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Review: 'Sons of Anarchy' season premiere shocker
Did Kurt Sutter take the violence too far last night, or is this the appropriate set-up for the series' final act?
“Sons of Anarchy” returned to TV last night. I’m no longer writing about the show weekly — Geoff Berkshire is again handling that duty for HitFix, and his take on the season premiere is here — but I had some thoughts on events near the end of the premiere. Lots of spoilers coming up just as soon as I have my grandmother’s knock...
Between “Sons of Anarchy” (which he created) and “The Shield” (which he wrote for), Kurt Sutter brews a very distinctive, pungent batch of nightmare fuel. He favors the most graphic imagery, the most perverse kinds of violence. He often saves the worst of these for himself in his small “Sons” role as Big Otto, who bit off his own tongue last season and was prison-raped in last night’s premiere, but spreads the stomach-churning wealth around, whether it was “Sons” lovers Jax and Tara having sex next to a fresh corpse or SAMCRO enforcer Tig watching his daughter be burned to death.
Look at it this way: the sixth season premiere featured Tig drowning an opponent to death in a urine-filled bathtub, and this was not the most shocking piece of violence in the episode.
But even though Sutter clearly enjoys and is good at crafting these baroquely violent set pieces, there’s rarely a sense that he’s reveling in them. These are sick, horrifying acts, and for the most part they are treated as such — as signposts of a dark world Sutter’s characters are trapped in. Read Sutter’s writing on his blog about “Sons,” or listen to him discuss the show in interviews, and you have a man who has put a lot of thought into the power of violent imagery, particularly the extreme kind he so often traffics in. He knows what he’s putting out into the world, how it affects the part of the word that’s watching, and what it all has to say about Jax, Clay, Tig and the other members of the “Sons” outlaw motorcycle club.
The things Sutter has to say about “Sons” in other contexts, though, don’t always translate into “Sons” itself. Sutter has described the show as “an adrenalized soap opera… bloody pulp fiction with highly complex characters,” and on some level it has to simply work as the raw and thrilling adventures of a band of renegades facing threats from all sides. But it’s also clear that this is a story of how those adventures are destructive not only to the people outside the club, but to the ones within; last season was all about how Jax (Charlie Hunnam) slowly became every hypocritical, self-justifying thing he hated about Clay (Ron Perlman), and how he had ruined the life and career of his wife Tara (Maggie Siff) in the process. It’s a delicate balance on the line between “Hell yeah!” and “Oh, God, no!” and one that I think Sutter sometimes finds himself tipping over to the wrong side.
So when last night’s sixth season premiere climaxed with a young blonde boy calmly walking into his middle school and opening fire with an assault weapon, I was — as Sutter would have wanted me to be — horrified. But I was also unsure about whether “Sons” had earned the right to use such an emotionally charged image when it involved a character we’d never met before, and/or whether it would earn that right in hindsight depending on how the story evolved from there.
I believe anything can be fodder for entertainment if handled correctly. Certain subjects are very difficult to handle in a scripted context without seeming like exploitation, and a school shooting is one of them. If Sutter intended to use a situation like that simply to up the level of shock value, then it’s a cheap move and also one that overwhelms the show’s fictional level of reality. The Sons do terrible things, and have terrible things done to them, but this pulls the audience to another place that makes the problems of SAMCRO seem petty in comparison.
If, on the other hand, Sutter intended to use this as a means to examine the cost of the business at the heart of the club — the Sons make their money, and get into lots of trouble, through the import and sale of illegal weapons — and really make the audience question their loyalties to Jax and his comrades, that could be really interesting, and the sort of emotional territory the series should probably be heading into at this late date. (Sutter has said he sees this as a seven-season series, which would make next year the end.)
At the summer TV critics press tour, Sutter said he’d wanted to do this particular story for three years, “and I knew, obviously, that it would be somewhat controversial, but I feel like, as much as I wouldn’t do something because it was controversial, I’m also not going to (not) do something because it’s controversial. I feel like it’s an organic story to our world in terms of it’s what these guys do. I feel like thematically it’s the right fit because we have a lead character who’s a father who’s trying to figure out if he can raise his sons and avoid the kind of violence that happens. So yes, I feel like that will continue to play out and that is the truth.
“And,” he added, “I will also say that there’s a lot of blood and guts in my show, and it is a signature of the show, but… I feel like I’m not lying to myself when I say that nothing is done gratuitously, that the events that happen in the premiere are really the catalyst for the third act of this morality play we’re doing.”
And we have this entire season, plus the last one, to see exactly how this plays out. That said, I’ve seen the next two episodes, and without going into too much detail about the plot, the shooting is treated less as a world-shaking event that makes Jax — or any of the main characters — question their priorities, but as one more logistical headache for the club to solve. Crisis A leads to Problem B exacerbated by Antagonist C and Untrustworthy Ally D, which leads to… pretty much everything that “Sons” has been doing for the last five seasons. Even time spent away from the club and with law enforcement — embodied by a district attorney played by “Shield” alum CCH Pounder and a renegade ex-US Marshal played by Donal Logue — shows people who are looking at the tragedy as an angle to play against the club and further their own agendas.
This is how “Sons of Anarchy” conducts business, for the most part. It piles plot complication on top of plot complication, with each solution leading to at least two new problems. (And the Logue character in particular, despite the best efforts of a strong actor, turns out to be a mash-up of nearly every opponent SAMCRO has ever faced. Be prepared to throw your remotes at something he does in the third episode.)
There are times when this approach works magnificently well — in particular in the second season, which took great time and care to deal with the emotional fallout of the rape of Jax’s mother Gemma (Katey Sagal) — and others where it can just feel exhausting. After five seasons of it, and with Sutter getting permission to turn in extra-long cuts of most episodes (without commercials, the season’s first three episodes run 64, 57, and 51 minutes, where an average FX drama might run between 42 and 44 minutes per week), the layer upon layer of scheming and betrayal has left me largely uninterested in the future of the club, its members and their loved ones, despite some great performances, fascinating characters (albeit ones who seem to have less and less agency each year due to the byzantine plotting) and terrific direction (led, as usual, by Paris Barclay).
The school shooting caught my attention not only because it’s such a gut-wrenching event — and one that the cameras very wisely avoid showing us directly — but because it seemed like a real opportunity for Sutter to shake up the show and its characters, and rekindle my interest in the end of the series. The next two episodes suggest that it’s just being used in service of more of the same; if that’s true, it’s both a waste and unpleasant. And even if Sutter intends much more emotional fallout from this down the road, he definitely fumbles the immediate aftermath, as there’s virtually no sense that life in the small town of Charming has been disrupted by an event that would be national news. (Sutter similarly blew the episode last year directly following the murder of Jax’s best friend Opie; Opie’s death eventually played an important role in Jax’s journey for the season, but the immediate grieving process got buried under the usual club shenanigans.)
Later in that press tour session, Sutter said the shooting “is truly the catalyst for the final act of our morality play. It sets everything in motion for this season that will ultimately lead to the end that then will bring us into the final season and what I see as the ultimate comeuppance of everything in terms of the series.”
That could be fascinating, but the early returns are much less so.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org