Mayans M.C. opens with a shot of a mangy dog chewing on a dead crow. That tells you everything you need to know about the spinoff series from co-creators Kurt Sutter and Elgin James: Jax Teller may be dead, but the lack of subtlety that ran through Sons of Anarchy for seven seasons lives on. As obvious as it may be, the visual is an important opening salvo for the new series. It marks the narrative hand-off from one group of motorcycle-riding outlaws to another, and in a bluntly reassuring way, confirms that, while the setting and the characters may have changed, the tone and spirit of SoA has not.
As carryovers go, these really are all that’s essential to building a successful spinoff. Viewers may be leery of starting over again in the absence of the aforementioned Jax and his crew of misfits, like Chibs, Tig, Juice, and so on, but Mayans M.C. wastes no time in establishing a strong roster of its own, some, like J.D. Pardo’s Ezekiel ‘EZ’ Reyes or his brother Angel (Clayton Cardenas), feel a bit like obvious analogues to Sons characters, but the specifics of their circumstances help distinguish them soon enough. And, like Sons of Anarchy, Mayans demonstrates it, too, has a deep bench of supporting characters, each with their own shortened moniker, like club leader Obispo ‘Bishop’ Losa (Michael Irby), Michael ‘Riz’ Ariza (Antonio Jaramillo), Che ‘Taza’ Romero (Raoul Max Trujillo), Hank ‘Tranq’ Loza (Frankie Loyal), and Johnny ‘Coco’ Cruz (Richard Cabral), to name a few. So, while there’s going to be the usual spinoff series adjustment period, Sutter and Elgin have seeded enough similarities between the two shows to effectively mitigate concerns of it being too much of a radical departure.
Thankfully, the new series isn’t entirely a rehash of its predecessor, either. EZ may be the audience avatar into the world of the Mayans Southern Cali charter, but he does so without the sense of destiny or familial baggage that followed Jax around wherever he went. Instead, EZ is a mere prospect, riding the liminal space between member and outsider that, were it not for his brother, would leave him doing little more than cleaning the bikes of fellow members and Sons of Anarchy alum Marcus Alvarez (Emilio Rivera). Unsurprisingly, induction into the Mayans means demonstrating a willingness to engage in all sorts of criminal behavior, from running drugs for the cartel to murdering rival gang members in broad daylight.
That EZ is fitted with the need to prove himself affords the series the chance to take a different approach to its main character. Instead of the story of a prince who would be king, Mayans is, surprisingly, a story about a young man trying to keep his head above water, after a promising future was derailed in a deadly incident. Mayans isn’t shy about what caused EZ to go from golden-boy to ex-con, but, if the storytelling style of Sons of Anarchy is anything to go by, the truth of what happened is sure to be some complicated (likely convoluted) stuff.
The line between complicated and complex is one Sons of Anarchy often seemed unaware of or confused about, and that remains true here, too. Mayans takes a page from The Departed (or Infernal Affairs, if you like), complicating matters for its protagonist by making him the reluctant pawn of law enforcement investigating the MC’s relationship with a cartel headed up by Miguel Galindo (Danny Pino). Because that’s not complicated enough, Galindo’s wife, Emily (Sarah Bolger), is EZ’s former sweetheart, back before their lives intersected with the various criminal organizations they’re now associated with.
The disclosure of EZ’s fractured loyalty this early actually does a service to the overall story. Establishing what the stakes are from the jump is necessary in building this familiar but new world that has spun off from Sons of Anarchy, and by connecting nearly every thread back to EZ and a member of his family (or a love interest), Mayans makes certain that all roads lead back to one man.
Putting so much on the shoulders of a single character also brings about the return of a frustrating convention that was prominent in the original series, one that routinely took choice off the table for Jax, and too often allowed outside forces to dictate his actions. In doing so here, the audience isn’t really given the chance to come to terms with Ezekiel’s decision to join the Mayans, to enter into a life of crime, and to live in the margins of society among other “disenfranchised” men. By putting him, and his father Felipe (Edward James Olmos) at the mercy of law enforcement — and the prospect of serving out a presumably lengthy prison sentence — EZ is ostensibly freed from the responsibility of answering why he’s on the path he’s on. This scenario also grants him easy absolution from certain immoral actions as well. Unfortunately, it also distances the character from the idea that there is a greater good being done by betraying the club and aiding law enforcement in its efforts to bring down the cartel. In then end, EZ is more like Jax than advertised. Little of what Ezekiel chooses to do is done purely from a — conscious or unconscious — decision to do good or bad. His direction, from the time he’s introduced, anyway, is largely chosen for him.
Frustrations with EZ’s lack of choice aside, the series nevertheless manages to check all the necessary boxes for a successful follow-up to Sons of Anarchy. Graphic violence, mature language, and puerile humor abound in the first hour alone, with the promise of more to come throughout the first season. Moreover, Olmos and Pardo make for a compelling duo, as the only two people (outside of Ezekiel’s handler) with knowledge of EZ’s conflicting duality. It is perhaps the most fulfilling aspect of the series so far, one that makes this spinoff an imperfect but promising addition to a popular FX franchise.
Mayans M.C. continues next Tuesday with ‘Escorpión/Dzec” @10pm on FX.