On Sons Of Anarchy, The Story Is What's Missing
With Opie long gone and Tara's absence wreaking havoc, Jax is fading from view right before our eyes.
When Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter spoke openly about the influence of Shakespeare's classic Hamlet on the guns-bikes-and-daddy-issues show he was writing for FX, it was easy to believe we saw the similarities right away. From the brooding male at the center to the scheming "uncle" wed to his mother and ruling the kingdom of charming to the sweet Ophelia in Maggie Siff's Tara, the comparisons were an easy side-by-side glance. But Sutter wasn't talking about the characters or even the plot. What Kurt Sutter set out to do was create a television show with the structure of a Shakespearian tragedy, and this season is the final scene of the third act.
Sutter is a particular kind of genius, insisting on perfect love and trust from his audience and railing against anyone who questions his plan or its execution. He's from a rarified generation of white, male creators who feel they've earned their audience's devotion, but those idols have fallen one by one; Aaron Sorkhin, for example, who had long been deemed a master of his craft but now looks like the tailor in the tale of the Emperor Newsroom which, you might have noticed, is wearing no clothes. Quentin Tarantino, who insists that every movie is perfection and that anyone who thinks otherwise is too stupid to understand it. Ryan Murphy, who won't hear critiques of the appalling gender-based violence, even misogyny, he portrays on-screen. Right around season 4 of SoA, Sutter looked like he might join their ranks; adjusting from Act I of the show, a thrilling outlaw joy-ride across continents, to Act II, a slow internal break-down in an ever-darkening room, was not a smooth shift. Sutter pulled punches, taking viewers right to the edge of real consequences for the characters, only to pull back with a deus ex "just kidding!" at the last minute.
Season 5 brought Sutter back out swinging. If publicly he had scorned those who dared criticize him, privately, it seemed to have had an impact. No punches were pulled in the making of Season 5, no close call was narrowly avoided, no character was safe. "You asked for it," Sutter seemed to say, and while SoA has been increasingly hard to watch, it's also been impossible to look away from. Who would leave the theater after Ophelia's tragic death scene? Sutter is telling a hell of a story, and everyone wants to know what happens next.
But the seam that showed through in Season 4 left Sutter's brilliance open to question, and the questions keep coming. Does he know what he's doing? Does he have a plan? Where is this all going?
I had some of the same questions as Season 7 began. Coming off of Tara's violent death and Jax's arrest, the first episode felt uneven. Sutter simultaneously loves these characters and renders them unforgivable. Would he ask us to forgive and forget Gemma's brutal murder? Would he fall back on Tara's behavior throughout Season 6, like her attempt to divorce Jax, to make her less sympathetic, her death less meaningful? In short, would he tell a story, or tell us how to feel?
Tuesday's episode, "Some Strange Eruption," was the culmination of five episodes of slow-burn that answered that question completely and made me a convert in a whole new way. Kurt Sutter is a god of television, and we are disciples who will follow him right over the edge of the cliff on which this show is now violently teetering.
Tara's absence has been felt a little more each episode, from an image of Jax awakening alone in their bed to Gemma having conversations with thin air in an otherwise empty room. By the last two episodes her death was a prophesy fulfilled. Without her, Gemma was mom and grand-mom, a role she admitted early in Season 1, in a rare moment of self-reflection, she didn't want. Gemma wanted to fight the boys' mother tooth and nail for control, not become her; the guilt and lack of conflict are so unmooring her she's created an imaginary Tara with whom to exchange pleasantries. The boys themselves are coming off the rails, aware that something is terribly wrong, culminating in a scene where Abel parks Thomas in the garage and threatens anyone who approaches him with a hammer, "protecting" his baby brother like his father said he protects everyone under their roof.
But Jax is fading from sight, little by little, disappearing from the frame into the negative space created by the absence of the people who mattered enough to anchor him. Early in the episode, while being questioned by police, he mentions that Diosa is usually opened by "Lyla Winston," a full name rarely used, leaving Opie's ghost hanging in the room: Jax's failure, responsibility, and tragic loss. Telling his son he protects everyone is a thin lie. Opie's dead, Tara's dead, and Lyla's survival was an accident; there are still sixteen dead women and a dead Son close in the rear view. In the next scene Jax is at the head of the table in name only; instead of leading the meeting, taking charge and creating a plan, the club has to remind him where he is, bring him reluctantly back to the present moment. Jax is fading out. The world of the dead and the world of the living are colliding in Charming and Jax is standing in the hazy gray of purgatory, neither here nor there.
We're in a golden age of television, one that Sutter helped usher in early on with The Shield. With a multitude of brilliant shows on a wide spectrum ranging from the stark modernism of Mad Men to the lush epic of Game of Thrones, Sutter's place in the pantheon of greats has recently been called into question. This is the pyramid Sutter helped build, but maybe, it has been argued, he'll never hold a place at the top. SoA is no Breaking Bad or True Detective and other, newer shows hold more promise. But if this season continues apace, and if, as I would no longer dare question, he has a destination in mind for the twisted, smoking hulk of metal that will remain of this club by the end, Sutter will have earned a place in television history.
Sutter is writing a seven-season Shakespearian tragedy about a motorcycle club, showing us what's there by holding it up in relief against the many, many things that are no longer. It's never been done before, and it never will be again. Sutter belongs right on top of that pyramid, looking down on all of us with his great, benevolent rage.