'Mayans MC' Co-Creator Kurt Sutter on the "Dark Irony" That Will Fuel the Series

The 'Sons of Anarchy' mastermind tells The Hollywood Reporter how his new series' border town setting will lead to heightened tensions in the episodes ahead.
Prashant Gupta/FX

[This story contains spoilers for the series premiere of FX's Mayans MC, "Perro/Oc."]

Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter has invited viewers back into the familiar world of the FX biker drama by way of a new motorcycle club, a new setting, and a new show altogether: Mayans MC, co-created by Elgin James, taking its name and titular charter from one of the main adversaries (and eventual allies) from Sutter's original series. 

Where Sons set its wheels down in the fictional Northern California town of Charming, Mayans hits the ground riding in the equally fictional Santo Padre, a town resting on the edge of California and Mexico. Given its setting, it's impossible not to consider current events when gazing upon Mayans MC, as early on as the very first image. In the opening scene, the camera lingers on a wall that divides the United States and Mexico, with the following words scrawled upon it in both English and Spanish: "Divided we fall." Sutter tells The Hollywood Reporter those words have a very personal origin.

"When I was scouting the first pilot, however long ago, a year and half ago now, I saw that on the wall on the Mexican side and I thought, 'Oh, that's really cool,' " said Sutter about the initial iteration of the Mayans pilot, before it underwent extensive reshoots under the directorial eye of executive producer Norberto Barba. "When I saw it, it was only in Spanish. I thought, 'Oh, that's a really cool thing. I'm going to put it on the U.S. side,' because at the time, what I loved about it was it was a comment about the border and the two cultures and the two nations."

For Sutter, the phrase spoke directly to the conflict at the heart of Mayans' main character: Ezekiel "EZ" Reyes, played by J.D. Pardo, a brilliant young man who was once on the road toward a bright future, before fallout from a years-long prison stint brought him into the motorcycle club as a prospect.

"It spoke to the MC world," Sutter said. "It spoke to everything that the show is about in terms of brotherhood and camaraderie and all that stuff. That was my intention of including it in the story."

Intentions soon gave way to something else: Earlier in the year, in the midst of a harrowing news cycle about the Trump administration's separation of children and families at the U.S.-Mexico border, Sutter was putting the final touches on Mayans' opening episode, in which a new interpretation of the "divided we fall" image became abundantly clear.

"We were putting the sound mix and everything on finishing up the pilot," he recalled, "and I remember watching that opening image, and as the current climate was unraveling to what it currently is and continues to become, I had this sense of, 'Oh, fuck. Is that going to be perceived as me jamming something down someone's throat?'" 

Sutter, never one to mince words, credits that sense with leading him toward his eventual feeling on Mayans' political relationship — not to mention the relationship between his own creative intent and the audience's interpretation.

"I had to step away and realize that if I'm not going to let externals dictate how I tell stories, I can't do it in reverse either," he said. "I can't go in and say, 'Oh, wait a minute. I'm afraid this may be seen through this lens,' because then I'm just doing the same thing backwards. So, I had to step away from it and let it be what it's going to be and be perceived as whatever it is it's going to be perceived as. It just had a different flavor in terms of what the original intention was. That goes for any political lens that it might be seen through.

"It's not a political show," Sutter insisted. "No one ever utters a political ideology or a lean right or left. But the world is the world. The climate is the climate. The tensions are the tensions. There are people of color who have struggled from the jump and are being squeezed even more intensely in this current climate. So, they're going to have a point of view about it."

In that regard, the pilot's central shocker comes down to a political point of view: Angel Reyes (Clayton Cardenas), EZ's brother and a full patch member of the Mayans, taking a big (albeit private) stance against the leadership of his own club. In the closing moments of "Perro/Oc," it's revealed that Angel is secretly supporting a woman named Adelita (Carla Baratta), the leader of a group of Mexican resistance fighters who are at war with the Galindo cartel, the crime family first introduced in Sons of Anarchy and featured even more prominently in Mayans as business associates of the club.

As part of their secret association, Angel helped Adelita strike a major blow against Galindo, a move that's cast suspicion of a traitor within the Mayans' midst. Little do Santo Padre charter president Obispo "Bishop" Losa (Michael Irby) and club founder Marcus Alvarez (Emilio Rivera, reprising his role from Sons) know, Angel is the traitor — a word he takes issue with, when he reveals his secret to EZ.

"The vigilante groups are changing the game, going ISIS on the cartels. Galindo will bend or break. If the Mayans want a future, we gotta be in front of that change, and Adelita is the only way to do that," Angel tells his brother. "Galindo will keep throwing us to the lions. Alvarez won't push back because of a promise he made to Galindo's old man. Bishop won't betray Alvarez. That shit is going to bury us. I'm doing for the MC what it can't do for itself."

The final twist of the Mayans premiere makes it clear: The political divide within the MC, as well as conflicts between a powerful Mexican cartel and the people left reeling in its wake, stand to fuel the series as much or more than the real-world parallels evoked by its border town setting.

"No one could have predicted what would be happening on the border," said Sutter of the early stages of the show's development (FX ordered a Mayans script six months before the 2016 presidential election.) "The truth is, I set it on the border because I wanted the physical distance between mythologies. I didn't want to be in Northern California where we would organically bump into some of those characters [from Sons of Anarchy]. I didn't want to fuck with that mythology. I didn't want to be in L.A., which felt too trendy. I literally went to the farthest point of California so that I could have this space between these two mythologies. It wasn't like I wanted to set it on the border to make a statement or have it be a political show. It was just that, to me, it was creatively the smart thing to do."

Above all, Sutter said he and the season one writing team (including Andrea Ciannavei, Debra Moore Muñoz and Sean Tretta) set out to tell a story set in the world as it currently exists, with all the corruption and chaos that comes with it.

"Yes, it's a fictitious club in a fictitious town, but it's in a real country on a real border dealing with the current climate of the world," said Sutter. "Michael Irby's character, Bishop, has a line early in the pilot where they're [remarking upon how] heroin delivery is 60 percent higher than it has been, and his comment is, 'God Bless the AMA.' So, to me, that's a joke one of those guys would make. Is it a comment on big pharma? Yes. Clearly, it is. But it's not a comment in that I'm making a political statement. It's my character shining a lantern on the dark irony of, 'Fuck, man. We are thriving as outlaws because of people who are fucking greedier than we are.'"

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