I’m normally a believer that knowing plot points doesn’t actually do much to detract from your enjoyment of a work of art. But for the premiere of the sixth season of Sons of Anarchy, I’m going to make an exception. At the Television Critics Association press tour on Friday, show creator Kurt Sutter talked at length about the ways in which a shocking incident in that episode would kick off the third act of the long-running biker drama when it returns on September 11, and how that act fits with the show’s moral worldview. And while I’ll have a lot more to say abou that plot once you all have actually gotten a chance to see it, I’ve been thinking about Sutter discussed it and other elements of the premiere, and what it says about the worldview of Sons as a whole.
“Violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Sutter said of the premiere, which is largely concerned with the fallout from a variety of SAMCRO’s illegal lines of business. “If you do A, B is ultimately going to happen.”
He was talking specifically about the character he plays on Sons of Anarchy, an incarcerated biker named Otto Delaney, who after committing particularly vicious murder last season, has become in the sixth season the target of a U.S. Marshal who is making his life in prison even more miserable than usual. But it was a sentiment that applies to all of the events of the season, many of which stretch back to business decisions made even before the events depicted in Sons of Anarchy.
And Sutter’s comment about Otto illustrated a fascinating point about the show and The Shield, on which Sutter worked before creating Sons of Anarchy. While prestige anti-hero dramas have often given viewers ambiguous endings, like Tony Soprano’s fade to black, The Shield forced Vic Mackey to reckon with the damage his criminality had wrought in the lives of the men he once considered his closest friends, to accept the loss of his family, and to work out his professional life in a grim bureaucracy. If Sons of Anarchy is, as Sutter suggested, going to operate according to a similar morality, where actions much have consequences, it suggests that Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and his club and family could be coming to extraordinarily bad ends indeed. As much as The Shield and Sons of Anarchy are more brutal than The Sopranos–and while the blood in both shows runs hotter than the exceedingly chilly Breaking Bad, Sons can be sicker about the violence its characters commit and experience than Vince Gilligan’s masterpiece–the belief that actions have consequences actually make those shows somewhat more optimistic, or at least deterministic, about the bad men at their centers, than some of their peer programs.
Sons of Anarchy can be an exceptionally Catholic show in the way it visits consequences on characters. Jax Teller’s inability to find a way to keep his best friend, Opie Winston, out of active involvement in the club after he was paroled from a prison term in the first season paid off in a dreadful way last year, when Opie, suicidally depressed after the death of his wife Donna in a hit meant for him, volunteered to take a prison beating on behalf of the club. Jax was forced to witness his friend’s physical destruction, and his death after a thunderous blow to the back of the head. Otto Delaney has been treated like a medieval martyr, one who’s lost eyes and even his own tongue to prison violence and his own unwillingness to speak to law enforcement. The show can be eye-for-an-eye even on the level of individual blows: Tara’s attack on her boss Margaret was reciprocated seasons later when Margaret punched her to make Tara’s story about a rift with Gemma plausible.
In that context, Sons of Anarchy‘s dedication to intensely grotesque violence, a tendency that’s been present from the castration that happened in the first season, feels less like torture pornography (an idea the show finds a way to explicitly reject in the season six premiere) and more like Hieronymus Bosch. What the characters do to themselves and others is degrading, and it can feel degrading to watch, but listening to Sutter talk, it’s clear that’s the point.
“I will also say that there’s a lot of blood and guts in my show, you know, and it is a signature of the show, but it’s also I feel like and I feel like I’m not lying to myself when I say this is 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,” he argued. ” I think it’s really the conflict that has fueled the entire series and especially, you know, Charlie’s character, the idea of ‘Can I really do what I do and follow this path and still show up and be a caring and loving husband, a good and loving father? Can I have all that and still be, you know, the leader of, ultimately, a criminal enterprise?’ And I think we’re on that trajectory here going into Season 6, where we have to decide if the answer is yes or no.”
The Sopranos answer to that question was ambiguous: at the end of the series, Tony and his family were reunited at the diner, together still even if they were never going to be as happy as they were in that first season finale, finding refuge from the rain and warmth in each other at Vesuvio. Breaking Bad has raised the question of whether Walter White was ever a good husband and father, stewing as he was in resentment even before he became someone who could sexually assault and terrorize his wife. If the answer to the question Sutter poses turns out to be no, it might be both fairer and sadder than the responses other anti-hero dramas have offered up. Jax Teller wanted, badly, to be a good person once. But his lack of education, his pride and sense of gender roles, and his own inability to think through the long game of his business may mean that he’s made it impossible for himself to reach that goal–and even if he does, to atone for everything he did along the way.