This isn’t necessarily a review. It’s more of, I watched this, this is on my mind. I want to get it out of my mind, so I write about it.
Sons of Anarchy is the antithesis of the types of shows I usually watch. It’s a drama centered around mostly male characters that requires a lot of time and emotional investment. It can be brutally violent and dark, but has real heartwarming, emotional and even really funny moments. A co-worker recommended it to me. He knew I liked Expendables and motorcycles. There aren’t a lot of stories about motorcycle clubs because they are so secretive. For a show to be set in a Club interested me right off the bat. I picked up the first season since I had the money to do so. Then I got sucked in due to the story about the baby, Abel. By the end Season 4, I was heavily invested in the characters and the Club. But Season 5 is where my type of storytelling and Kurt Sutter’s type of storytelling diverge like those proverbial roads in the woods. The basic contrast between character driven stories and plot driven.
Sons of Anarchy is the tragic tale of violence and sins of the fathers being repaid even unto the fourth generation of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club. Jax Teller is the son and stepson of two of the First Nine members of the Redwood Original charter and heir apparent when his stepfather steps down as President. However, Clay Morrow’s vision and Jax’s vision of the Club are completely opposite and Jax ends up making compromises that pull him deeper into the criminal warfare and away from the legitimate future he wishes the Club could have. As it spirals deeper out of control, it tears apart his family, destroys his relationships and sparks a brutal gang war in the streets of Stockton and Oakland that eventually comes home to roost in Charming and on Jax himself.
Kurt Sutter knows how to write when he focusses on his characters and shines the light on their flaws and stays away from overt symbolism and brutal nonsensical violence. When he focusses on the characters the writing is tense and tight and keeps the audience coming back for more. That was the first four seasons and the last four episodes of season 7. Seasons 5, 6 and most of season 7 were major stumbling blocks as instead of focusing on the characters, the show focused on plot elements of how they were to set up the last four episodes of season 7. They took what they felt needed to happen, the double crosses, the deaths and plugged it into a sequence that focused on the events rather than the characters. It was a drastic departure from the previous writing and it didn’t work in my opinion.
The story worked for me when the characters were trying to stand up for what was right even if they were going about it in the only way they knew how, through violence. Or, when the characters were being pulled in several different directions. Jax in Season 2 and 3 with trying to decide on whether or not to keep Abel. Juice in Season 4 was agonizing as his own heritage and rules off the club were being used against him. They were adults trying to solve adult problems. How to pay the mortgage when there weren’t enough jobs in town to get a second job? Have a baby now or get an abortion and have another one later? What is the definition of family and how do families help each other? With motorcycles and leather… and guns, and big explosions because crime. It was a lot more appealing than shows about vampires who can’t decide who to date.
Season 4 was so tense and engaging for me, that I had a hard time picking up Season 5 to continue. It was just so emotionally exhausting. Then, Seasons 5 through 7, I sat through with gritted teeth of frustration and worked on puzzles on my floor. I had to force myself to watch them. That’s how big a 180 the writing was.
I want to emphasize that I am coming at the show as a writer. Sons of Anarchy was an extremely popular show with the average viewer left wanting more. And as a writer, I can see the reasons why the viewers wanted more and were pissed that Kurt ended it at Season 7, despite Kurt having told the story he wanted to tell and ended said story where he wanted to. (As a writer, I respect him for this as I’ve done it myself.) And I can see why, in the moment of writing it season by season, why they made the choices they made with the story. When you step back away from it and look at it from a distance, these choices may have been the wrong choices. (Which is why outlines are important.)
The story is a tragedy. It was developed as a tragedy. It was pitched as a tragedy. It was pitched as Hamlet on motorcycles. And by the end of the story, J.T. is set up as God and Jax has become this Christ like figure complete with communion symbolism. And honestly, I have no problem with tragic stories. They are not my cup of tea. I know there is a place for them in the overall scheme of things. They can teach valuable messages. I’m just not sure if the message got across appropriately in Sons. (Hatred, violence and retaliation is bad. But the hatred, violence and retaliation had been glorified too so, don’t know if the message got across. Especially when it had to be blatantly stated in the last episode which is a little too late.) And I know to me, after watching the final episode (and predicting the events of the last four episodes) the entire story felt like an exercise in futility. There was no point. If there was to be some sort of hope in the tragedy, it wasn’t shown enough for me to feel it. There wasn’t even a surety that the cycle Kurt had set up with J.T. and Jax had been broken. Maybe it wasn’t enough of a tragedy. Kurt spent too much time trying to save something that shouldn’t have been saved. A true dissolution of the Club might have been more satisfying.
