tv review

Latter-Day Sons of Anarchy Spun Its Wheels, But It Was a Ride Like No Other

Photo: FX

Hey, did, you watch that two-hour block of Mercedes-Benz ads on FX last night, interrupted by bits and pieces of the Sons of Anarchy finale?

I kid, sort of. The final chapter of Kurt Sutter’s biker drama played, perhaps inevitably, like an extended denouement, at times like a batch of deleted scenes unwisely affixed to the real end of the season’s main story: Jax Teller figuring out that his mom, Gemma, impulsively killed his wife, Tara, then blamed it on the Chinese, sparking a bloody war. That story line effectively ended last week, in a lovely, horrible sequence that was drawn out in that distinctively quiet, menacing, Sons of Anarchy fashion, reminding us again that creator and executive producer Kurt Sutter got his start in live theater and, artistically speaking, never entirely left it.

It started at a retirement home where the suddenly spiritual Gemma had gone to reconnect with her dad, an ex-minister suffering from dementia (Hal Holbrook, who was affecting even though the old man never left his chair). It ended with Jax tracking down Gemma, killing Unser (who’d ironically gone there to exercise his lawman’s powers and end the conflict peacefully), and then putting a bullet in his mother’s brain. Gemma’s request that they end things in the garden (where her father had absentmindedly remarked that she once loved spending time) was but one of many blatant biblical references strewn throughout this final season, jostling for psychic space alongside Sutter’s beloved Shakespearean allusions (the Bruce Springsteen song “Adam Raised a Cain,” which opened this week’s series finale, was another Old Testament shout-out, and a nice bookend for the closing Shakespeare quote). The lighting in Gemma’s death scene was lovely, its dusky blue-gray tint evoking (perhaps deliberately) the Garden of Gethsemane sequence in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

As you probably gathered, I’m writing about the second-to-last episode because it’s so much more satisfying (and elegantly executed) than the series finale, an assortment of loose ends interrupting seemingly endless blocks of ads. From the opening montage (haunting, and laudably wordless, but annoyingly drawn-out) through the endless scenes of Jax cobbling together a somewhat-happy ending from a series of events that should have ended in moral and emotional ruin, the closing chapter was a victory lap perversely tacked onto the end of a seventh season otherwise suffused with fear of karmic payback and scenes of institutional and personal failure. And that final sequence — with Jax raising his arms up, Christ-figure style, and suicide-crashing his bike into a truck driven by Shield star Michael Chiklis — was just silly. (It also flew in the face of Jax’s suddenly Christian sense of repentance: What kind of a self-immolating messiah risks taking other people with him as he dies?) It was like the end of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, but with a shittier song.

I’ll indulge myself in a parenthetical here (and why not; I’m writing about a series by Kurt Sutter, whose name is German for “and another thing”) and say that I consider Sons of Anarchy an example of a “bad relationship show” — meaning a show that you commit to watching for whatever reason and that often disappoints you or irritates you or makes you miserable, but that you can never quite bring yourself to leave, because every now and then, it’ll do something so wonderfully surprising and right that you remember why you fell in love with it in the first place. Sutter and his writers, directors, and actors did that just often enough that I never stopped watching Sons, even though, as many others have noted, in later years, it became an example of the downside (perhaps) of FX’s policy of granting artists free reign, content- and length-wise. The show’s violence, which was always extreme, became increasingly and sometimes gratuitously sadistic, at times rivaling The Walking Dead in sheer nastiness. The running times bloated to the point where Sutter and Company were basically airing a movie every week. And there were many instances where episodes would’ve benefited from more cutting or shaping, or a sense of restraint.

It’s important to note here, though, that there was always method in Sutter’s madness, and that a big part of Sons’ unique energy (particularly in seasons four through seven) came from Sutter’s unwavering determination to avail himself of the freedoms granted by FX and basically turn Sons into an experimental-theater-workshop version of a daytime soap, periodically interrupted by car and bike chases.

I know I probably shouldn’t even bother saying this, since Sutter’s biggest fans love everything about the series and can’t imagine changing a thing, but the problem for me was never the character-based dramatic confrontations. I adored those; they were often low-key and intriguingly drawn-out and performed in eerie room-tone silence, without any mood-enhancing music to goose our feelings, and thanks to the very plain framing (medium shot plus close-ups), they relied entirely on the actors to carry the moment. Sutter and Company never got proper credit for how boldly they foregrounded their lead performers. More so than almost any other TV drama, including a good many that are beloved by critics, Sons of Anarchy could honestly claim to be actor-driven. In early seasons and later seasons, you’d see scenes that were driven entirely by two actors talking to each other across a table or on a couch that ran two, three, five, even six minutes, without music, and without cutting away to something else.

