When Sons of Anarchy debuted in 2008, a show about a California biker gang certainly seemed like a provocative choice, but no one, perhaps not even showrunner Kurt Sutter (already known for his work on The Shield), could have expected it would become one of FX's most highly rated series. To mark the seventh and final season of SOA, which premieres tonight, here are 20 episodes you should watch (it's streaming on Netflix) to get up to speed before the series ends in a few months. Naturally, spoilers lie ahead.
1. Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
In this episode, Jax (Charlie Hunnam) is sent by his mother Gemma (Katey Sagal) to a storage unit to pull out baby clothes and toys for his son’s impending birth (to his drug-addled ex-wife Wendy, played by The Sopranos' Drea de Matteo). In the unit, he finds a manuscript written by his father, SAMCRO co-founder Jon Teller, who died mysteriously when he was a toddler. Over the next few seasons, the manuscript makes Jax reconsider his birthright and destiny as SAMCRO boss.
Sons of Anarchy uses its pilot to map out a strong story line, one that will likely remain consistent through the show's finale. Relationships mapped out in this episode, including those inside and beyond the gang, are crucial to understanding the entire series. It's also made clear from the beginning how the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original (or SAMCRO)’s criminal activity can be so easily conducted in public.
2. Season 1, Episode 2: “Seeds”
One of the reasons the show is so captivating is that Gemma is a sociopath. In general, the gender roles in SAMCRO are pretty archaic, but in this episode, there is a clear indication that Gemma is the boss — or so she thinks. This particular episode is the first to demonstrate her power.
3. Season 1, Episode 13: “The Revelator”
The aftermath of one character's murder in this first-season finale signifies the beginning of the unraveling of the club — or at least the convenient denials that had kept the club together — and the beginning of a crucial new story line that changes the rest of the series.
4. Season 2, Episode 1: “Albification”
With every new season comes a new enemy, a character who threatens to destroy SAMCRO while it simultaneously crumbles from the inside. In season two, shady businessman Ethan Zobelle (Adam Arkin) partners up with greedy land developer Jacob Hale (Jeff Kober) to force the dissolution of SAMCRO. In this season-two opener, a brutal attack on one character marks one of the most violent scenes of the entire series. It's crucial for understanding what comes next.
5. Season 2, Episode 10: “Balm”
Another crucial subplot heats up, in which an ATF agent begins hunting SAMCRO for its part in an international gun trade headed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). A crucial scene here speaks to the crew's dangerous cunning: Clay tells the rest of the gang about the attack from the season premiere, and they all decide unanimously that Ethan’s crew must die. Jax and Clay convince them to be patient, though, because they have too much heat on them — and because revenge is a dish best served cold.
6. Season 2, Episode 11: “Service”
“Men want to own their pussy,” Gemma tells Tara in this episode, smoking a joint and worrying that Clay will leave her. “This one’s been ripped up. It’s been violated. Men will find another. That is what they do.” Tara begins to realize that keeping a “straight” job while being involved with a leader of a criminal motorcycle club might not be possible. Both are crucial examples of how Sons of Anarchy's gender dynamics play out onscreen.
More crucial plotlines advance here, too: Ethan's real motives are revealed: He wants the heroin pipeline into the prisons, which will means partnering up with the Mayans, another ruling bike gang, and getting rid of SAMCRO.
7. Season 2, Episode 13: “Na Triobloidi”
This fitting finale both provides an important conclusion to the season (one of the series' best) and leaves sufficient loose ends to begin the next one. One scene in particular — in which a matriarch is handled by matriarch-to-be — signifies a sea change in the show's power dynamics.
8. Season 3, Episode 7: “Widening Gyre”
Season three isn't the strongest, but it does provide numerous story lines that, while not entirely cohesive at first, add important dimensions both to the relationship between SAMCRO and the IRA and to the significance of John Teller’s legacy. The majority of this season takes place in Belfast; in "Widening Gyre," Gemma discovers that Teller had fathered a child in Ireland while there on business — with a woman who knows more about the kidnapping of Gemma's grandson (Jax and Tara's son) than she lets on.
