Seven years have passed since the members of Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original locked the picturesque hamlet of Charming, Calif., in their lawless grip, filling the streets with murder, mayhem and all manner of reckless havoc.
But now the rambunctious bikers of SAMCRO are nearing the end of their road — and they are uneasy riders. Deadly jeopardy is around almost every twist and turn, not only from rivals but also from wary allies in their criminal endeavors.
Meanwhile, Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the gang’s young and conflicted leader, is battling a more wrenching crisis: His wife, Tara (Maggie Siff), was brutally murdered, and he’s enlisting his brothers-in-arms for a coldblooded mission of vengeance aimed at those he suspects may have been responsible, unaware that the real culprit is his beloved mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal) — the controlling matriarch who speared Tara in the head repeatedly with a carving fork during a vicious showdown.
The whirlwind circle of life and death inaugurates the Sept. 9 launch of the seventh and final season of “Sons of Anarchy,” the most popular — and bloody — series in the history of FX. The drama about the group of hard-living merry men and their “ol’ ladies” drew a weekly average of more than 10 million viewers last year, cementing the cable network’s stature as a formidable outlet for aggressive, offbeat dramas such as “The Shield,” “The Americans,” “American Horror Story” and the Emmy-winning miniseries “Fargo.”
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The series subscribes to a central theme in contemporary TV drama, the charismatic antihero, while injecting it with a colorful blue-collar vibe that reflects a sizable audience once largely ignored by producers and writers in Hollywood and New York. Its success at finding and pleasing this niche is emblematic of much current TV.
And what a long, strange, weird trip it has been. “Sons of Anarchy’s” volcanic mash of dark humor, octane-heavy action and webs of intrigue, deceit and betrayal consciously echoes Shakespearean themes and anchors them in a story of iron-tight family ties and unbreakable bonds of brotherhood. Relentless scenes of over-the-top mayhem and maiming have placed the series in the top ranks of TV’s most violent dramas, alongside “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead” and “Boardwalk Empire.”
The drama has also made its mark in other ways, propelling Hunnam — an actor from Newcastle, England, who made his first mark as a seductive gay teen in the British “Queer as Folk” — to Hollywood heartthrob and leading-man status. He starred in last year’s hit “Pacific Rim” and was the first actor named to the upcoming film version of the soft-core “Fifty Shades of Grey” (he eventually withdrew because of scheduling conflicts). The series also gave a juicy dramatic role to Sagal, best known as the wacky Peg Bundy on “Married … With Children.”
“It has been an amazing journey that I never would have imagined happening,” said Kurt Sutter, the outspoken architect of this universe as he sat in the spacious Sherman Oaks office headquarters of the show. With his trim ponytail, black T-shirt and long short pants disclosing a collection of bold tattoos, Sutter, a Rutgers University graduate who was an executive producer on “The Shield,” looks more like a cast member than a show runner. (He cast himself in a brief recurring role as a tortured Sons member.)
The time to end “Sons of Anarchy” is right, he maintained; he made the decision a few years ago to wrap it up after seven seasons. But now he’s in a bit of a denial mode: “I don’t want to deal with the sadness.”
A former addict with a no-holds-barred personality, Sutter gained a hard-bitten reputation in 2010 after unleashing a rash of acid-tipped tweets and blog posts aimed at a variety of targets, including the television academy voters, who had repeatedly ignored the series. There have also been dynamite confrontations on the set between Sutter and Hunnam, which at times came close to replicating a show story line.
These days Sutter appears much calmer. He’s made peace with the academy, which has hosted “Sons of Anarchy” panels, and he and Hunnam express an unqualified love for each other. Still, he is grappling with both anticipation and dread in closing out the saga that has consumed him for almost a decade. “There are moments when I do get overwhelmed,” he said. “This is a big … dysfunctional family, but it’s family. Everyone who is here really wants to be here, loves to be here, and that’s rare. One of our goals now is to look on this as just another season.”
Still, “Sons of Anarchy” is not riding quietly off into the sunset. The season opener is bookended by shocking crimson moments. The season will feature some offbeat guest stars, including Malcolm-Jamal Warner (“The Cosby Show”) and Lea Michele (“Glee”). And at least a few cast members are likely to meet very bad ends before the final ride concludes.
