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How to Watch ‘Mayans M.C.’ Without Having Seen ‘Sons of Anarchy’

Kurt Sutter’s new FX drama is a direct spinoff of ‘Sons,’ but for those unfamiliar with the source material, there’s still plenty to latch onto

FX/Ringer illustration

There have been so many “must-see” TV dramas in the past decade that even the most dedicated television consumers have probably missed a significant show or two. For instance, I have never watched a minute of FX’s Sons of Anarchy, despite its erstwhile popularity and appeal to my own TV predilections. The only things I know about Sons of Anarchy are: It had overt Hamlet overtones but with, you know, bikers; it was prone to extensive runtimes; someone named Jax Teller made viewers very emotional; one of those viewers was definitely my colleague Shea Serrano.

Will I watch Sons of Anarchy one day? It’s possible, but probably not until some cataclysmic event shuts down the Streaming Industrial Complex and grants everyone enough free time to binge old series. With a slew of new series coming out this fall, piling on top of a ton of shows I already watch, it’s difficult to imagine committing to 92 episodes of an old show that should be available to watch in perpetuity. However, this commitment to not committing is in direct conflict with my interest in Mayans M.C., the first Sons of Anarchy spinoff from creator Kurt Sutter, which premieres Tuesday night. FX has been on a hot streak this year—with the great second season of Atlanta, the final season of The Americans, and the debut season of Pose—that Mayans seemed appealing by virtue of being on the network. It’s a new story about a different motorcycle gang set a few years after the Son of Anarchy timeline, but given that Mayans exists in the same universe, the question looms: Can Mayans be enjoyed without having first seen Sons of Anarchy, or will there be too many missed references and nuances to overcome?

Thankfully, if I’m to believe the early reviews, not having a working knowledge of Sons of Anarchy might make Mayans more palatable. And having watched the first two episodes of the series, it seems clear that there will be enough for non-Sons fans to latch onto. Sure, there are callbacks that don’t have the intended effect, but the world of Mayans feels strikingly original, with a story that has a fresh perspective. If you’re like me, and you can’t tell the difference between an Opie and a Piney (I looked up these names on IMDb), fret not: Here are the things non–Sons of Anarchy watchers can look forward to in Mayans.

Redemption and Legacy

Whereas Sons of Anarchy borrowed themes from Hamlet—familial betrayal, revenge, bloodshed—Mayans feel more like a classic tale of redemption (but still with copious bloodshed!). The protagonist is Ezekiel “EZ” Reyes (played by J.D. Pardo), a once-promising Stanford University attendee who’s coming off a stint in prison. Part of getting his life back on track is becoming a “prospect” for the Mayans Motorcycle Club, of which his brother Angel (played by Clayton Cardenas) is already a member. Joining the club sets up EZ for constant ethical quandaries with his peers, as well as his well-meaning father, Felipe (played by Edward James Olmos), a local butcher.

Most concerningly, however, as a man averse to unnecessary bloodshed and determined to do the right, EZ’s principles come into direct conflict with the series’ main antagonist, Miguel Galindo (played by Danny Pino). Miguel is the leader of the Galindo cartel who effectively positions himself as the motorcycle club’s boss and primary source of income; the club, in return, acts as the cartel’s muscle north of the Mexican border. Miguel is following in his deceased father’s footsteps, and the desire to live up to the legacy of the man who built an empire from the ground up reverberates through all of his choices. As a man of privilege who attended Cornell University, though, Miguel can never be like his father, a fact he’s forced to grapple with as he takes up the kingpin mantle.

EZ and Miguel offer two fascinating contrasts—the man from humble beginnings who aspired to the American dream, attended Stanford, and nearly achieved something for himself, and the young boss whose über-rich upbringings gave his future a distressing inevitability. The way EZ and Miguel interact and challenge their own positions is a great source of tension for the show.

An added wrinkle in their dynamic is that Miguel’s wife, Emily (played by Sarah Bolger), is EZ’s high school sweetheart, who EZ broke things off with when he went to prison. The potential for a love triangle is apparent, and while that’s a somewhat tiresome TV trope, I’ve never seen one among a biker, a kingpin, and a kingpin’s wife, so let’s do this thing.

Biker Code!

Sure, you might know that motorcycle clubs wear leather jackets and ride gnarly hogs across town, but did you know they conduct meetings in biker-themed back rooms and even use a gavel? The foundation of the Mayans club is built not just on intense machismo, but organizational structure, and a real (albeit skewed) code of honor that its members abide by.

At the top of the Mayans hierarchy is an “El Padrino,” which translates to the godfather; a “Presidente” and “Vice Presidente”; and other, smaller tiers of authority that one must ascend to. EZ, for instance, is still a prospect, but can become a full-fledged Mayan by passing certain initiations, such as going on one of the crew’s runs protecting a shipment of drugs. These rules are not just pillars by which the show’s characters define themselves, but a way for viewers to understand how they operate. The bikers of the Mayans Motorcycle Club might be working together, but more than anything else they consider one another family. That’s also why EZ’s initiation is so intense; the group needs to make sure he belongs. The Mayans hold themselves to what is, in their minds, a higher law than the federal penal code. What appears to be amoral to us—shootouts with rival gangs, drug-running—is justifiable to those in the gang, a way of life.

In some ways, the code of the Mayans is admirable—the way it prioritizes honor and family; in many more ways, the code is merely a justification for staggering violence and crime. Joining the Mayans means grappling with those two poles.

The Cost of Power

Following in the footsteps of other shows that dealt with conflicted antiheroes like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos (and, well, Sons of Anarchy), Mayans makes it clear from the onset that attaining power means making devastating moral sacrifices. Walter White’s transformation into Heisenberg alienated him from his family—in “Ozymandias,” he briefly kidnapped his infant daughter in a horrifying act of selfish cruelty. Mayans is just as forthright about the moral quandaries that come with the territory of being in a biker gang, a cartel, or even an underground rebellion rising up to fight the cartel. Some of the decisions the characters make—putting the lives of their families at risk for the sake of instilling fear in the hearts of their enemies—are downright appalling. But the moral gray areas make for captivating television. When key plot points are revealed, you’ll look at certain moments of cruelty in a different light, and, at other times, come away realizing the actions were even more abhorrent.

It’s no surprise that the show is violent—Mayans is probably rivaled only by The Walking Dead, its spinoff, and the nastier moments of Game of Thrones (RIP, sweet Oberyn)—but it’s the context of some of the violence that’s particularly disturbing, much of which is at the cost of attaining or keeping power. In the first two episodes of Mayans, there’s a torture-interrogation scene involving a machete and the cleaving of an arm, and the bodies of two innocent Mexican bystanders—one of whom is a young boy—being burned alive and left in public view.

The price of enormous power never justifies the heinous means, but that is a truth that many characters in Mayans can’t see and that others twist themselves into knots to ignore.

All told, Mayans is exactly as advertised—and what you’d expect if you’ve seen any Sons of Anarchy promos. But that isn’t a bad thing, as Mayans already has the look of a promising and compulsively watchable drama with pulse-pounding action, a batch of morally conflicted but mostly likable characters, and a world that’s inviting and easy to follow despite any initial unfamiliarity. The occasional bouts of intense violence notwithstanding, Mayans might not be one of the best new shows of the year, but it’s one of the most entertaining—and you won’t need to have seen Sons of Anarchy to think so.