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This week, Complex Pop Culture staffers will write about the one pop culture event of 2014 that let them down the most, because we're all Grinches. Kicking things off is staff writer and Sons of Anarchy super-fan Frazier Tharpe on how the show's much hyped final season let him down big time.
It doesn’t matter how it ends.
Tomorrow’s Sons of Anarchy series finale could, perhaps, bring the increasingly miserable, ugly, and violent saga of Jax Teller and his toxic motorcycle gang/club to a fitting end. (Apparently, I could find out right now if I wanted to.) It’d be a noteworthy accomplishment—often, most series brick the landing. But at this point, it wouldn’t be enough to retroactively vindicate everything that’s come before, to validate all of the nonsensical narrative stalling, dead-ends, and land deals we’ve been forced to sit through all fall. This season of Sons of Anarchy has, unfortunately, been lightweight trash.
I say "lightweight" because it’d be disingenuous to dismiss any collection of episodes that contained a gem like the antepenultimate “Suits of Woe,” a breathless hour anchored by a tour de force performance from vastly underrated leading man Charlie Hunnam. It’d be bogus to dismiss the inherent brilliance of bringing Jax’s long and storied unhealthy relationship with his overbearing, manipulative mother Gemma (Katey Sagal) to a head with her secret murder of his wife as the linchpin. But it’s also downright baffling—infuriating, even—to think that somehow, even with that arc as a guideline, this season still managed to be aimless, un-engaging and, worse, boring.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where season seven became completely unsalvageable. The first three episodes were promising enough for me to declare that Sons was, quite possibly, heading into TV's classic final season pantheon, alongside its showrunner Kurt Sutter's previous FX series, The Shield. The fourth episode continued that momentum with a shocking, violent conclusion that suggested Sutter had stopped employing his usual story-stretching cheat codes.
But then August Marks (Billy Brown) got inexplicably angry over Jax handling a vendetta that had nothing to do with him. Jax brazenly decided to torch that relationship despite numerous warnings of the man’s ruthlessness and an intricate land deal MacGuffin got thrown in the mix, because it wouldn’t be a complete year of Sons of Anarchy without one. Fast forward a few episodes to the season's first major character death, and it elicited zero reaction from me, a Day One fan. I’m sorry, was I supposed to feel something when Bobby (Mark Boone Junior) finally got put out of his misery? After he spent something like three episodes as a Prisoner of Jax’s War, which included fun activities like eye-gouging and finger-chopping? The predictably untrustworthy August basically did Bobby a favor by not relegating him to a life as the SAMCRO pirate.
But maybe the ballad of Bobby’s neverending torture or anything and everything involving Juice (Theo Rossi)—seriously, outline Juice’s story arc out and try convince me what his purpose was this season beyond stoking Sutter’s penchant for Absolute Misery™—would’ve affected me if Sutter could just get out of his own way. This season’s narrative was meandering and bloated, yes, but it’s quite possible we wouldn’t have noticed if Sutter didn’t give each episode so much time to breathe. Gassed off of complete creative control at FX, your boy Kurt officially went off the deep end of egotism this year, handing in episodes with an average running time of, sans commercials, sixty-eight minutes. Throw in the fact that this is a normal length season and wave goodbye to any semblance of urgency and tension, and say hello to longer montages and a triple count of “Jesus Christ!” exclamations.
It’s a real pity, given Sutter’s tenure as a top lieutenant on The Shield's writing team. That series stands as one of the best antihero shows of all time' its final season set the template for all serialized cable dramas to emulate. The Shield’s final season brings series-long simmering conflicts to a boiling point, but across ten episodes, the back half of which plays like one “Suits of Woe” after another. The new villains introduced to keep the series’ formula alive are almost afterthoughts to the main relationships viewers waited seven whole seasons to finally, beautifully, crumble.
Across an equal seven-season run, Sons of Anarchy didn't do nearly as good a job as The Shield did in delaying all of the major fireworks until the main event. But, one hoped, a planned final year would give Sutter license to hit the throttle in ways where mid-series seasons couldn't. Shield and Sons are only comparable by so much—they’re companion series at best. But I’d hoped that if anyone were to take all of the winning storytelling cues and apply them elsewhere, it’d be the guy who helped create much of it, in the same way former The Sopranos lieutenants have flourished with their own series (Terence Winter with Boardwalk Empire; Matthew Weiner and Mad Men). Instead, the only series to recently come close to those levels of suspense and satisfaction is Breaking Bad.
And if we’re being brutally honest, this Sons' season’s crown jewel was anticlimactic. Jax and Gemma’s last scene together was beautifully written, held down by typically heartbreaking performances from Hunnam and Sagal. But it lacked the full punch I expected for two reasons. The minute Jax coldly killed off Unser (Dayton Callie) and sat down to have a long-awaited talk with his mother, I realized just how little interaction of real meaning they'd had in the eleven preceding episodes. A better-plotted arc would’ve used the time spent on, say, Ratboy’s (Niko Nicotera) pointless romance to deconstruct and explore Jax and Gemma’s tragic relationship in ways that would’ve made their final scene together that much more devastating. What’s more, Gemma got off relatively easy. How much more interesting would it have been if Jax chose to spare her and turn her in, only to find out just how far back her lies stretch? Instead, Jax shot his mother never knowing that she helped plot his own father’s death.
On paper, Jax's story arc sounds like a layup: He surreptitiously burns one bridge after another and loses loved ones along the way (and, even better, any semblance of being a Good Guy), only to discover his revenge quest was built on a lie crafted by his own mother. Theoretically, it should've been thrilling, nightmarish, and oh-so-twisted. As Sutter's series comes to a close, though, it’s time to admit that what we actually got was muddled and uneven at best. The end has no chance of justifying the means. Sons of Anarchy had a chance to stake its claim and win back the hordes of critics who denied its spot in the Golden Age pantheon—all it had to do was stick its landing.
Whatever project Kurt Sutter does next, let us pray that it comes with an editor attached.