We open with a montage. Of course we do. For a moment, the new season of Sons of Anarchy seems like business as usual, a distressing sentiment since this is the big finish. But don’t sleep on Kurt Sutter's biker tragedy—it just may be headed towards one of the most unpredictable, event-worthy series finales of all time.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. As someone very familiar with Kurt Sutter’s writing, I eagerly anticipated Sons' final year as soon as the decision was finalized. Fans of The Shield, the not-praised-nearly-enough merciless cop drama on which Sutter was a top writing lieutenant, know where I’m coming from. Much like SoA, The Shield spent the majority of its time in a holding pattern—albeit in more entertaining, less frustrating fashion. But under series creator Shawn Ryan and writers like Sutter and former Walking Dead showrunner Glenn Mazzarra, the planned final season became a vindicating roller coaster ride hurtling towards an inevitable-yet-still-shocking ending, a template for all future final TV seasons that Breaking Bad most successfully adhered to just a year ago.
Sons has taken its fair share of shots, some very deserved, ever since season four’s damn near apocalyptic events ended with both treacherous king Clay and wayward perennial fuck-up Juice inexplicably alive, their sins unanswered for. With the end in sight, though, all eyes are on Sons to bring the joyride to a conclusion that will surely end in bullets, betrayal, and blood.
Of course, shit doesn’t hit the motorcycle fan belt just yet in the first three episodes of a 13-ep season. But boy, do they set the stage. Sons has been summarized as Hamlet on Harleys for its entire run, but anytime the volatile relationship between morally conflicted protagonist Jax (Charlie Hunnam) and his stepfather Clay took center stage, it was a feint, distracting from the show's true centerpiece toxic relationship: Jax and his fierce, over-protective mother Gemma (Katey Sagal, long overdue for an Emmy). That over-protectiveness led to unnecessary tragedy last season when Gemma, feeling spiteful and abandoned, killed Jax’s wife under the false pretense that she ratted her gun-running husband to the feds.
With both Clay and Tara gone, it's Mother and Son at the forefront, and it's clearer now more than ever: Jax and Gemma have one of the most twisted, most fascinating relationships depicted during this cable golden age. The Shakespearean comparisons are valid, but Gemma has always been more Lady Macbeth than Gertrude. And even that doesn't quite do her masterful manipulation justice. Clay's death wasn't as theatrical as you'd imagined? Doesn't matter. This series is, and always has been, building to a different family showdown.
It shouldn’t be a spoiler to anyone who consistently watches the show to reveal that when we return, 10 days after Tara’s murder, Gemma has already set plans in motion to pin the murder elsewhere. By episode three, the gang relations and triple-crosses between factions that define the show episodically (brusquely signified by race-color, as always) are more byzantine than ever before. The fact that they’re all built on a very blatant lie would be frustrating, if a more interesting, long-awaited character arc wasn’t running parallel to them. Tara’s murder doesn’t just give way to Vengeful Jax, and thankfully so because we’ve seen that before. Instead, Jax is fully, finally off the rails, barely even bothering to justify bold-faced betrayals. What's more, his entire crew—even long-time angel-on-the-shoulder counsel Bobby Munsen—is completely behind him, no questions asked. Gone are the roguish outlaws who do Very Bad Things but take down Worse People. SAMCRO is finally stressing the anti in antihero to the maximum.
In the background of it all is Gemma, who's been lying through her teeth at an expert level since the pilot. She killed Tara. She played a pivotal role in taking out Jax's biological father. The holding pattern is over, and the thrill from being completely unable to call how this will play out is exhilarating in precisely the way a final season should be. The high from moments like the deliciously dark parental bonding between Jax and his mom that closes episode three is enough (for now) to ignore flaws like the air of redundancy that's present in every sit-down between the rival factions. Or most glaringly, how the monster ratings have gassed FX to let Sutter continue to turn in cuts that run way longer than any single episode of TV needs to. (I wouldn't be surprised if the finale clocks in at two hours.)
Sons of Anarchy has the numbers, but it's never enjoyed critical acclaim equal to that of recently concluded series like Breaking Bad, or those shows on the way out, like Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire. The closest it came was in the heralded second season, which placed Gemma center stage, clutching onto a dark secret. Sound familiar?
Frazier Tharpe is a staff writer at Complex. He regards Sons of Anarchy season two as an all-time classic season of television. He tweets here.