9. Season 3, Episode 11: “Bainne”
Jax’s conflicted feelings about the SAMCRO family and his burgeoning family with Tara come to a head in this episode, when he obtains the address of the couple that adopted Abel when Cameron's cousin, their priest, offered him up. He follows them, and, watching as they lovingly coo over his son, decides that Abel would be better off away from SAMCRO. But SAMCRO has other ideas: IRA head Jimmy O (Titus Welliver) kills the couple and retrieves Abel for Jax.
Another important plot point is revealed here: Teller had been corresponding with his Irish lover/baby mama Maureen until his death. A voice-over tells the viewer that Teller suspected Gemma and Clay were planning to kill him.
10. Season 3, Episode 13: “NS”
The season-three finale revisits the events of the season-two finale, both episodes crucial in the series' fabric. Jax has a decision to make: Does he follow the path that his father wanted for him, or fully submit to the part of him that enjoys being a SAMCRO badass? Seventy-five percent of the club is shipped to prison on a plea deal for arms dealing. Tara finds Jax's father's letters and realizes how truly evil Gemma and Clay are. Jax heads to jail for a short bid and decides to dedicate himself to the club, eschewing his fathers’ philosophy for good.
11. Season 4, Episode 1: “Out”
Fourteen months later, SAMCRO club members are released from jail. Two important new characters are introduced: eccentric Assistant U.S. Attorney Lincoln Potter (Ray McKinnon), who is trying to make a RICO case against the crew, and Lieutenant Eli Roosevelt (Rockmond Dunbar), transferred from Oakland following the dissolution of Charming PD (which means the club no longer has a police force to protect them). Tara has had a son, Thomas, and has remained silent about the letters to everyone but Piney, who had also been harboring his own skepticism about what really happened to John Teller. In perhaps the most important scene of the season-four premiere, Jax (who still doesn’t know about the letters) tells Tara that it's time, now that he's out of prison (where he was shivved), to plan their escape from both Charming and SAMCRO.
12. Season 4, Episode 3: “Dorylus”
The story line in which A.U.S.A. Potter and Lieutenant Roosevelt put the screws to SAMCRO by going after beloved club member Juice (Theo Rossi) is a bit wonky, but it does reveal the reality of racial biases among biker gangs: Juice has been disguising his heritage to SAMCRO, claiming to be Puerto Rican when his father is actually black. It’s always been evident that Clay is a psychopath, but in this episode, he threatens Tara to see how much she might know after Gemma tells him about Maureen's letters, and Jax finally reconsiders whether he needs a father figure in his life. SAMCRO, meanwhile, is strapped for cash and must vote on whether they'll work with a drug cartel to move cocaine. The vote makes several members suspicious of Clay, which signals the beginning of the end for the bike gang.
13. Season 4, Episode 6: “With an X”
Resigned police chief and SAMCRO loyalist Unser provides a pivotal turn in the season when he tells Roosevelt that Tara is in danger of being killed by Clay. Meanwhile, shit goes sideways when Juice, still in A.U.S.A. Potter's clutches, is forced to sample cocaine from the club’s warehouse. He's caught red-handed by a prospect, but kills the guy and frames him for the theft. The guilt that stems from his quick decision stays with Juice throughout season six, which will no doubt make him a very weak — and therefore dangerous — club member in the upcoming final season.
14. Season 4, Episode 10: “Hands”
Clay gives Tara’s location (easy to find, given her day job) to an assassin, but then discovers at the last minute that Jax and the children are joining her. He tries to put a stop on the hit, but it's already too late: Tara’s hand is severely injured, destroying her career as a surgeon. Clay and Gemma's relationship, after four seasons of bubbling under, is finally at its breaking point. Gemma puts two and two together and confronts Clay about the attempted murder, revealing that she had just as much to do with Teller’s murder as Clay did in the process. Clay responds by savagely beating her. When Unser comes by the house and finds her bloody and bruised, she dissuades him from calling the cops, mumbling, “Clay can’t be saved; he’s going to die by the hand of his son.” Safe to say: important episode.
15. Season 4, Episode 13: “To Be, Act 1”
In the penultimate season-four episode, Clay has killed Piney, who had threatened to tell SAMCRO about the letters; Opie finds out and attempts to kill Clay. He survives, but in order to avoid flat-out execution, tells SAMCRO that "two black guys" shot him. The group quickly concludes the One Niners are to blame, and Tig, feeling guilty about not supporting Clay in the cartel deal, tries to run him over their leader, Laroy. He, too, survives, but his girlfriend dies, leading to an important new plot: She was the daughter of notorious — and notoriously vicious — kingpin Damon Pope (Harold Perrineau, a.k.a. Michael from Lost).
