Seven Years of Chaos: Reflecting on Sons of Anarchy

Several years ago, a writer relatively fresh off his work with Shawn Ryan on the Shield, decided it was time to add another crime story to the flat screen universe.. His subject matter was off the beaten path, his cast wasn’t the star-studded lineup of many of his colleague’s efforts, and the network, well – it was on the rise. WARNING: MANY, MANY SPOILERS AHEAD.

The creator and show runner was a soft spoken but manically and creatively insane Kurt Sutter. The subject matter was the world of bike culture, not TREK but Harley. An actor best known (in America) for a short-lived Judd Apatow FOX comedy and an extremely talented and underrated woman, who seemingly would always be known as Peg Bundy from Married…With Children, led the cast of Sutter’s show. The supporting actors would come from all walks of television and film, but in many ways, this cast would come to define not just Sutter’s vision, but also FX as a whole in the way the network approached its properties.

September 8, 2008 feels like an eternity ago, particularly in a world where the memories seem shortened by the electronic communication that both makes this article readable but also destroys interpersonal relationships. So many dramas, even those from the late 90s and early Aughts (for lack of a better term), felt outdated because so many people on camera actually engaged in long form conversations with one another that involved eye contact. In 2008, I lived in South Carolina, was still actively involved on the creative and verbal side of professional wrestling, and was wondering about my own future. I had become a bigger fan of television but it was still comedy first, drama second, and it had to be the right drama. HBO opened our eyes, FX then came around and blew our minds with the sheer rigidity of content and the unflinching nature of the shows the network presented.

December 9, 2014 is barely even out of the rear view, but in television, despite the many critics who ran the other way when the show shifted its pacing, its structure, and its focus, that day will mean something until the end of time. Because on that night, more specifically that evening, Jax Teller took his final ride and the Sons of Anarchy logo appeared on our screens for the very last time. December 9, 2014, for many, will always be known as the day “Papa’s Goods” engrossed them, left them both somber and appreciative, and ended one of the great sagas in cable television history.

I didn’t watch Sons of Anarchy from the beginning. I caught up with the show during the Season 3 break and watched the entire thing up to that point in a weekend. I have done the binge thing before, long before it was cool or culturally acceptable (says the single guy), but never had a show affected me emotionally quite like this little story about a California motorcycle club. It was violent, it was gory, it was ugly, it was gross, it was disgusting, it was biting, it was unapologetic, yet somehow, it was absolutely gorgeous.

I felt like I was a member of SAMCRO because I knew every one of these guys. I knew their families. I hurt when they hurt, rejoiced when they rejoiced, and yes, lived vicariously through them as they banged the occasional hooker or stripper. For those of you wondering what that SAMCRO acronym means as you’ve seen it on a random Twitter feed or as someone’s anonymous forum name or even on some garment somewhere, it stands for “Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original.”

Not only did I not watch the show from the beginning, I despised the “Chopper” phenomenon and had no real interest in motorcycles past the occasional internal observation that the bikes looked pretty sweet as I passed them on an Interstate. So many times since my initial binge of the first three years of Sons, I have had to sell a friend or a coworker or someone else that usually respects my opinion on these matters, on the “it’s not just a motorcycle show” idea. I’ve spoken in previous pieces, particularly in the top ten drama list here at Outkick, of the Trojan horse that often makes a show palatable and almost feels like a dirty secret that explains adoration. For The Wire and Breaking Bad, it was the drugs. For Friday Night Lights, it was football. For Lost it was a plane crash. For Battlestar Galactica, it was outer space and science fiction. For The West Wing…well, that one wasn’t a Trojan horse. But Sons of Anarchy was maybe the biggest example of all to prove the argument, because to call SOA a biker show completely misses the point, but at the same time isn’t entirely inaccurate. Sons IS a show about bikes, but only as a setting and a backdrop for the drama. When the guys travel, they ride bikes instead of drive in cars. The hierarchical structure of the club itself is pretty standard, though it also replicates any gang or mafia. But it isn’t about souping up a Harley or anything of that sort, which is why it works. Sutter was careful to be true to those who live the life, in the way any smart creator would to ensure he or she treated the respective subject matter with appropriate respect.