These last few episodes contained an astonishing number of terrific, actor-driven, theatrically flavored scenes. My favorites included Tig and Venus’s mutual declaration of love — heartbreaking in a good way, and easily some of the best acting co-stars Walton Goggins and Kim Coates have ever done — and a cluster of scenes in the penultimate episode involving the revelation of Gemma’s treachery and Jax’s coming to terms with it. The scene between Jax and Juice in prison (driven by plainly framed, alternating close-ups) was Cassavetes-level soul-ripping, truth-telling, indie-movie misery (with seventh-season MVP Theo Rossi’s pained face eerily evoking the young Mickey Rourke). Ditto the scene in which Jimmy Smits’s Nero Padilla learns the awful truth about his old lady (Smits is such a warm actor, and such a great crier). Kudos are also due for Charlie Hunnam, whose accent never stopped slipping (sorry, Charlie) but who acquired real gravitas during these final two seasons, and rose to the challenge of emotional closure in season seven by delivering a series of genuinely powerful, reactive close-ups in which you could almost hear Jax’s psyche imploding with horror and grief. Hunnam had what might be my favorite close-up in the entire run of the series: the one that ends episode 11, “Faith and Despondency,” after Jax’s son asks him “So is that why grandma killed my other mommy, so my first mommy could be here with me?” Jax’s shocked expression, followed by a cut to black, was just perfect.

Throughout, Sagal was, as always, perfection, taking scenes which on paper might’ve seemed impossible to sell and then selling them. I believed every moment she appeared in, even the unbelievable ones. Her Gemma is one of the great tragic characters in TV history, a monster who can’t or won’t see how monstrous she is, and who insists that even her most impulsive, nonsensical decisions are justified by family imperatives and fortified by tactical logic. When I think of season seven, I think of her staring silently at her father’s church. There’s an entire unvisualized flashback happening in her eyes.

These moments and others partly redeemed a season which, in typical Sons fashion, kept getting lost in the fine points of who killed whom and who wants to kill whom and which gang has the guns or wants the guns or is hiding the guns or ZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzz. The shootouts, chases, and sex scenes, which Sutter has often defended as the bang-bang that brings in casual viewers who’ll then stick around for the psychodrama, felt more gratuitous and dramatically distracting than usual this season. That’s because we were heading into the homestretch, and quite naturally caring more deeply about the emotional through-line (What will Jax do once he finds out that Gemma killed his wife?) than the criminal one (involving the guns, and the flow-chart-worthy mass of criminals who gave a damn about the guns). There were some nice bits of bang-bang: the sex montage at the start of episode 11, which showed various characters fucking away the pain of Bobby’s death, was indulgent but heartfelt, and altogether beautiful; and I laughed out loud, in affirmation rather than malice, when Jax punched Unser in the face, then led cops on a high-speed chase scored to beatnik jazz. (Go, man, go!) Sometimes the road of excess does lead to the palace of wisdom, or at the very least, to a fun time.

Overall, though, I found the last few seasons of Sons frustrating more often than sublime. The basically amoral nature of the drama never bothered me; the show is an extended gangster movie with a Western feel; all the characters are criminals, and their talk of honor, honesty, and loyalty must therefore be understood within the context of outlaw logic: That was always a given. The vision was always there. The problem was always one of execution. That the padded-out episodes and dead ends and missteps and flat-out terrible decisions are a part of Sutter’s creative process explains them but doesn’t excuse them. The show’s peak was probably in seasons one through four; there were great episodes, scenes, and sequences after that, but also a lot of pointless sidebars and botched story lines (Clay Morrow should’ve been killed off long before he actually was, and the school-shooting plot in season six was offensively undercooked). There was a great five-season show in Sons, maybe, but it got stretched out over seven and spun its wheels, pun intended. I enjoyed the ride, though, and I hope Sutter gets credit for showing us things along the way that we’ve never seen on TV, executed with a rare sincerity and purity of feeling.

SOA Ended Weakly, Was a Ride Like No Other