A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, Sons of Anarchy premiered on FX, being billed as "Hamlet on a motorcycle" and about much more than just cool biker gangs doing cool biker gang stuff. So how did Sons of Anarchy go from one of television's best series to a show creatively limping toward the finish line?
Now, in its seventh and final season, Sons has had its ups and downs over the years, and it remains to truly be seen what the series' legacy will be.
The thing is: Sons of Anarchy won't be remembered in the same breath as the Sopranos or the Breaking Bads of this golden age of television world. And while it should at least be honored and placed in the same category as The Shield—especially given the series' creative pedigree—Sons begins its seventh season remaining a slave to its past indiscretions and a constant reminder of the potential it once had.
Season seven promises to be a blood bath, and if there's one thing final seasons of shows are good for, it's introspection. So before we can move forward, we need to look back at just what took Sons of Anarchy from one of the best shows on television to—at times—just another wish-fulfilling program for the aspiring badass who mostly prefers style over substance.
It's still a good show, but it hasn't been a great show since maybe season two. So why is that?
Everyone wants to be cool—just like Jax and the boys of the SAMCRO bike club—so everyone wants to be on Sons. To put it into TV layman's terms, it's like it's 1998 all over again, and Sons of Anarchy is Will & Grace. Going into this season, the buzz isn't the character arcs or how the show will stick to its mission statement, whatever that even is anymore. It's all about which celebrity's showing up next, the way it has been for the past couple of seasons. Whether it's Marilyn Manson (he was fine), Lea Michele, Courtney Love, Joel McHale, Ashley Tisdale, or Walton Goggins in drag, that's the story, not the story.
"The Gang Goes to Ireland"
If there's even one consensus about the show, it could possibly be that the whole third season about the gang getting ready to go to Belfast (and then going to Belfast) was the show's earliest big misstep. This one's a no-brainer—destination episodes should be the last resort, unless you're Saved by the Bell. And last time I checked, Sons of Anarchy is no Saved by the Bell. (Or vice versa.)
Jax's internal struggle
Part of the appeal of Sons of Anarchy has always been Jax's quest to do right and go legit despite really knowing nothing outside the the seedy world of the SAMCRO bike club. Last season, when he was about to finally do the right thing and turn himself into the authorities, his wife (and the linchpin of the whole case) ended up being brutally murdered. So like in nearly every season, just when he thinks he's out, they pull him back in. Now, the Jax who spent six seasons wanting to build a better life for his family and friends is doing everything he can to fulfill a misguided attempt at revenge, and the shades of grey he and his crew once played in are looking mighty black. Put simply: He's essentially ended up being just another role model for those guys who need to categorize characters as either "badasses" or "bitches."
Speaking of the "bitch" category... Tara's death looms over this season, with Jax on the war path, but that's not the problem. The problem was Tara being killed off and the show conceding to the "Kill the Bitch Wife" Brigade. You may know them well from their time directing their bile at Skyler White during Breaking Bad. While Jax goes around "being the man" by beating random women and killing in cold blood, Tara was in the wrong for wanting to live the safe life Jax promised her and their children. Tara was in the wrong for choosing safety and justice over a bad situation, and ultimately got punished for it. Just the burden of being an old lady, right?
The school shooting
Pardon the terrible pun, but last season's otherwise uneventful premiere ended with a bang, having a gun tangentially connected to the club be the weapon a choice for an elementary school kid to shoot up his school. In a world where so much terrible happens—both the real world and the in-show universe—the last thing anyone needed was another reminder, especially when it ultimately meant nothing in the ever-growing morally bankrupt eyes of the Sons characters.
There is nothing inherently wrong with musical montages. In fact, when done well they're memorable for all of the right reasons. But Sons of Anarchy has taken something that could be used sparingly to successful results and instead resorted to using them constantly, to diminishing returns. This season opens with an imprisoned Jax carving a swastika into a fellow prisoner's chest—set to a musical montage—and ends with him torturing the man he wrongfully believes killed his wife—set to a musical montage. It is his art, and the show treats it as such with a bitching soundtrack, to boot. This isn't One Tree Hill or that episode of The Newsroom.
If Sons of Anarchy lives up to at least one expectation, it's that there is a lot of death. But that doesn't mean it's not going to draw out that death until it can squeeze as much blood from the stone as possible. Having Ron Perlman as a series regular was obviously a big get for the show. Not being able to let him go until the character had been used to the point of exhaustion, however, took away any true catharsis to be gained from the ego-maniacal Clay finally being taken out last season. By that point, it was too little, too late.
Unser and Wendy
Even more than the Clay situation, Wendy and Unser are the show's biggest examples of not being able to kill its darlings. With all of the character deaths, Sons of Anarchy still manages to have a way of keeping characters way beyond their expiration date, and somehow, the character who overdosed on drugs while she was seven months pregnant in the pilot and the character with terminal cancer who has really done nothing but eavesdrop for other characters' benefits are still alive and kicking. Unlike Clay, these two haven't contributed much to the series (outside of plot contrivance) in years.
At the risk of having the man insult me publicly, showrunner Kurt Sutter is Sons of Anarchy's biggest problem when it comes to it being a good show instead of a great one. The man has a clear creative voice and really does deserve heaps of praise for his work here and on The Shield. But anything that could have been changed about Sons of Anarchy—any of the above—probably would not have been even considered by Sutter. The greatest shows know how to adapt over time, but Sutter has always been set in his ways. There's nothing wrong with having a clear cut vision, but not having an open mind, that's what costs you.
Television is quickly moving forward in this so-called golden age, and Sons of Anarchy, while it still remains pretty good, has simply been too set in its ways to move forward along with it. This current season is off to a pretty good start. It will just have to accept only being "pretty good."