Those of you who have persevered with Sons of Anarchy this season will have watched it deteriorate at a speed far greater than Wayne Unser, who is going some way to match Mark Fowler for TV longevity despite a terminal illness. What was once a welcome lift in the usually dull mid-week viewing has now become a tedious slog that I can only perservere with because of being invested in the characters. Where did it all go so horribly wrong?
The initial premise of the show was one that was fairly interesting. Effectively a retelling of Hamlet, Jax Teller – played by the poor man’s Brad Pitt – is the heir to the throne of a criminal fraternity, a position formerly held by his father and usurped by Clay Morrow who is now shacked up with his mother. The ghost in the story appeared by means of a journal found by Jax who would learn life lessons from the disembodied voice in his head as he poured over the pages. Upon learning of the treachery that befell his father he was left with difficult choices. Attempting to avenge his father and taking over the club only forces him deeper into a life that he wishes to escape.
So far so Shakespearian, but where the show also excelled in those early series was in its refusal to avoid subjects that had been deemed television taboo. These ranged from showing the protagonists openly dealing with terrorist groups and running guns, to white supremacy and a family coming to terms with a rape. Even in its more frivolous moments, such as the still inexplicable inclusion of a compulsive masturbator with only his index fingers, the show seemed content to bait the more sensitive viewer, while simultaneously taking mainstream television into areas seldom charted.
Understand it was never meant to be a realistic portrayal of a life of crime. Nor was it ever a sociological look at the place of the biker gang in modern America. It was always fantastical and over the top as great television often is. Coming from the creator of The Shield, a far superior show, the elements were all there. For all the detail paid to creating a unique identity for each criminal fraternity, for each flawed anti-hero, for each shade of grey on the moral spectrum, at its core was absolute melodrama. Constant cliffhangers, plot twists and scene-chewing monologues, it made 24 seem plausible. If we were to take it at face value the quiet town of Charming drops more bodies than Baltimore and Los Angeles combined with little consequence. Yet that did not hinder it becoming compelling television and acquiring a cult following.
This most recent season has been an absolute nadir for the series as a whole. Eschewing character development in place of introducing constant disposable characters to progress a storyline, it is now trying to juggle several plot-points with no clear end game. Much like Jax Teller himself whose plan to get out of the game seems to lurch from one contradiction to another as he simply deepens his involvement. Even at its most ridiculous the show still had some sense of consequence for the many murders that were committed. Now, the sheer volume of killings generates nothing at all other than the knowledge that another generic gangster will be filling that void next week only to meet the same end. The goon is very much an endangered species in Charming.
What is perhaps most galling is the formulaic nature of the episodes this season. Opening with a shot of someone’s home life, the show quickly moves towards scheming, plotting and intrigue. This is usually held via a series of phone conversations to arrange meetings – showing quite a lack of precaution for a gang that knows it has been monitored by the FBI – and then us going to those meetings, usually via the way of a brief glimpse at some side-character’s pointless story. The meeting descends into an argument, a spanner is thrown into the works and there follows a perfunctory action scene, be it a punch-up replete with high tempo banjo music or a car chase to a rock soundtrack. As these happen every episode and the main characters are clearly never in danger the pulse never races. Indeed, they are so clichéd, they invariably feel like a waste of time. In short, the script writing is about as imaginative as the average porn script where a German plumber turns up to help clean a housewife’s pipes.
What also jars is the choice of who gets screen time. Katy Sagal’s character flirted with being interesting for the first few episodes as her breakdown started to hit full effect. After a near fatal incident for a child in her care – don’t worry, he’s OK now of course – she has sobered up and is now just hanging around eating up run time that could be dedicated to other characters who have been completely marginalised this season. Hard to believe that this is the same actress who put in a real tour de force of television acting just a few seasons ago but you don’t really have to try when you’re married to Kurt Sutter. With all the sex scenes she’s had this season you’d have to think that the show could be improved if someone just got Sutter a subscription to Reader’s Wives.
The same is true of his constant insistence on bringing former Shield alumni in for ludicrous bit-parts. This is perhaps best illustrated with Walton Goggins turning up as a transexual prostitute called “Venus Van Damme” (a very similar name to his alias in The Shield). The episode in question, Orca Shrugged, suffered horrendously from tone, the puerile comedy at odds at the impending danger facing the characters in other episodes. The sight of seeing the man who was Shane Vendrell riding a drugged, obese man, while his upsettingly realistic prosthetic breasts giggled around is something you don’t get over quickly. The real question is what purpose did it serve other than to have a bit of a laugh with the boys on set?
And that is the real issue with the show. It has become tediously self-indulgent. An actor of the calibre of Ron Perlman has spent half the season as a whispering frail shell of his former self, the other half as a cartoon Machiavelli with an ape’s face. The character who had an entire storyline dedicated to him in the third season, “Chibs”, now only turns up to say “now then Jackie-boy” in his Glaswegian accent. Even the seasonal super-villain of Eddie Pope, who introduced himself to the gang via a series of grisly murders, has faded into the background. It is almost as if the writers are making a point of showing how many characters they can bench over the course of the season.
The show always worked best with a set structure. The gang’s internal problems, the over-arching storyline of Jax wanting to realise his deceased dad’s dream and preserve the future of the motorcycle club, these would be put on hold as they pulled together to take on an external threat. It’d be tough, they’d lose loved ones along the way, but they would emerge triumphant at the end. The cost of victory would be explored momentarily, the damage assessed, before the next threat was introduced.
Now, the Sons have neither a nemesis nor a direction, the gang unified by only by their desire to have secrets kept from the group, their new leader openly betraying his own values with every turn. This in itself would be an interesting angle to explore if it was intentional. Alas, as can be seen from his constant mood swings it is actually just poor scriptwriting. They don’t know whether to make Jax a monster, a martyr or a mastermind. There’s no inner turmoil just seemingly inconsistent whims that play out with no real exit strategy in sight.
Even after the eleventh episode from a standard season of thirteen they still introduced yet another mysterious villain, somehow a threat to the club even though we know nothing about him other than he’s bad. We know he’s bad because he savagely beat poor defenceless Otto who was last seen stabbing a female nurse to death with a crucifix because apparently recanting a statement to the FBI is the most difficult thing since writing a half decent script.
And that is the general lethargy that I imagine most long-standing fans feel as the season grinds to a halt. It used to be the case that no-one did season finales like Sons of Anarchy. This time around the best thing about is simply be that it’s over.