When I completed John the Revelator, the riveting first season finale, my opinion was set. Sons of Anarchy was The Sopranos on motorcycles, mixed with Hamlet in the character of Jax and even at times of Romeo and Juliet in the Jax-Tara relationship. To say those things and be able to support them without any semblance of cognitive dissonance or rationalization led me to the following conclusion, and Sutter would appreciate the delicacy with how I put it: This is an amazing f***ing show.

The four years since have had their ups and downs, but the larger conclusion hasn’t changed. It was great. It ended great, even if some spots got overly busy, got too clogged with story tributaries, or were just downright hard to watch thanks to Sutter’s ridiculously salacious brain. Charlie Hunnam (Jax Teller) worked on Undeclared and also on Queer as Folk on the BBC, but he was largely unknown to the general public in the United States. That’s not the case anymore, and he earned it, because as well as Jax was written as a character in the early stages, it was Hunnam’s portrayal and the trembling ferocity with which he played the role that really sold it. The guy was just incredible from start to finish and received very little acclaim for it. It continually stunned me that no one wearing a suit for the Emmys or even for the Globes ever took note of Hunnam, but it makes more sense when you realize how criminally unnoticed the show as a whole was to the award community.

Katey Sagal won a Golden Globe in 2010 for the third season and the show was nominated for dramatic achievement from the Television Critics Association in the same year. She was Emmy worthy numerous times over the past seven years. That role and her work as Gemma Teller is the best stuff of her career, and I’m sure she’d agree. She was unbelievable.

Since that high point in Season 3, some critics have fallen out of love with the show for various reasons, the most recurring being over-the-top antics and unbelievable plot lines designed simply to shift the cast into position for the following year. Even with those caveats though, the vast majority of critics still enjoyed the show and gave it favorable reviews.

As for the ratings, they grew to over six million viewers for the sixth season premiere and averaged nearly 4.5 million per episode. By any measurement, it was a huge, booming success for FX.

But this isn’t about the numbers or the awards. It’s about the damn show. Sons of Anarchy took me to places I never expected to go, but probably should have considering Sutter’s increased role on The Shield, which not coincidentally also grew in its own shock factor and raw violence. Kurt Sutter, who I don’t know, isn’t at all a bad guy. He at times can be a bit hostile to criticism, but he’s smart, he knows what he wants from his shows, and his talent and content reflect a warped sense of humor and an ability to juxtapose. It’s that last point that needs further exploration.

Kurt Sutter and his writing partners and directors, especially Paris Barclay, are masters of juxtaposition. Sons of Anarchy is a show that would repulse you five seconds before it made you cry or found a way to touch deep into your soul. The bodies were everywhere and the gun violence was in your face. Faces were decimated; buckets of blood sprayed and coated walls, seeped across floors, and permeated Charming, California from start to finish. Sutter, who spent time with an outlaw motorcycle club as part of his preparation for Sons, hopefully didn’t see much of this stuff (or any of it) up close and personal, but he wrote it as if he grew up with it. It was downright sickening at times. But, in virtually every one of those episodes, the plot, the story, the dialogue, the passion, the vitriol, the emotions of every shape and size, outweighed all the muck. The sludge was necessary to show the wrong path, the life these individuals chose or grew up into, and the SAMCRO trap that never afforded a reprieve other than death.

John Teller: [voiceover] Most of us were not violent by nature. We all had our problems with authority, but none of us were sociopaths. We came to realize that when you move your life off the social grid you give up the safety that society provides. On the fringe, blood and bullets are the rule of law and if you’re a man with convictions violence is inevitable. (S1E2)

Around all the crap, Jax had two sons, Abel, who he had with Wendy, his crack-addicted ex-wife, and Thomas, who he would father with his wife Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff). The on screen chemistry with Charlie and Maggie was immediate and it never dropped off, not even for a moment. The first few seasons of the show revolve around Jax and his issues with the direction and the dangerous gunrunning operation run through the Sons and the IRA. He finds his late father John’s manuscript, detailing the many ways SAMCRO lost its soul and, as the title of the journal states, “lost its way.” The words, including those above, sound as if Hunter S. Thompson or Jack Kerouac could have penned them rather than an outlaw biker. Teller’s mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal), remarried the new President of the Redwood charter, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), and plenty of secrets and reveals filter out across the next several seasons about both. Morrow and Teller don’t get along at all but remain tied both through marriage and the automotive repair shop they own, Teller-Morrow. Oh, Clay basically killed John Teller, forgot to mention that. Oh, and his mother had a role in it as well.

