Brow Beat

The Bloody, Frustrating End of Sons of Anarchy

Sons of Anarchy was a testosterone-soaked soap opera that could have been so much more.

Charlie Hunnam as Jax. Photo by James Minchin for FX.

When I stick with a long-running show until the finale—as I have with Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, and so onI’m usually a giddy mass of anticipation beforehand. Going into the Sons of Anarchy finale, I felt something different: relief. Relief that I could finally stop watching a show that compelled me despite all reason and logic. Was this a good bad show or a bad good show? I’m not even sure anymore. It was certainly no Breaking Bad.

In the finale, SoA performed all its usual tricks: insufferable montages, senseless deaths, gyrating porn stars, tender man-hugs, cool motorcycle chases, convoluted gun deals, predictable double-crosses, and scattered mannequin parts. (OK, that last part was new.) SAMCRO president Jax Teller, fresh off killing his mother—who killed his wife, if you haven’t been following along—does his best to settle all accounts. He murders rivals and traitors, makes sure his young sons get the hell out of Charming and away from the biker life, and he visits the graves of his best friend and his wife. He even burns his journals and his father’s, which might be his most noble deed—at least no one will ever have to read the whiny moping of these deluded bikers again. Every aspect of the episode was designed to make you believe that this was Jax’s last day on Earth.

Since the show is notorious for not delivering a satisfying payoff, I assumed all this klutzy foreshadowing would result in Jax alive and well. And that looked likely for a minute. Because Jax killed another club president, he had to “meet Mr. Mayhem,” a terrific phrase meaning his own club had to kill him. But, in typical SoA fashion, Jax made a deal with his beloved club so he could escape (perhaps to become Dexter Morgan’s new roommate). This is the kind of swerve (or cop-out) that fans have gotten used to.

But then … double swerve. Jax leaves town, but he stops to have a heartfelt chat with some old graffiti left by his dad. He catches the attention of one cop, and then about 100 more cops, who give chase. Finally, Jax lifts his arms off his bike in a Christ-like pose and plows into a truck driven by Michael Chiklis. Seriously, that happened. Do two cop-outs equal a conclusion? I don’t know. I guess it was sweet that Jax chose death-by-truck rather than force his brothers to kill him, but the herky-jerky plot robbed the ending of any gravitas for me. The death of Jax felt silly rather than powerful.

That’s par for the course for this mixed bag of a show, which could have been called Contrivances of Plot or Montages of Eternity. I had to cringe when Gemma, guilty of killing Tara, confessed to Tara’s baby as Tara’s older son (the toddler Abel) overheard. Funny how that worked out. This was an obvious, ungainly, brutal plot device to set up Abel spilling the beans to his dad Jax about who really killed Tara. Granted, that was a devastating moment, but there had to be a less convoluted way to get there.

SoA was also notorious for keeping characters alive seasons past their expiration date. Exhibit A: the interminable saga of Clay Morrow, club president and stepfather to Jax who conspired with Gemma to kill Jax’s dad. Clay should have died at the end of Season 5. The character was given such a cartoonishly villainous arc—including an obscene beating of Gemma—that he simply had to die at Jax’s hands in the season finale. But he didn’t. Ridiculous plot twists kept Clay alive another season. A chance for catharsis was lost, and the Clay story spun on until it petered out. The same old wheels kept spinning and spinning and spinning.

I wouldn’t be so annoyed at these flaws if there wasn’t also a lot to love about the show. Season 2’s main story, in which the club faced off against white supremacists, was a harrowing, tightly woven tale. The cast, from top to bottom, has been as good as the writing has been inconsistent. And then there were the little things, like the surprising dignity of chronic masturbator Chuckie. The touching romance between SAMCRO member Tig—the most lovable psychopath on TV—and transgender prostitute Venus Van Dam. Their tryst started as comic relief but morphed into something deep and genuine, lending some fragile, hopeful humanity to an often inhuman show. And Jimmy Smits has been sensational as Nero, a conflicted gangster with all the pathos Jax has lacked from the beginning. Nero was a great character trapped in a so-so series.

I have a weakness for comparing everything to The Shield, but that comparison is hard to avoid with Sons of Anarchy. Showrunner Kurt Sutter was a writer and producer on The Shield, and the show shared directors, such as Paris Barclay. Nearly all the main actors on The Shield—Chiklis, Walton Goggins, Kenny Johnson, David Rees Snell, C.C.H. Pounder, Jay Karnes, and Benito Martinez—appeared on SoA as well. There are parallels between Vic Mackey’s Strike Team and SAMCRO, and much of the dark humor feels familiar. But SoA has never managed to pack quite the same punch.

The most glaring contrast comes in how each show treated death. When Lemonhead died in the shattering Season 5 finale of The Shield, that death had such force that it motivated everything in the final two seasons. But deaths in SoA generally meant little to nothing, especially as the show reached its “climax” in the second-to-last episode. In that one, Jax finally killed his villainous mother Gemma. On a better series, this would have been devastating. On this show, it felt like just another murder—the third murder of a major character in the episode, in fact, as Juice and Unser also died, both having lived approximately 800 episodes beyond the realm of plausibility. Gemma’s death was undercut again when Jax then had sex with ex-wife Wendy for the first time in years, because of course killing your mom would make you horny. Ugh. When everything is turned up to 11, nothing seems loud anymore.

Maybe Kurt Sutter never intended to make a classic drama like The Shield or Breaking Bad or The Wire. But what’s frustrating is that he could have. At times, Jax’s story was as tragic as any on those shows, but this series kept devolving into cheap shocks, contrived plots, and meaningless deaths (not to mention the bloated episode lengths). It’s ironic that a show modeled on Hamlet ultimately lacked the tragic weight of the best cable dramas. Sons of Anarchy succeeded as a testosterone-soaked soap opera, but it didn’t live up to its potential. Ultimately, it was more Wrestlemania than Shakespeare.