It Still Stings: The Quick Rise and Tragic Fall of Sons of Anarchy

TV Features Sons of Anarchy
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It Still Stings: The Quick Rise and Tragic Fall of <i>Sons of Anarchy</i>

Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:

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The art of television is rarely perfect, especially over an extended period. But it doesn’t make it any easier to watch a good TV show lose itself in the middle of its second or third act. And because of the personal nature of most art—how we connect with it, what we get out of it—we often take it personally when something we love crumbles to dust before our eyes. It’s why, for many, the rise and fall of FX’s biker drama Sons of Anarchy remains a sore spot after all this time.

When the show first roared to life in the fall of 2008, The Sopranos had only ended a year before, while FX’s network-defining original about corrupt cops, The Shield, was preparing to sign off after an exceptional seven-season run. Over on AMC, Mad Men and Breaking Bad were still in their infancy but slowly gaining ground. No one needed another show about the lives and questionable actions of morally compromised white men. No one needed another show about an antihero. But it’s hard to deny the appeal that Sons of Anarchy held at the time.

Created by The Shield’s Kurt Sutter, the exhilarating series—which counted William Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a defining influence—promised an adrenaline-fueled adventure that, for one hour every week, would allow viewers to live out an escapist fantasy. It also pulled back the curtain on motorcycle clubs, a distinct subculture of American life that was likely a mystery to many who tuned in. While the vast majority of real clubs do not fall under the outlaw classification, the culture of brotherhood depicted is realistic. And those personal relationships made it easy to connect with and root for the men of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original (SAMCRO), even when they gave in to their base instincts or committed heinous crimes.

Told from the perspective of Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the crowned prince of SAMCRO, Sons of Anarchy was an action-packed thrill ride grounded by emotionally charged performances, strong interpersonal relationships, and ruminations on inherited trauma. The first season set the stage for an epic power struggle between Jax and his stepfather, club president Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), though it quickly became apparent that the true puppet master was his mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal). Shaped by the unforgiving, male-dominated environment in which she existed, Gemma rarely got her hands dirty—yet her fingerprints were all over many of the show’s most tragic moments.

But if a lens into a unique subculture and rampant brutality drew viewers in, it was Jax’s desire to end the cycle of violence and trauma after the premature birth of his son, Abel, in the pilot that set Sons of Anarchy apart and kept it going. His longing to be a better man than the fates had allowed, accompanied by a search for deeper meaning in life and the club, was familiar. And yet, it felt fresh within the show’s framework and translated to messy internal politics fraying already tenuous relationships inside SAMCRO, while multiple external forces—mostly in the form of rival clubs and determined ATF agents—threatened it from the outside. When you add in a romantic subplot involving Jax’s ex-girlfriend Tara (Maggie Siff) returning to their small hometown to escape a controlling ex from whom she needed saving, you’ve got a show ripe with both physical and emotional stakes. It’s no wonder viewers were captivated by the drama.

Unfortunately, after a critically acclaimed second season that saw SAMCRO take down a group of white supremacists who had tried to push the club out of Charming, the third season’s extended trip to Ireland to rescue Abel from the IRA was ill-conceived and poorly received (and not just because of the accents). As the seasons progressed, the overarching plots only became more convoluted as different players in the criminal underworld came and went while Jax tried to extricate the club from the gun-running game and move into legitimate business endeavors. Meanwhile, double-crosses and twists that had been shocking early on rarely had the same effect, since viewers had come to know the players within the game as well as how it typically played out.

But the problems didn’t begin and end with the show repeating the same narrative beats as Jax tried his best to deploy a parachute for himself and his family, which came to include Tara and a second son. FX’s approach to giving creators free rein over their domain has long been beneficial and has led to some of TV’s most creatively rewarding programs. But in the case of Sons of Anarchy, it proved to be a double-edged sword. Fewer restrictions led to narrative bloat and excessive indulgences on the part of the creative team (see: most of the extended musical montages). Episodes grew longer and often stretched to more than an hour by Season 5, which also saw the untimely and gruesome murder of Opie (Ryan Hurst), Jax’s lifelong best friend and one of the show’s best characters. Meanwhile, a reluctance to dispatch Clay until long after his role in the murders of Jax’s father, Opie’s wife Donna (Sprague Grayden), and father Piney (William Lucking) became known meant more narrative stagnation. At the same time, the gradual moral decay and eventual death of beloved characters like Tara left few untouched by the club’s brand of poison, so that by the end of Season 6, there weren’t many characters left alive, let alone left to root for.

Of course, much of this was by design. Sons of Anarchy is a tragedy, and Jax’s death in the series finale after accepting the only way to break the cycle of trauma and free his sons from suffering his same fate drives this point home. But the kingdom came crashing down long before Gemma stabbed Tara in the head with a barbecue fork or Jax rode his motorcycle into a semi-truck driven by Michael Chiklis. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment it happened because it was more like a gradual confluence of bad or outrageous choices. Increasingly illogical storylines involving murky motivations to keep Jax saddled to Charming and SAMCRO gave way to an overreliance on Gemma’s special brand of villainy and Jax’s refusal to see her for what she was until it was too late.

To that end, one wonders what might have happened if the people in charge had been a little less self-indulgent or adhered to more traditional episodic runtimes. Along those same lines, one must consider the possibility that the show might have been better off had it ended a season or two earlier, since this would have eliminated some of the need for finding new ways to keep Jax chained. Sadly, we’ll never know what might have happened because Sons of Anarchy was also FX’s most-watched show. The network was never going to cut the cord before Sutter was ready to wrap up Jax’s story. Still, there is one thing we do know for certain: Sons of Anarchy, with all its bullets and blood and biker melodrama, was one of the most entertaining new shows of the late 2000s. Together with Justified and The Americans—which followed in 2010 and 2013, respectively—it anchored one of the most creatively rich periods in FX history. It’s just a shame that its time at the top was so brief when it had so much to offer. But like much of what happened to the men of SAMCRO, it often brought it on itself.


Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.

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