The other Sons, from Harry “Opie” Winston (Ryan Hurst) to Alex “Tig” Trager (Kim Coates) to Filip “Chibs” Telford (Tommy Flanagan) and all the rest, have their own lives and thus their own baggage. Thanks to Hells Angel tattoo artist and legit badass David Labrava, the culture was taken care of and Happy Lowman, the character he played on the show, became the most loyal of all in terms of soldiers within SAMCRO. Heck, I could write an entire article JUST on Dayton Callie’s role as Wayne Unser, who in many ways was the conscience of the story, also the source of some of its best one liners. Marcus Alvarez (Emilio Rivera), President of the Mayans Oakland chapter, a Hispanic motorcycle club, went from a character that was a pure villain to the Sons to one of their allies and an extremely loyal guy in his own right. One other cast member we have to talk about a bit is Jimmy Smits, who played Nero Padilla, a former gangbanger who wanted something different for his life and his future. The depth of that character and how it worked alongside the Sons was superbly handled.

SOA is a show concerned with loyalty over any other conceit. Betrayal was suicide. This was The Sopranos in California with bikers instead of Italians, leather in place of lasagna. It’s just that simple.

Something happens at around 92 miles an hour — thunder-headers drown out all sound, engine vibrations travels at a heart’s rate, field of vision funnels into the immediate and suddenly you’re not on the road, you’re in it. A part of it. Traffic, scenery, cops – just cardboard cutouts blowing over as you past. Sometimes I forget the rush of that. That’s why I love these long runs. All your problems, all the noise, gone. Nothing else to worry about except what’s right in front of you.

Maybe that’s the lesson for me today, to hold on to these simple moments. Appreciate them a little more – there’s not many of them left. I don’t ever want that for you. Finding things that make you happy shouldn’t be so hard. I know you’ll face pain, suffering, hard choices, but you can’t let the weight of it choke the joy out of your life. No matter what, you have to find the things that love you. Run to them. There’s an old saying, ‘That what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’ I don’t believe that. I think the things that try to kill you make you angry and sad. Strength comes from the good things – your family, your friends, the satisfaction of hard work. Those are the things that’ll keep you whole. Those are the things to hold on to when you’re broken. (Jax Teller, S5E1)

Jax wanted to know his father and agreed with many of his words once he discovered the lost pages. He believed in SAMCRO but he too felt there was a better way, a safer way, both for the Sons themselves but also for their families. Guns were dangerous. Money was important. Perhaps the second didn’t need the first? Perhaps the club’s politics were completely out of whack?

In essence, Sons of Anarchy, boiled down to one truth, is about the inescapability of fate in the absence of a clean break. Jax wanted good things, for a while. Each decision he made, both as Vice President and later as the man himself, seemed geared toward a white light, a way out of the darkness of the current life and struggle inside SAMCRO. It was a grand goal. With every choice, the Sons got closer to Jax’ goal but at the same time entangled the club into something even worse. It’s the equivalent of having to lie over and over to try and sell the first little fib. Then, finally, in the wake of the revelation that his own mother murdered his wife in cold blood, Jax Teller realized something, which would lead to his end and would finally give him his own closure.

Jax Teller wasn’t a good guy. It was over. He couldn’t move forward from it. Jax Teller was an outlaw. In his own words:

When the time comes she needs to tell my sons who I really am. I’m not a good man. I’m a criminal and a killer. I need my sons to grow up hating the thought of me. (S7E13)

Sons of Anarchy was a story about Jax Teller, it was a program most influenced by Gemma Teller, but it would be nothing without the supporting cast and the continuing and constant reasons to love all of those characters. It was a family. Again, it was the Sopranos. Remember, Tony wasn’t in charge from the beginning either.

In its final several minutes, after the tearful goodbye to his compadres following the Mayhem vote that meant he would be killed for crimes against the Sons of Anarchy, irrespective to charter, Jax Teller somehow found peace. Walter White died after he came to grips with himself as a villain. When he could admit it, he was able to find his way to the conclusion. For Kurt Sutter and his pro…(an)…tagonist, it was largely the same. When Jax realized who he was, who he couldn’t allow his children to know or emulate, severing his psychological ties with Tara and the club as he placed both his Sons and wedding rings on the graves of his best friend and his wife, the ending was set. After singlehandedly taking out many of the worst enemies still alive, those that had led to so much heartache and bloodshed, it was time to take his father’s motorcycle, finally repaired, for one last journey. Ironically, he did succeed where his father failed. He did make things better, but to do it, the price was his own breath, his own heartbeat. He had to die to negotiate lasting change.

