in Mayans. Nothing here is what it seems and the show, from its opening credits on, is a clear exploration of duality.
In the pilot, beautifully directed by Norberto Barba, symbolism is everywhere as we are introduced to a California/Mexico border town, endlessly divided by walls and fences. Even as the characters descend into the underground tunnels of the local cartel, the subterranean border between the US and Mexico is marked on one side by a huge picture of Washington’s face and on the other the Virgin Mary. Greed and religion, wealth and poverty, crime and – well, this is a show about an outlaw biker gang so maybe crime and well-intentioned crime? Let’s not get carried away.
Nowhere is that duality more evident than with our protagonist Ezekiel “EZ” Reyes. The one-time Stanford alum whose golden future apparently spun out of control eight years earlier and landed him in prison, now finds himself struggling with what it means to be a Prospect in his brother’s M.C. Clearly this new lifestyle is miles away from the clean-cut jock/academic who wanted nothing more than to escape that cartel-controlled town with his high school girlfriend. We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that EZ’s deep intelligence, dedication to his father (played by the incomparable Edward James Olmos), and attachment to his childhood sweetheart echo all the things we once loved about Jax Teller. However, I’d like to let the show get its legs before drawing comparisons. After all, one can assume EZ’s moral compass was never skewed by a lifetime of club politics and, well, Gemma.
Club politics do come out quickly as we learn that the Mayans are working hand in hand with a Mexican cartel to run heroin across the border. In the US they must contend with rival gangs and D.E.A. agents, while in Mexico there is a corrupt police force and a rebel faction intent on bringing the cartel down by any means necessary. The show sings with a familiar high tension (though not the break-neck pace that marked the last few seasons of Sons) as the Mayans try to navigate these obstacles while staying alive and remaining true to their own motivations. And nothing messes up a good plan like your own well-intentioned teammate.
At first glance, the show is a good mix of what you would expect from a Sons spin-off. The ‘good guys’ (law enforcement) are dirty and suspect, the ‘bad guys’ (the M.C. and rebels) are deeply humanised and committed to family and a higher moral calling. But Mayans asks us to kindly check our preconceived notions at the door in the first half hour, as we watch a self-proclaimed “L.A. Mexican” receive free medical care from a trained physician on the far side of the cartel tunnel, where he can only speak one word of Spanish: Hola.
When we see a small boy stealing food from a cart, you later realize he was orphaned by the cartel and has had to learn to steal to survive, having lost his family. Sutter and Barba ask us to take a momentary break from the screaming rhetoric on social media and remember that “these people” are, in fact, people. Something that Sutter did so wonderfully in Sons, by creating characters based on the people living in the margins and putting their traits, good and evil, on full display. No one here is purely bad. People do bad things for a reason. Namely to protect and support the people they love.
With satisfying character development and astute cultural commentary, Mayans MC does not disappoint.
Mayans MC starts on BBC Two on Saturday the 2nd of February at 10.40pm.