Gemma manipulates Tara into giving her Maureen's letters and promptly hands them over to Jax — sans the incriminating ones, of course. She also tells him Tara has had them and that Clay attempted to kill her, in an attempt to kill two birds with one Jax. Furious, Jax takes off in pursuit of Clay.
16. Season 5, Episode 1: “Sovereign”
This season, like the first, begins with a narrator, who provides a bit of background. A few months have passed; Jax, now SAMCRO president, has taken to writing down his life in a journal. Clay is still alive, his life spared because he is the police's only link to the IRA (turns out cartel members Prada and Luis Torres [Benito Martinez] were FBI informants and want the Irish for the RICO deal). Damon Pope is introduced and quickly takes care of business: Laroy meets a gruesome end for getting Pope’s daughter killed, and Tig's daughter is kidnapped to lure him into a meeting where Pope burns her alive in front of him.
17. Season 5, Episode 4: “Stolen Huffy”
Pope has bribed witnesses to get Jax, Chibs, and Tig arrested for the murders of a One Niner and a cop. Opie, now on a suicide mission since the dissolution of his marriage and the death of his father Piney, punches Police Chief Roosevelt to be able to protect Jax in jail. Meanwhile, Jax's ex-wife Wendy returns, now clean and back in Charming as a drug counselor. Gemma, seeking revenge against Tara, who has exiled her from her grandchildren’s lives, visits her in hopes of getting her involved in Jax's life again.
18. Season 6, Episode 1: “Straw”
The season-six premiere begins with a little boy getting ready for school. Throughout this episode, it's increasingly apparent that while the boy performs a daily routine, there is something amiss that will set the theme for the entire season. Perhaps it’s the fact that Tara, who has been arrested and accused of the murder of a prison medic, is now in prison thanks to deranged former U.S Marshal Lee Toric (Donal Logue). While in jail, she begins to plot her escape, deciding to sever legal ties with SAMCRO in the process. Jax tries to legalize SAMCRO by going into the escort business with "companionators" Nero Padilla (Jimmy Smits) and shady former police officer Charles Barosky (Peter Weller). By the end of the episode, the earlier little boy’s actions throw SAMCRO and the town of Charming into turmoil.
19. Season 6, Episode 11: “Aon Rud Persanta”
In every season of SOA, SAMCRO faces a number of adversaries, including various federal law-enforcement agencies as well as a rival gang or two; toward the end of season six, however, the enemies are almost all in the family. Now excommunicated from SAMCRO (including the blacking out of his tattoos) and in jail after Jax frames him for murdering Damon Pope, Clay hopes to work for Irish gun dealers in order to remain on solid ground. He escapes prison with the help of the Irish and plans to leave the country with a backstabbing Gemma (who is now in a committed relationship with escort boss Nero). But SAMCRO finds him, of course, setting up a trap and killing both sadistic Irish gunrunner Galaan O’ Shay (Timothy V. Murphy) and Clay, who is — finally — shot through the neck. Tara, in the meantime, is out on bail and nearing a deal in which she will have to betray the club, but would finally be able to leave Charming for good.
20. Season 6, Episode 13: “A Mothers Work”
Jax’s voice-over in the season-six finale is a letter to his sons, suggesting that he knows that recent events might lead to his untimely demise, but it also provides a great recap of Jax’s mindset: He's telling his kids that, while he is essentially a cold-blooded psychopath, there may be a glimmer of hope left for his redemption.
Unfortunately, none of that regret is for Tara, who is now on the run with the kids, worried that the deal she's now made could cause more trouble than it was worth. SAMCRO has easily abandoned her, thanks to the patriarchal notion that keeping her sons is more important, despite the fact that a club life will turn them into monsters. Apart from the climactic final scenes, the most riveting part of this episode is Jax's conversation with District Attorney Tyne Patterson (C.C.H. Pounder), who offered Tara her deal and subsequently tries in vain to convince Jax to remember the good within himself. While the gang is shockingly willing to kill Tara for Jax — including Jax himself, unfortunately — it is Gemma who, fearing the loss of her grandchildren, gets to her first, killing her so savagely that her murder's ripples are likely to rock SAMCRO to its core in its final season.