In a blaze of glory, Jax Teller led a chase of twenty or so police and law enforcement vehicles across the highway as one of the most eerily beautiful and hauntingly perfect musical choices in memory belted:

(Come Join the Murder, The White Buffalo & The Forest Rangers)

Come join the murder

Come fly with black

We’ll give you freedom

From the human trap

Come join the murder

Soar on my wings

You’ll touch the hand of God

And He’ll make you king

And He’ll make you king

Sons of Anarchy used music about as effectively as any show has ever used it or will ever use it. The montages and various finishing sequences were extremely Sopranos-esque and also felt reminiscent of Sutter’s time on The Shield. It was always a nice treat to get to the end of the misery each week and hear what song was waiting for me to help guide me to a momentary stop in Kurt’s saga. The show’s theme, “This Life” by Curtis Stigers, couldn’t have been better. The Irish take on it in Season 3 was also a nice touch.

Was SOA perfect? Absolutely not, but we’re all living in glass houses. There were times it became confusing because so much was happening. Season 3 occasionally slowed down and felt like a soap opera. Some deaths and death scenes felt egregious and unnecessary. That world was often horrifically awful, as if Satan were nearby. There may have been too many characters. It wasn’t a show I was sad to see go, but not because it had overstayed its welcome. It was just — time. I liked it best in its early seasons, but I thoroughly enjoyed the final year and it never failed to entertain me, even when it felt past its peak shelf date. If this look back on Sons of Anarchy feels reminiscent of my piece on The Shield from several months ago, that’s probably because, well, it should, due to Kurt Sutter’s position on that show.

Some of the larger moments from Sons of Anarchy, these are things I will never forget. In addition to the last ride of Jax Teller, here are just a few:

-Patching in T.O. (Michael Beach) as the first black member of the Sons of Anarchy in the finale.

-Gemma’s assault and rape in Season 2 and later her timely reveal to save her family.

-Jax standing at his father’s grave to end Season 1.

-Juice (Theo Rossi) attempting to hang himself after getting in too deep.

-Opie’s death, viciously beaten in prison in front of his best friend, doing it for the club.

-His wife’s death, which was a mistake.

-The exceptional way June Stahl (Ally Walker) was written off the show to close the third season.

-The end of Tara and Roosevelt (Rockmund Dunbar).

-Saying goodbye to Clay Morrow.

-The relationship and that last speaking scene with Tig and Venus (Walton Goggins).

-The many recurring stars, from Donal Logue to Ray McKinnon to Adam Arkin to Harold Perrineau to Kim Dickens to Billy Brown and so many others.

Then, finally, Jax killing his mother in a garden as she talks him through it, helps him finish her life and reach his own destiny in the wake of the Tara revelation. There was just so much there, all the time, so much to watch, to take in, to consider, and to watch decay.

Gemma: I love you, Jackson. From the deepest, purest part of my heart. You have to do this. It’s who we are, sweetheart. It’s okay. My baby boy. It’s time. I’m ready. (S7E12)

I’ll miss SOA, but I’m glad it ended last week. The story was told. It was complete. Jax Teller becomes an indelible part of television history, as does his mother and twenty other people on the show. It was a tale of family, of loyalty, of betrayal, and ultimately of the inevitability resulting from circumstance and choice. Kurt Sutter assuredly inspired many creative individuals and his vision, this crazy project about a bunch of California outlaws in cuts, made a whole lot of people much bigger stars and left them with much bigger bank accounts than they probably ever expected when they signed on. Because it is a byproduct of success, isn’t that the ultimate goal?

To think, a story about bikes affected me emotionally more often and in a more visceral fashion than almost any television program I’ve ever experienced. That’s a credit to everyone involved, from top to bottom. At the end of seven, looking back, I was right.

It was an amazing f***ing show.

What a ride.

Follow me @GuyNamedJason on Twitter and praise or berate me until the end of time. Just avoid a “YEA” on my Mayhem vote.

Written by Jason Martin