In Sons, we’re rooting for the criminals. The criminals have been set up to be the ‘heroes’ of the story. And in doing so, the villains, law enforcement, the traditional heroes of other shows, are shown to be venal, corrupt and at times down right socio and psychopathic. The villains mostly started off big, as in, law enforcement of the federal level. There were other villains present in the form of rival gangs or even criminal enterprises that were supposedly in league with our ‘heroes.’ But law enforcement was the largest and most common thread throughout the seasons. I think what Kurt and the writers were trying to do were start the villains as big threats on the horizon, federal agents and threats of RICO shut downs with mass arrests. Then, they tried to narrow the focus of how the Club’s activities were threatening them close to home by bringing in a local District Attorney for the County. This was supposed to make the threats feel more personal and more dangerous.
It didn’t work. Partly because as they did that, the supporting villains became more caricatures than characters. Partly because this is backwards to how these stories normally work, you start with the small threat, the close to home and personal and that brings bigger measures of crime which brings the bigger threats. And lastly, because the writing was much more intimate and character driven with the bigger threats than it was with the smaller threats, the smaller threats didn’t feel personal or intimate. This is why they audience wanted more of the story. The threats had been building and building becoming bigger and bigger and suddenly, they all collapsed. There wasn’t a threat anymore. If the Sons could handle a Federal RICO case and juggle CIA double agents, then a local DA just wasn’t going to be a problem. It wasn’t realistic. It was taking smart characters and making them stupid. It felt like two completely different stories. And as they tried to push and push the envelope of violence and shock value, it became numbing and downright boring.
Boring wasn’t helped by the same two characters making the same mistakes again and again over the entire seven seasons until they both ended up dead in the same episode. (It was long overdue and I was thoroughly sick of the two of them and their inability to pick a side, stop poking their noses in things they shouldn’t and keep their mouths shut.) That was just bad writing. In writing, characters need to grow and change and learn. Or other characters need to make the mistakes just for the sake of variety.
Motorcycle Clubs are primarily men’s worlds and the show reflected that by usually having only two female characters as protagonists at one time. There were more female villains at times than there were fully fleshed out heroes. There ended up being only three of note, Gemma, Tara and Wendy. Gemma was the matriarch, her defining role was to be the mother. She was also manipulative and a narcissist. Her pride and possessiveness both made and broke the Club.
She is contrasted with Tara, who is the Madonna figure, the angel come to redeem Jax. However, Tara’s story is one where the angel falls and becomes exactly what she hates. We watch her sacrifice her ideals and what she wants bit by bit to help Jax until she’s lost everything that is dear to her.
And Wendy, Jax’s first wife, was supposed to be the true redemption story, the story of second chances. When we meet her at first, she is a drug addict who almost kills Abel with her drug use. And then we don’t see her for several seasons until she returns, drug free and wanting to be part of Abel’s life again.
Gemma’s story, Tara’s story are strong stories. We care about them. We have an investment in what happens to them. We want Tara to succeed and redeem Jax, getting the boys out of Charming. We want Gemma to get what is coming to her, the fruits of every ill deed and choice she has sown. Their stories take place right in front of us, are played out on the screen. I couldn’t care about Wendy when she returned. I couldn’t see her as the true second chance redeeming angel. Her story hadn’t been shown to us. We saw the results, not the work. It didn’t work story wise. More bad writing.
The same could be said of Gemma’s relationship with Nero. Supposedly they loved each other, but that was a result, there wasn’t any work or effort put into their relationship other than sex. It was if they felt they needed another father figure for Jax and lumped him in with several other positions they needed for their story to work. The relationship never was shown. It just happened and we were supposed to accept that Gemma and Jax had accepted this new guy as part of their family without emotional turmoil. Jax was more worried about business than this guy trying to set himself up as a mentor to him. It didn’t feel real. (That and by the end there was no chemistry between most of the actors so the sex scenes felt forced and unnecessary outside of Tig and Venus.)
It didn’t feel like there was a concrete plan once Clay was deposed and Jax was President. Only when they were winding the story down and focusing on the personal results of two seasons worth of senseless violence did the story come alive again. And then, it was over. In order to make it feel finished, there probably would have needed another season. But by this point there was no one left to feel connected to. No one from the original cast to care about enough to continue and no actor with a big enough name to hold viewers’ attention.
I’m not even going to touch the overtly symbolic and jarring final scene. It was an insult to viewers. I should have been able to predict it, but I was holding out a smidgen of hope that they wouldn’t make Jax that stupid. My bad.
Maybe this is my bias towards character driven writing showing through. Sons stands as this very interesting example of the difference between character driven writing and plot driven writing in just one show. I find plot driven writing boring. It’s why Leverage, as fascinating as the cons were, couldn’t hold my attention and by contrast, the Librarians with the focus on the characters, does. Because Sons started out as a character driven show, is why the reversal to being plot driven in the second half frustrates me so. The characters were no longer conflicted within themselves. The conflict was all external and you need a lot more than a few explosions to make that type of story interesting or even inventive. We don’t need to turn to fiction for senseless violence. There is plenty of that in the world already.
So, like the writing, I find myself conflicted about the show. I liked the setting, the motorcycle club, to a degree the characters. I liked a good half of the writing. And then, I didn’t because characters became forgotten and there was too much mindless violence. Conflicted is the word of the day.