First, the good news: Last week, Kurt Sutter and his Sons of Anarchy team delivered one of the best TV episodes of the year, titled "Suits of Woe." And now, the bad news: On December 9, the FX biker drama will ends its seven-season "Hamlet on motorcycles" saga, and last week's episode didn't change the fact that Sons of Anarchy has been a letdown.
With only two more episodes before the show's final season wraps up (Sons took this Thanksgiving week off), the stage is now set for what should be the unhappiest resolution this side of a Bambi/Old Yeller double feature. Unlike Breaking Bad's Walter White, who ended that AMC series with a note of redemption, Sons of Anarchy's lead Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) is barreling down a one-way road that will fork into either death or lifelong misery. Jax's mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal), seems even less likely to receive anything other than a horrific ending. Thanks to the 5-year-old Abel "Child of the Corn" Teller, Jax finally knows that Gemma murdered Tara.
"Suits of Woe" ranks among the FX biker drama's greatest achievements—there's no denying that. More importantly, the episode did what Sons' 10 preceding ones didn't this season: It got to the damn point.
Frankly, Kurt Sutter needed "Suits of Woe" to be an undeniable knockout. For awhile there, it seemed like Sons of Anarchy would head into the afterlife as an afterthought. What's almost as bad as turning your fascinating lead character into a fucking lumberjack after zero narrative movement? (Screw you, Dexter.) Basking in self-indulgence and an inflated sense of artistic freedom. The FX network has given Kurt Sutter free reign to make the show he wants to make, which, theoretically, should be refreshing—Sons of Anarchy is as auteur-driven as Matthew Weiner's Mad Men. The problem, though, has been that Sutter's vision is needlessly epic in scope.
Including commercial breaks, the average running time of Sons of Anarchy's seventh season's episodes has been a shade below 90 minutes. Which means, this season has been about six hours longer than its 13-episode breakdown suggests. The king of prolonging the inevitable, Sutter has filled that enlarged space with a maddening combination of throwaway B-plots (Chibs and his new sheriff girlfriend; Ratboy and his new random girlfriend), overly melodramatic character beats (Gemma's one-sided conversations with Dead Tara), and convoluted power plays and betrayals between the various gangs (everything involving August Marks).
It didn't need to be that way. In 2014, the belief that TV dramas require a lot of narrative breathing room has been erased. Some of the year's best shows have skillfully navigated through complex, multi-character plots with brevity. HBO's True Detective offered a compact procedural rife with occultist undertones, tonal ambiguity, and formalist pleasures (i.e., that breathtaking six-minute single take); FX's Fargo even more satisfyingly narrowed its focus and told the year's best small-screen crime saga in merely 10 episodes. Those two shows were, yes, one-offs (at least story wise), but their abilities to wow just as much as their peers in much smaller doses exposes the overzealousness of a Kurt Sutter.
Similarly, the ways in which Boardwalk Empire showrunner Terence Winter concluded his sprawling HBO period drama in only eight hour-long episodes is the anti-Sutter. Boardwalk Empire, with its shortened, flashback-heavy final season's massive arc spanning from Atlantic City to Chicago and Cuba, and its packed ensemble of colorful characters, is an even more expansive show than Sons of Anarchy—if any TV series in history has warranted a final season clocking in at upwards of 1,000 minutes, it's Boardwalk Empire. Instead, Winter gave Boardwalk fans a rewarding final run in under 480 minutes.
Imagine how much better and more honed-in this final Sons of Anarchy season would be if FX had restricted Sutter like HBO did with Winter. Rather than spin its wheels on the Chinese-killed-Tara red herring, Jax's mission to find Tara's killer could've been resolved within two episodes, leaving more time for his and Gemma's fallout and how that'll affect SAMCRO. Juice (Theo Rossi) could've been sent to that biker bar in the sky before his constant alluding of the Grim Reaper made fans resent him. Sons of Anarchy has always been at its best when it was just about Jax and his two ridiculously dysfunctional families. Few scenes this season can match Jax's rooftop heart-to-heart with Chibs (Tommy Flanagan) in "The Separation of Crows," mainly because scenes of that kind have been a rarity. But when things become too quiet or restrained, Sons of Anarchy always has an overblown shootout ready to erupt.
That last component diminished the death of one of the show's O.G. characters. When August Marks (Billy Brown) shot Bobby (Mark Boone Junior) in the face, right in front of Jax, whatever emotional impact Sutter intended to convey was buried beneath question marks—why is Marks angry with Jax again? Wasn't there a priest involved who'd privately get his rocks off in kinky sex orgies? Why do I feel nothing for Bobby right now?
Bobby's demise aside, the season's biggest fail has been the Juice subplot. As played by Theo Rossi, Juice is a character drenched in empathy—he's ratted on his SAMCRO brethren, he's been lying to Jax about the identity of Tara's killer, and he's spending his final days in prison as the love slave of a neo-Nazi inmate played by, of all people, Marilyn Manson. None of those character attributes can usurp the fact that Juice is the latest example of Sutter's well-intentioned but destructive habit of drawing out storylines. Back when Sons viewers couldn't stop anticipating the impending death of former SAMCRO leader Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), Sutter had this to say to Vulture about the matter:
"Look, there’s a lot of people who just wanted to see that character dead. But I’d argue that there’s something that Clay represents, not just for the show but for Jax, and that people just think they want him dead. These guys are like cockroaches. They survive, and they live through a tremendous amount of agony and discomfort."
Eventually, of course, Clay did die, in the season six episode "Aon Rud Pearsanta," and it was legitimately harrowing. But there's a reason why Clay's death pales in comparison to that of Opie (Ryan Hurst), who sacrificed himself to Damon Pope's goons in the season five episode "Laying Pipe," in order to keep his lifelong best friend Jax alive. Opie's slaying, being an extremely hardcore visual that Sutter unmercifully but effectively didn't cut away from, lingers in the mind because of its shock factor. For once, Sutter didn't feel the need to overreach. He didn't stretch Opie's decision on whether or not to offer himself up over multiple episodes—it happened in the moment. Viewers weren't able to settle in and prepare themselves. It was right there, in their faces, and they weren't ready.
On the other hand, Juice's unavoidable fate has been testing viewers' patience. Now, Juice is Clay. Sutter knows that Sons of Anarchy's audience begins each new episode expecting Juice to check out, so he's been exploiting that tension and expectation. He's also known that Juice would eventually have to come clean to Jax about Tara's death, which did finally happen in "Suits of Woe." The scene's magic was in its simplicity. It was Juice and Jax talking in a prison room for close to 10 minutes, and it was a phenomenal display of first-class writing. No matter how long it took to get to it, Juice's painful admission was always going to devastate. Theo Rossi and Charlie Hunnam are both fine actors, and we've witnessed Jax and Juice's relationship start with brotherly love and deteriorate into backstabbing punishment. Longtime Sons of Anarchy viewers care about both characters too much to watch that scene numbly.
But that confession should've happened four or five episodes ago. It's a shame that any potential tears Juice's moment of clarity may have otherwise caused were replaced by an "It's about damn time!" reaction. It's an even bigger shame that whatever's in Jax's and Gemma's immediate futures will be met with the same response.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer who, despite his lukewarm feelings here, wouldn't mind a Tig Loves Venus spinoff series. He tweets here.