Sons of Anarchy, considered
Sons of Anarchy drops its final curtain tomorrow night, and not before its time. While Boardwalk Empire and its final truncated season left those who had enjoyed the Roaring Twenties exploits of Nucky Thompson asking for more, SAMCRO and its assorted satellites — lawmen and women of varying probity, prostitutes, rival gangs and the occasional transsexual — have perhaps overstayed their welcome. A show that was once fresh and rocketing forward like a chopper cruising down an open road has in its final season lost its way somewhat — has been left spinning its wheels in the mud, as it were. Seldom have thirteen episodes felt so long, or taken so long to get to the damn point. And many a viewer will die happy if they never again have to watch a sex montage featuring a man getting ass-raped in prison by Marilyn Manson, set to the tune of a crappy cover of a classic song. Enough already.
But Sons had its day. Can’t take that away — to put it in the show’s vernacular, at least not before bringing it to the table.
If there’s one reason why season seven has been the weakest of the run, it has to be the cast subtractions. Ron Pearlman’s lying, manipulative, murderous, leonine Clay Morrow was the Claudius of this rough Hamlet framework, and hence the foil to Charlie Hunnam’s Jax Teller, whose father Clay usurped both at the head of their motorcycle club and in the bedroom. That was the dynastic rivalry that girded the first six seasons, and when Clay met his inevitable Oedipal end last year it left a void that was never filled. And Tara (Maggie Siff), Jax’s wife and mother of his youngest son, was our entrée to this criminal world. A doctor and regular citizen (at least, before she was sucked in to the club’s orbit), she was the person most of us could readily identify with. In a sense we saw it all through her eyes. So when she got a kitchen utensil to the back of the skull at the end of season six, suddenly SAMCRO was a very alien organism.
Beyond that, recent episodes felt like they were descending into self-parody. One late-season double-cross, a staple of the show (SoA may have featured the first quintuple-cross in American televised fiction), felt so contrived and convenient it left this watcher smacking his forehead. The aforementioned music-backed montages have been interminable, and more unintentionally comical than artsy. The one that featured the de rigueur prison coitus played almost like a Funny or Die send-up, only lacking a laugh track. And the endless talk about relationships could batter you into submission, not to mention make you wonder just how many biker gangs have members so willing to hash out emotions with their old ladies. (In this regard the seedy, smelly, bug-eyed meth-head bikers of True Detective had much more vérité.) At one point, watching two minor characters discuss their feelings for one another and where they’re going as a couple, I said out loud to the zero other people in my living room at the time: “Who are these people, how did they meet, and why the hell do I care?” Last but not least, the It Came From Planet Gross-Out! shock value moments were more extreme and more preposterous than ever. We already had a guy’s eye ripped out and delivered in a box, how do we top that? Why, we’ll have an eye dislodged and dangling by its nerves, like a tetherball!
But the show had its high points over the last seven years. Series mastermind Kurt Sutter brought a hard-edged ethos from the writing room of The Shield (still a superior program), flipped bad-cops into kind-of-okay-crooks — and succeeded. The Sons’ trip to Ireland to rescue Jax’s kidnapped son was a fun fish-out-of-water ride. Most members of the cast have done excellent work, Dayton Callie’s Wayne Unser a standout amongst them. While it sounds like an insult to call Callie a poor man’s Robert Duvall, it’s meant as a compliment. (Poor man’s Duvall is pretty much rich man’s everybody else.) In two shows, Sons and Deadwood, he essentially played the same character, but he was always a joy to watch: humble, honest, and decent. Odd guest stars cropped up here and there for a dash of spice, from Walt Goggins’ bizarre transsexual charmer to Marilyn Manson’s strange (big surprise) Aryan Brotherhood boss. And additions to the regular cast helped make up for some of the inevitable wastage during the run. Jimmy Smits was chief among these fresh faces, portraying an aging pimp and banger who falls for Gemma, Jax’s crazy bitch of a mother — though like everyone else he’s drawn by the irresistible gravity of the club’s schemes, he added an improbable moral center. (Aside: Katey Segal did fine, solid work as Gemma, ninety pounds of hair and clanging bracelets and attitude, but sometimes the show was a bit too much about her — that Segal is married to Sutter may be the nepotistic reason behind this imbalance.)
And there was of course that mysterious homeless lady who showed up at unexpected times over the seasons. Mysticism might seem out of place in a drama about gun-running hoodlums, but it worked. This was a show where the ghosts of the past shared billing.
Yes, it was impossible to keep track of the shifting alliances and plans within plans even when Sons was at its best. You almost needed flowcharts to keep from getting vertigo half the time. It wasn’t the most intellectual of shows, nor did it reach the dizzy anti-hero heights of Breaking Bad. But it was quite good for a while, and mostly entertaining, which is more than can be said for a lot of the dreck currently clogging airwaves and bandwidth. It was a worthy FX successor to The Shield, and carved out its own niche along the way. Teller-Morrow might be closing its gates, but the roaring engines of the Redwood Originals will be ringing in our ears for a long time.