There will be blood. So much blood.
It’s a sweltering day in early July—the kind that coincides with spikes in homicides—and production is underway on the seventh and final season of Sons of Anarchy (the show premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on FX, while the SOA Collector's Set hits shelves on Nov. 11) at North Hollywood’s Occidental Studios. Much of the sprawling world of showrunner Kurt Sutter’s biker drama is crammed into a maze of interior sets—the San Joaquin Sheriff’s office, Jax Teller’s home, his mother Gemma’s house, the makeshift SAMCRO meeting room, the Diosa Norte brothel, Redwoody Studios (the club’s new porn studio on the docks), an intensive care unit—as well as the exterior Teller-Morrow Automotive Repair shop.
Paris Barclay, the Emmy-winning executive producer and frequent director of Sons, guides a tour of press through familiar rooms while excited journalists, visiting the studio to observe the filming of a scene and interview cast and crew members, snap pictures of themselves with rows of Harley-Davidson bikes, the bomb-scarred SAMCRO table, and the infamous sink where Gemma, mistaking her daughter-in-law Tara for a rat, stabbed her to death with a fork in the season six finale.
This show is about the dignity of cockroaches. —Peter Weller
With theatrical panache, Barclay invites his visitors to cross strips of yellow police tape and take in a crime scene. The floor is covered in blood, pools of it that Barclay warns people to not step in. Broken glass and shell casings lay scattered everywhere. There are too many bullet holes to count. Barclay doesn’t divulge the details of what looks like a massacre and asks that nobody reveal the bullet-riddled location, lest they spoil any of the stretch run for fans.
Whatever the specifics are, the sanguine set speaks to the mayhem of the season and the series overall. From brutal rape scenes, to the gouging out of eyes in prison, to the burning alive of a rival’s daughter, Sutter has always pushed the envelope of violence on TV since the series premiered in September 2008. Even the most desensitized viewer’s stomach surely has turned once, and season seven is no less relentless as it builds up to the end of its Hamlet-inspired tragedy. In the first three episodes alone, Sutter’s antiheroic torturers pull teeth, carve a message into a snitch, jam a fork into a guy’s head, pour salt in a wound, coldly execute witnesses pleading for their lives, and use a chain to drag a rival gangster down the street—in an uncomfortable scene that recalls lynchings but is played for laughs.
In the wake of Tara’s death, Jax and the show are more unhinged than ever. Previously on the verge of turning himself in to police to protect his wife, his two sons, and club, legitimizing them all, the widower finds himself deeper in the criminal muck and mire than ever before. Only he’s not slipping into it, he’s surprisingly diving into it with at least as much detectable glee as sorrow.
“Jax has been desperate to move in this righteous direction, partially because he thought it was right, but partially because he had these two guiding stars of Tara and his father,” says Charlie Hunnam, the English actor who plays Jackson “Jax” Teller, the rightful heir to an outlaw empire who’s caught between idealism and a survival instinct. “He became disillusioned with who his father was and what that message was, so by the end of last season it was Tara who was his true north, although it was always a fight. For me, it’s a balance of those two things, honoring Tara and their relationship and suffering their loss and heartache, but also embracing the freedom of no longer having to be a good guy.”
Of course, calling anyone in the Sons “good” requires selective memory. Regardless of their noble reasoning—Gemma struggles with wrongly killing Tara but justifies it, and hiding the truth from Jax, because she thought she was protecting her family—everyone in the club has committed undeniably heinous acts of murder and betrayal, which makes the audience’s love for and identification with the SAMCRO outlaws fascinating.
After Gemma stuck a fork in Tara, fans lined up at actress Katey Sagal’s autograph signing with forks for her to sign. Hunnam, who modeled his protagonist on the slain son of a club leader he hung out with in Oakland while researching his role, estimates that fans have given him three dozen knives because Jax wears one. Some are nice, some are a unsettling. He recounts the time a soldier handed him a knife that had “one on it” from his time in the Middle East. “That is in a shoebox,” says Hunnam. “I didn’t want to throw it away but I am sensitive to the energy of things, so this blood-stained knife is disquieting.”
Creepy gifts aside, Hunnam understands the connection viewers feel to Sons characters. “People enjoy watching dudes who live with their own set of rules and do whatever the fuck they want,” he says. “Everybody wants to punch their boss in the face and tell cops to go fuck themselves. It’s exciting and great to tune in once a week and see a bunch of guys say, ‘Fuck it, I am doing what the fuck I want and fuck the consequences and fuck anyone who doesn’t like it.’”
As appealing an escape fantasy as that is, true freedom is a carrot that Sutter always dangles just out of reach. For all of the creator’s criticism of corporate structure, anarchy proves equally imperfect in his world. Liberty is crushed by a sense of obligation to family, but loyalty nearly always loses out to self-preservation, and everyone is a slave to money, of which there always seems to be barely enough to get by on. Which is to say, romanticize the outlaw lifestyle at your own risk.
“This show is about the dignity of cockroaches,” says actor and director Peter Weller, who plays corrupt ex-cop Charles Barosky. “These are not dignified people but they are trying to maintain a dignity about themselves—which is the great irony of life, because we are all of these people and all are despicable in some ways. We don’t kill people, rape, and loot and pillage but we have certainly treated people with the same unkindness that they have with our best interest in mind. What Kurt is nailing in is the vicissitudes of humanity here. Take the racism away, the guns away, the Hamlet story away, the economics away, and what you got is the dignity of all of us when we are at our lowest and what we do when we are trying to hang on to some sort of a semblance and justification of living. That is why this show is pulverizing.”
So, will anyone make it out of Sutter’s crime story alive? A happy ending seems unlikely. “We are not afraid about killing characters, and we are getting even worse about it this season,” says Barclay. “There still are people today who are traumatized about [Jax’s best friend] Opie [being beaten to death in prison]. People are worried about Jax but do you think that we’ll kill Jax before the end of the series? Will we ever have the balls to do that?”
At least a couple cast members suspect they will. “I think we are all going to be fucking dead,” says Kim Coates, who plays Tig Trager, a former adversary in the club who is now one of Jax's most loyal allies. Tommy Flanagan, who plays second in command Chibs Telford, concurs: “We are dealing with Kurt Sutter here, so who the fuck knows if anything will be here when the show is over?”
Perhaps just pools of blood.
Justin Monroe is a Complex executive editor. His outlaw days are behind him, or never were. He tweets here.