Legions of rabid “Sons of Anarchy” fans paid their respects at San Diego’s Comic-Con last month, filling the massive Hall H. When executive producer Paris Barclay saluted Sutter for taking him and the cast on “such a great ride,” the throng responded so vigorously that Sutter, rarely at a loss for words, was almost speechless with choked-up emotion.
A steady climb
The start of the “SOA” road to success was not nearly that grand. While biker clubs and motorcycle enthusiasts were excited about the show, the mainstream entertainment media weren’t as revved up. The large cast was mostly unknown, with the exception of Sagal, Sutter’s wife, and Ron Perlman, who had made a career out of hiding his face: He was the star of the “Hellboy” films and the “Beauty and the Beast” TV series with Linda Hamilton.
Some reviewers gave the series an encouraging reception. Los Angeles Times television critic Robert Lloyd wrote, “It’s a superior package, intelligently constructed and handsomely executed.” Variety’s Brian Lowry was not as generous: “There’s just so little dimension to the characters that it’s difficult to care.”
After premiering to 2.9 million viewers, ratings grew steadily, including a solid corps of women. The co-stars who constitute the members of the “Sons” — Tommy Flanagan (“Chibs”), Theo Rossi (“Juice”), Mark Boone Junior (“Bobby”) and Kim Coates (“Tig”) — all have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and make appearances all over the world, particularly in Germany, Australia and the U.K.
The only series on the TV landscape that comes close to “Sons of Anarchy” in visceral grit and atmosphere is AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” in which motley survivors battle flesh-eating zombies. All the dangers on “Sons” come from humans.
TV historian Tim Brooks said the show has reached out to a smaller but still potent viewership hungry for more novel fare than more broader-based series such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” or “The Big Bang Theory.” “This show is so counter to what a broad audience would watch, yet it demonstrates how a model like this cannot only last” but also succeed, he said.
FX Networks head John Landgraf said audiences have responded because “first and foremost, it’s good storytelling, a ripping good yarn with a really distinctive world that had not been explored in television. It has an excellent cast, and it’s very funny, darkly comedic.
“When I picked it up, I had noticed that the success of certain reality shows such as ‘Ice Road Truckers’ and ‘The Deadliest Catch’ was a real indication that there was an appetite for a certain kind of gritty blue-collar reality that wasn’t being reflected on broadcast networks. This takes on a world of gritty tough men that is often overlooked.”
Though there are numerous elements to the “SOA” world, the explosive dynamic between Sutter and Hunnam is central. They mirror each other in intensity and drive.
“This has been the great creative experience of my life,” said Hunnam, 34, amid a long day at the North Hollywood studios where “SOA” shoots. Another long night on location was ahead of him, but the actor was talkative and gracious as he relaxed in his trailer.
“I’m really sad to be saying goodbye to these guys and this cast and this world that I’ve come to love a great deal. It’s really exciting to be part of a show that really means something.”
But there were a few bumps along the way, and the actor and his boss at times wound up on a creative collision course. Hunnam said Sutter would challenge him and his portrayal of the show’s heroes, with fiery consequences.
“One of the things that Jax always has to deal with is being overwhelmed and dealing with self-doubt,” he said. “I felt that acutely during the course of the show, of being overwhelmed, and that sometimes brought out the very worst in me.
“I’ve had a very short fuse at times,” he conceded. “Kurt and I have very similar personalities. We both can have robust reactions. There’s been so much love, but there have been those other times when I tried to engage him in hand-to-hand combat.”
Ultimately, the two made peace: “Working with him has been the greatest collaboration of my life,” said Hunnam, whose plans include producing his first screenplay, “Vlad,” with Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company, and starring in the planned sequel to “Pacific Rim.” He also reportedly is considering playing King Arthur in a Guy Ritchie film.
Sutter said the clashes were never personal and were all about the work. He has choked up at premieres when praising Hunnam, calling him a true brother: “We’re at a place where we’d take a bullet for each other.”
As the sun sets on “Sons,” Sutter is preparing to embark on his next project for FX — a pilot for a period piece called “The Bastard Executioner” about a warrior knight in King Edward III’s charge. He is developing the project with producer Brian Grazer, who came up with the idea.
But TV success is self-replicating, and “Sons of Anarchy” is not totally vanishing. “Sons of Anarchy” comic books have already started to appear, and novelizations are on their way. Sutter is mulling a prequel to the series. “It would be a completely different tonal piece,” he said. “That is a real possibility.”