Sons of Anarchy was born during the Great Television Renaissance of the 2000s. It is often compared with other prestige cable hits like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and pretty squarely falls in the time period when people began to realize that serialized television could be elevated to something beyond story-of-the-week cop and hospital dramas. It never reached the lofty critical status of a Mad Men, something which provoked an inspired blog rant by creator Kurt Sutter originally titled FOR ALL YOU FUCKING IDIOTS WHO CAN'T SEE PAST THE CUM STAINS ON YOUR KEYBOARDS.
But of course, Sutter is right. Sons of Anarchy is not high art - and it never aspired to be that, not really. At times, especially in the back-end of the series, it was pretty touch and go with quality. But in its best moments, and I am thinking here specifically about the Season 3 finale, it was exactly what it wanted to be: a grand, epic tale about biker outlaws that went for big broad emotions and themes of family, love, loyalty, betrayal and honor. These ideas were sheathed in a roughneck aesthetic where cool-looking dudes on motorcycles drove around California killing each other for various, often incomprehensible, reasons. When it was firing on all cylinders, it was a great show.
First of all, we have to admit that plotting was never the backbone of this series. It was usually a bonus if the plot made any sort of sense at all. Let's just take a look at the premise the show opened with: fictional Northern California biker town Charming serves as a kind of neutral Switzerland for bigger gangs throughout the state to purchase weapons from SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original). SAMCRO is led by Clay Morrow, played by Ron Perlman as a larger than life figure who could have been drawn straight from Greek mythology. He cut a deal with the local sheriff to allow the gun running to take place, as along as SAMCRO guarantees that Charming stays quiet and free from violence. Charlie Hunnam as Jax Teller is the heir-apparent to the SAMCRO throne, both because his father co-founded the club with Clay and also because he is impossibly handsome. A vast constellation of interesting side-characters and foes fill in this biker cosmos, and play off one another in ways that would drive the action for another seven seasons.
However, the logic of this set-up falls apart pretty quickly as Charming becomes filled with gang-related murders over the course of the series. The clubhouse gets blown up more than once, and there are frequent shoot-outs and rapes and multiple local and federal law enforcement officials are murdered. Yet everyone continues for the most part to accept that SAMCRO is a necessary presence because, well lets be honest, that is what the story demands. Other plot threads veer off into ludicrous directions. An entire season revolves around - I am not making this up - an Irish gangster stealing a baby and absconding to Ireland with it. The characters come up with schemes that are basically gibberish, and their motivations and thought processes are all over the place. They will kill innocent people in one scene, then in the next refuse to allow a different innocent person to die for no reason at all except to please the Plot Fairy. They will cut deals with their enemies, betray them, get betrayed, make a deal with them again, get betrayed, then make yet ANOTHER deal with them. A school shooting makes an appearance for some reason at one point. The final season spends an awful lot of time with a dead-eyed child actor who basically ruined any scene he was in.
As the show progressed, it dialed up the sensationalism, the gore, the violence and the suffering pretty much just to boost its lurid appeal. There are extended scenes of torture porn, people getting their eyes gouged out, body parts cuts off, burned alive - anal rapes in prison were a particularly popular leitmotif. I don't have anything against violence, or even extreme violence, if it serves some purpose but a lot of the violence in Sons of Anarchy began to feel like the writers had run out of ideas and they knew this would at least appeal to the audience's baser instincts. It is easy to see why some people, especially those looking for some kind of refined social commentary, soured on the show. No character motivation is consistent, the plot is gobbledy-gook, and eventually it just fell into a cycle of trying to top itself with increasingly outrageous and senseless violence.
On the other hand, the show makes a lot more sense, and works better, if it is viewed as a soap opera on a grand and epic scale, like a Greek myth. Much of the early seasons were driven not by the details of the convoluted schemes the characters constantly hatched only immediately to see them fall apart, but by the big and broad emotional and thematic arcs, like pitting the aging king, Clay Morrow, against the rising heir apparent, Jax Teller and the slow reveal of various buried secrets. It was about the big emotions that resonate with people across time and culture - love, jealousy, hate. It asked big, universal questions - Who am I? What kind of person am I? What are we doing this for? Like the Aegean warriors laying siege to Troy, SAMCRO explored these ideas through a wide range of distinct and compelling characters engaged in forever war with their enemies, bonded by ties of brotherhood that ran deep. It was really the perfect setting for the kind of big, cathartic moments that Sons of Anarchy reveled in. And when they worked, they really worked.
In the first few seasons, the show hit its stride exploring these bonds while the narrative momentum was carried along by the prospect of the Young Prince challenging the King. It had everything you would want in a great mythology: legendary warriors, family intrigue, betrayal, love and violence playing out on a grand and epic scale. This culminated in the Season 3 finale, where a long-con paid off in a way that, unlike in later seasons, was extremely satisfying on an emotional, character and narrative level and didn't feel cheap or totally illogical. After the show finally toppled Clay, it lost some of its reason for being. It tried to ask questions like, Is Jax a good man or a bad man? But by then it had become so desperate to come up with new shocking twists and turns, and Jax himself was such an inconsistent character, that the question had little relevance or meaning.
So, that is 7 seasons of this television show in a nutshell. The chase scenes were always great. The characters could make you laugh and make you cry and make you cringe. More importantly, they made you believe they loved each other deeply. And if you step back and just look at the big emotions, the epic moments and the sweeping mythology the series was trying to weave, you can almost excuse the fact that when you drilled down into it nothing made any fucking sense. And if Kurt Sutter had been trying to make a show that sought to plumb the depths of human psychology or took a deep dive into the fabric of American society, we might come away from the experience feeling like this show didn't live up.
But that's not, I think, what Sutter was after. He was going for scope, grandeur, drama. He wanted to craft an epic mythology and if we judge the show by that ambition I think it's a success, at least in the first few seasons. After all, you never hear anybody nitpicking the Iliad because Achilles is a totally nonsensical character who was dipped in a river by a God when he was a baby. No, you accept that he is what he is and he behaves the way that he does, and that's just the kind of story Homer is telling. Not that I'm equating Sutter with Homer, or anything.... although his character Otto Delaney does get blinded in the show....
I'll stop now.