SPOILER WARNING: Do not read this until you have watched Sons of Anarchy’s Season 6 premiere, “Straw.”
For much of its five seasons, Sons of Anarchy has functioned as a moral litmus test for viewers: how much demented darkness can we stomach before turning off our TVs? Brutal rapes, severed heads, burned bodies, gnawed-off tongues ... these horrific moments have come and gone over the years, and we paused, gagged, averted our gaze for a few seconds, and then turned back and kept watching.
Tuesday night, however, the show finally went too far.
First, some backstory: I initially watched the Season 6 premiere a month ago, during the annual Television Critics Association summer press tour, and was puzzled why director Paris Barclay (who does his usual skillful work in this episode) kept cutting back to this clean-cut, 11-year-old boy we had never met before. Clad in a Catholic-school standard-issue jacket and tie, the boy wrote in his journal, sweetly kissed his sleeping mother, walked to school, and suddenly pulled out a KG-9 machine gun from his backpack. While the camera lingered outside as he calmly carried it in, what happened next was unmistakable and unforgettable: he opened fire as kids and teachers screamed in terror.
When I got to that profoundly disturbing moment, my initial reaction—perhaps the one you’re having right now—was that I’d had enough, and creator Kurt Sutter had finally overreached in his never-ending quest to shock viewers. But the following day, Sutter spoke to the assembled TCA press and insisted that “this is a story that is not being done to be sensational. It is truly the catalyst for the final act of our morality play. It sets everything in motion for this season that will ultimately lead to the end ... and what I see as the ultimate comeuppance of everything in terms of the series.”
So a few weeks later, when FX sent out the season’s first three episodes, I watched them with Sutter’s words in mind. Judging the first three episodes as a whole, he’s right: the school shooting isn’t just a gratuitous jolt, as it seems to be in the premiere. Instead, it’s far more damaging to the series and its characters.
If you’re going to travel down such a ghastly path, you’d better have a magnificent storyline to justify it. And so far, Sons doesn’t.
Without giving specific spoilers, I will say that the fallout from the premiere’s shooting looms large over the next two episodes, but much in the same way as every other mess that SAMCRO (the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club) is dragged into: as a problem they need to distance themselves from, no matter what. The gun used in the massacre, and the shooter’s mother, have a SAMCRO connection, and that must be dealt with in the usual Sons fashion before authorities (including the county district attorney, played by the terrific CCH Pounder) piece together their involvement.
By having SAMCRO president Jax (Charlie Hunnam) and his club tackle the issue in such a callous way—with no remorse for what happened or their role in it, thinking only of how they can deflect blame, the victims (and the shooter’s mother) be damned—Sutter has crossed a line. Rooting for SAMCRO to get the better of other gang bangers, white supremacists, drug dealers, and other assorted lowlifes is one thing (sure, our guys are bad, but these other people are so much worse!) but we’re now being asked to cheer for a group that not only helped enable a school shooting to happen, but also has zero guilt over its involvement in the deaths of multiple children.
That is something I refuse to do. Several of TV’s greatest dramas feature horrible antiheroes who routinely do unspeakable things—Tony Soprano, Walter White, Vic Mackey, Don Draper—but each one of these men also had their own moral code, skewed as it may be. There were certain acts too heinous for even them to commit, at least, not without some grave moral cost.
Once you contribute to a school shooting and then heartlessly try to cover it up, you’ve passed the point of no return. As a parent, this is a horror that crosses my mind every time I drop my kids off at school, set foot inside the building, or hear about the latest “security lockdown drill” that is now tragically commonplace at schools around the country. So, yes, watching that scene made me physically ill, more than any other in Sons history. (Those children’s screams continue to haunt me, weeks later.) If you’re going to travel down such a ghastly path, you’d better have a magnificent storyline to justify it. And so far, Sons doesn’t.
That wasn’t always the case. Back in Season 2 (the show’s finest, in which it seemed ready to claim its place in the pantheon of TV dramas), Sutter took a hideous act—Gemma’s brutal rape by a group of white supremacists—and movingly mined it for emotional and dramatic depths (in this case both Katey Sagal’s devastating reaction and our agonizing wait for the retribution whenever SAMCRO inevitably discovered what had occurred), propelling the series to new heights. He also did this much less successfully in the Season 3, by far its weakest, where the kidnapping of Jax’s son played out over an entire season.
But increasingly since then, Sutter seems content on shocking for shock’s sake: Opie’s sacrificial death in jail. Tig watching his daughter, bound and gagged but still conscious, burnt to a crisp in front of him. Otto (played by Sutter himself) gleefully biting off his own tongue in jail. These game-changing moments should resonate for months if not years, but instead their impact largely fades after a few episodes.
These days, the show more frequently goes the route of Chekov’s Bathtub of Urine in the season premiere. When that disgusting prop popped up in the background as SAMCRO met the “torture porn” producer Iranian brothers, we knew it was only a matter of time before someone would end up dunked in it (or drowned, as it turned out). It’s what Sons does, for better or worse.
And if it’s no longer possible to redeem SAMCRO, who is left to root for on this show? Not the imprisoned Clay (Ron Perlman), whose miles-long list of reprehensible transgressions include violently beating wife Gemma (Katey Segal) and killing SAMCRO co-founder Piney (acts which, realistically in the world of Sons and SAMCRO, should have cost him his life back in Season 4). Not Lee Toric (Donal Logue), a retired marshal who was introduced last season and is now doubling-down (if not tripling-down) on his efforts to bring down Jax and SAMCRO, whom Sutter unfairly stacks the deck against in an upcoming episode where he progresses from the premiere’s Apocalypse Now–like drug-fueled hotel room freakout into something much more sinister and off the reservation. And sadly, not Opie, the longtime soul of SAMCRO who was killed in prison last year after sacrificing himself for Jax. That leaves Bobby (Mark Boone Junior), who became disillusioned with the club last season and spends the early episodes making plans to “patch out” and start a new chapter. Which, given Sons’ history, probably means he’s the next one to be killed.
I’m not suggesting that Sons should have a “very special episode” about school shootings. That’s not what the show is, nor should it be. But if Sutter really wanted to delve into this issue, why not do so in a large arc about how this tragedy would wreck a victim’s family from the inside? Or have Jax realize that his own children could have been put in danger and make that his final rationalization for taking SAMCRO out of the gun-running business? Instead, it’s mostly business as usual.
I hope that future episodes prove me wrong and that Sutter can somehow salvage SAMCRO, and the series, in the face of these events. Until that happens, I’m going to look back on the premiere as the moment that Sons finally went too far, and I largely stopped caring about its characters. Bobby, you have the right idea.