[Warning: The following review of Mayans M.C.'s first season contains spoilers! Read at your own risk!]
I'll admit, I was a little apprehensive about a Sons of Anarchy spin-off when Mayans M.C. was announced, probably because I was still scarred from the last few seasons of Sons of Anarchy. Kurt Sutter's bad-boy drama was always a ratings hit but it wasn't always a hit with critics as things dragged on and got so complicated that it took every resource online to untangle the web that it spun.
Early episodes of Mayans M.C. didn't change my mind; it felt like a retread of Sons of Anarchy but with different characters in the same roles. But the show quickly found its own path, and in the second half became a show bigger and more important than Sons of Anarchy for a few reasons.
First, the show owes a lot to its mysterious third party, the Adelita-led rebels. They gave Mayans M.C. something that Sons of Anarchy never had: real-world relevance. Whereas Sons felt like a video game come to life, the rebels were more than just another wild card gang that so frequently mucked up the waters of Sons of Anarchy; the rebels have political relevance and aren't here just for their own greed or survival. They aren't even criminals by the typical definition of the word. Their actions are motivated by something we could actually feel and support — taking down the cartel that controlled much of an oppressed country and pumped crime and violence through its veins.
Sons of Anarchy always felt like it lived in a bubble. Charming was a medium-sized town filled with bikers and corrupt cops, but anything that happened there didn't even feel like it could impact the next town over. Everything was so insular (aside from a misguided trip to Ireland). Mayans M.C. has burst that bubble with bigger aspirations and greater consequences. If the rebels don't succeed in taking down the Galindo cartel, the whole country could slip into greater turmoil, causing a chain reaction that could spill into America. Though Mayans M.C. is still steeped in the melodrama of Sons, the fact that it's saying something more than just being about outlaw life speaks to its audience on a more fulfilling level, doesn't it?
Mayans M.C. also seemed to learn lessons from Sons of Anarchy by course correcting as it went along. Early episodes set up juicy conflicts that we thought would surely persist throughout the series' run — EZ (JD Pardo) working for the feds, the rebels battling the cartel, Angel (Clayton Cardenas) and others working with the rebels behind the club's back — but all three of those were tweaked in order for the series to survive. Whereas Sons simmered Clay vs. Jax for way too long, Mayans took its major conflicts off the burner and redirected the series Lincoln Potter's ( Ray McKinnon) way.
Bringing in Lincoln Potter as a common enemy steered the show away from the predictability of knowing that those series-long conflicts wouldn't be solved this season. That's a difficult move to pull off, and it's not something Sons could have done. The only way this works is if the enemy — in this case Potter — has enough weight to divert everyone's attention, and because he was a well-liked and established character from Sons, Mayans used its status as a spin-off smartly. Sons couldn't have done it because it would need to establish a bad guy as a worthy opponent in half an episode; we already knew Potter was a badass, so not only did he fit right in, but he made the show instantly better. That's how you borrow from your own TV universe.
Again, it's only a distraction. If you think that the Galindo-rebel alliance is permanent, then I've got an acre on the moon I'd like to sell you. Adelita (Carla Barrata) and Miguel (Danny Pino) will eventually go back to their feud (and they should), but we don't have to sit through five seasons of it going nowhere while we wait for the series finale to tell us what happens. But the fact that we aren't thinking about it now is a win for the show.
Even with all that, Potter may end up only being the second-most important Sons of Anarchy character to crossover when all is said and done. What appeared to be a cute wassssup from SAMCRO member Happy (David LaBrava) in the season finale ended up being a peephole into the future of the show, and it looks great. EZ looked for the killer of his mom all season long, and it turned out to be Happy.
Maybe I'm just a dum-dum, but a war between SAMCRO and the Mayans wasn't something I ever imagined, but here we are on the precipice. Was Happy acting on his own when he killed EZ's mom, or, as the club's enforcer (aka the dude who kills who needs to be killed), was he under orders from SAMCRO? A battle between the Mayans and SAMCRO? Except we get to see it from the Mayans' side? We're still several steps away from that actually happening, but Sign. Me. Up.
At the least, this development points in that direction, which tells me that Sutter and Elgin James thought this out a lot better than I figured they would. They're using the Sons of Anarchy universe in the best way possible; not too much, but certainly not too little, and not to pander to fans, but to tell the best story possible. It's early to say that it's better than Sons of Anarchy was in its early seasons, but it's certainly on its way there.
Mayans M.C. is streamable on FX+ and may be available through your cable provider's on-demand service. Sons of Anarchy is streaming on Netflix until Dec. 1.