Lingering Excuses: Why I Still Love Sons of Anarchy

If I learned one lesson from Fox’s The X Files, it’s that shows reach a point in their production history when the decline in storytelling is inevitable. That doesn’t mean that each and every episode after that certain point smells something like garbage; rather, it implies the ongoing investment with fictional characters has a shelf-life.  Even creators should respect the expiration date on their products. Good characters never die; they just have to morph into something that can transcend the obvious.

… which brings me to FX’s Sons of Anarchy.

As a mostly meat’n’potatoes Conservative-leaning schmoe, I’ve taken a little flack over the years whenever I admit to being a fan of the program. Once the derision dies down, I plead my case, that being that ‘Sons’ isn’t so much a cable program celebrating old-school gangbangers and their illicit ways as it is a classically-structured Greek drama. It has kings and queens and knights and serfs and peasants (all or most wearing leather), riding their steeds (Harleys) into the wild (California) looking for spoils (drugs, guns, hot chicks, etc.) in the collective pursuit of happiness (money, sex, family). Like those Greek plays, it has mommy and daddy issues galore, and there’s a heavy, heavy emphasis on building a kingdom while respecting a code of honor unlike anything on any other TV program broadcast today (yes, including MSNBC), even when that respect means ‘taking one for the team’ under the most perilous circumstances.

Now in its fifth season, ‘Sons’ remains under the watchful hands of its creator, Kurt Sutter, a screenwriter who cut his teeth on The Shield and even spent time riding with an outlaw biker gang in order to do research for his own program. Under his guidance, the show has continued to push even its own boundaries, pulling no punches when examining the good, the bad, and the ugly of characters embracing a life of crime. Nothing – and I mean n-o-t-h-i-n-g – happens without consequence, but what does it all mean for this crew? My guess is that, like The Shield, the audience won’t quite know until the very last frame airs.

Most of the story revolves around the life of Jackson ‘Jax’ Teller, the former prince now turned king of the Sons of Anarchy (aka SAMCRO), a bike club with controlling interest in the town of Charming, CA. Jax spent the lion’s share of the first four seasons of ‘Sons’ in a constant tug o’war with his adoptive father, Clarence ‘Clay’ Morrow, the prototypical motorcycling kingpin. In short, Clay shoots first and asks questions later, mostly because he built SAMCRO’s empire alongside Jax’s late father. Clay even had the local sheriff, Wayne Unser, in his pocket. Indeed, for a period, it was good to be the king … but time and some failed double-crossing proved to be too much for old Clay to keep up with.  In the finale of the fourth season, Jax finally took the gavel and the center seat of the gang. Humbled, tired, and disgraced, Clay could only watch his reign slip away from the comfort of a hospital bed.

And, to be fair, ‘Sons’ had grown a bit humbled and tired as a program.

Over four seasons, the writers, actors and actresses invested a heavy weight in the legal and illegal shenanigans of a simple California biker gang. There had been deaths aplenty, even more random shootings and beatings. Characters had come and gone. Charming’s Sheriff’s Department fell apart as the town’s economy faltered, and county law stepped in to curb the madness. The Sons got into and out of the porn business. The FBI closed in, hoping to finally shut the club down. The men even traveled all the way to Ireland – of all places – to find their mojo again (along with Jax’s kidnapped son). Ireland? Can you believe it?!?! When season four closed with Jax’s crowning, I honestly thought the show had run its course. As king, Jax could finally put his endgame in motion (to safely ‘retire’ from the life with his wife and children). Having successfully de-fanged step-daddy Clay, what more treachery could be in store for the former prince?

I should’ve known that old kings never go quietly into the night.

  • jaromir

    Maybe your not so much a ” meat’n’potatoes Conservative-leaning schmoe” as you think you are.

    And as to your point as to the show just being like any greek drama, isn’t all forms of story telling greek in origin some way or another.

    Anyways good article.

  • XenoIrish

    I think Harold Perrineau is awesome as Pope, he’s got that nice looking business man on the outside, hardened mob boss on the outside thing down pat. And the scenes with Jax and him are generally great.

    I was a little underwhelmed when we finally met Quinn, leader of the Nomad charter, and the other celebrity casting was weak to be sure.

  • E. Lee Zimmerman

    @ jaromir: You could be “right.” Oh, oh! See what I did there? But, nah, not every show fits into the classic Greek structure so far as I can tell, but there are quite a few that do. As always, thanks for reading & sounding off.

    @XenoIrish: I just don’t see it for Perrineau. It could be that I grew too accustomed to him on Lost, and maybe kinda/sorta things don’t sound quite right. I guess I may have to wait until I see how all of this plays out to get a better feel for it. As always, thanks for reading & sounding off.

  • ash

    Episode 6 (7?) celeb casting was fucking brilliant and hilarious! The actor was perfect and the roll was so over the top insane, I couldn’t help but almost feel like Tig did in those scenes.

  • In line with the Greek drama analogy, it’s pretty well-documented by Sutter and the cast that SoA is a loose adaptation of Hamlet, with Jax as Hamlet, JT’s letters as the ghost, Clay/Claudius, Gemma/Gertrude, Piney/Polonius, and Opie/Ophelia, which is why I was waiting on tenterhooks for him to kill himself somehow once they finally killed off Piney.

    Obviously Shakespeare borrowed heavily from Greek dramatic structure, so eff yeah evolution of storytelling across centuries. I’m with jaromir here, I do think every story stripped down to its core is pretty much the same story, and that counts stories from even before the Greeks started perfecting the medium. And I’m also with you regarding the inevitable end. Everybody dies in Hamlet.

    Fantastic piece!

  • E. Lee Zimmerman

    @ Sara: Good points. Don’t know if you’ve seen it, but on the Season 2 or Season 3 DVD collection of the show (I don’t remember which one of the top of my head), there was a panel discussion with all of the regulars, and it was just awesome. It’s clear how much respect they have for the stories and for one another, and I’ve no doubt that ‘chemistry’ really helps elevate the performances all around. As always, thanks for reading & sounding off!

  • SFV_Steve

    I grew up in Chatsworth, literally down the street of Hells Angels. This show, to a certain point, gets it! To achieve peace, there needs to be a certain level of deception. But where I come into conflict, is, that EVERYONE is deceiving. I have hopes for a brotherhoood leaving off of last episode. Juice knowing the truth about Clay, and Jax hunting him down. I hope that pans out the way I think it should. BUT, the fact that I have a specific view of how things should end up, and how they Might end up, is the reason why I keep watching…. Every week I speculate on what I would do, what a real M.C. like that would do, and still, I’m currently amazed at the curve balls that the characters end up doing.

  • Delaney

    Sons of Anarchy is said to be based on Hamlet and I can definitely see those elements in the show. It is equally dark, full of betrayal, and sometimes shocking moments that take hours to sink in. You just never know with SOA so I’ve got my Hopper from DISH recording the show each week. It’s got four times more recording space than all the other DVRs out there which means I don’t have to rush to watch everything I’ve recorded. If you’ve never seen the show then you’re definitely missing out. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but there is something to be said about great writing and fantastic actors. My DISH co-worker said that she didn’t start watching the show until season four and got hooked. She spent all summer catching up on previous seasons and now she loves the show. I definitely recommend giving it a try.