For much of this season, it has felt like The End was coming on Sons of Anarchy. Betrayal upon betrayal. An attempted suicide. Another attempted murder. A murder. It’s the stuff of series endings: the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original completely turning on itself, marching toward a tragic finish.
Turns out, it was all creator and executive producer Kurt Sutter’s wicked Hamlet-inspired plan to turn his fictional Charming, Calif., upside down and create a new paradigm that he hopes will grant him three more seasons of work, but reboots the plot of FX’s biggest hit in an exciting way for the fans of the show. A chapter has definitely closed on SAMCRO as the fourth season drew to a close Tuesday night and Jackson (Charlie Hunnam) fiddled with the president’s patch in his hand. But one thing was clear: there’s a lot of life left in Charming.
(If you haven’t watched the season finale, you should stop reading now. John Teller said so in his letters.)
Jackson Teller, the new president. It’s what a lot of viewers want—to see Jax at the head of the table, the seat vacated by his idealist late father. From the start, Sons of Anarchy has been built around Jax questioning who he is and, more important, who he wants to be. The season opened with SAMCRO’s release from prison, after a 14-month stint, and Jax’s resolve to leave the club and move away with Tara (Maggie Siff) and their two young sons.
But a lot happened in 14 episodes, and Jackson is now stuck trying to save his reeling club from going back to prison and keeping Clay’s (Ron Perlman) numerous dirty secrets, including that he murdered club cofounder Piney (William Lucking) and tried to murder Tara to keep them both from disclosing that Clay murdered Jax’s father, J.T., in 1993. Who didn’t sniffle, at least a little, when Jackson broke down while telling Tara that he has no choice other than to take over as president?
How Jackson finds himself in this predicament was the finale’s biggest surprise and a gold-star moment for the writers—not to mention the actors. The Galindo cartel members Clay got into bed with early in the season to transport drugs actually work for the CIA, and they stopped SAMCRO from being charged under the RICO act in exchange for Jackson staying put and brokering an arms deal with the Irish. The hitch is the Irish will work only with Clay, who is in the hospital after Opie (Ryan Hurst) shot him for killing his father, Piney, and means that Jax must abandon the plan he chillingly hatched with his mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal), and a newly empowered Tara to kill Clay in his hospital bed. To stay out of prison, the club needs Clay alive.
“To me, it would be too simple to kill off Clay this season,” Sutter said in an interview. “To have a guy head down that road and do some nefarious things and have somebody put a bullet in him to kill him, I just wanted more. I want to see a guy like Clay suffer a little bit. I want to see him struggle to be in the club. What does that look like next season, with him sitting in Piney’s seat? To me, that shit is really ripe story territory. Can Jax be president of that club without ultimately becoming Clay, or does that just come with the territory? As we’ve seen in our own political system, men who take positions of power with a sense of ideology and desire and hunger to be different are then faced with the problems and challenges and struggles that come with that and are forced to fall into the same traps of their predecessors because it’s the nature of the beast.”
All season long, Clay Morrow has been riding his motorcycle on the highway to hell. Never a good guy, no one—not viewers and maybe not even Perlman himself—could foresee the character would take such a desperate, dark turn. But with his hands ravaged by arthritis and his financial future at risk, Clay makes a deal with the devil that sets in motion all of the complications with the Irish, the Galindo cartel, the U.S. Attorney’s office that is investigating the club, and the CIA. If it was difficult to see him shoot Piney in the chest, and unbelievable to hear him coldly order the murder of Tara, it was nerve-racking to watch him savagely beat his wife, Gemma—all irrevocable actions that have left the audience, like Jax, feeling that Clay must die.
But Sutter didn’t let him.
“How could there be any credible way for him not to die?” FX president John Landgraf said. “And it’s just mind-blowing when you find out these guys who you’ve totally accepted as cartel guys for the entire season are undercover CIA agents, and this guy you’ve seen as all-powerful puppet master, the Assistant U.S. Attorney, totally gets trumped over and screwed over. And no matter how you feel about Clay, if he’s not in the mix and he’s not dealing with the Irish and the thing isn’t moving forward for the CIA the way they need, then they all go to jail. It’s a perfectly constructed no-win situation that keeps this intense pressure cooker going forward. And that’s all Kurt.”
When Landgraf learned what Clay would resort to this season, he talked to Perlman about how he felt about unmasking the character in such an unrepentant way. The actor was crazy about the idea, and it has shown in his relentlessly piercing performance. After Jax told Clay in the finale that he won’t kill him because he needs him but that he no longer rules the club, Clay responded: “You may as well kill me.” Now, after losing it all, Landgraf wonders whether it’s possible viewers might eventually sympathize with Clay.
“You’d think it would be impossible for anybody to have empathy for the character, but I wouldn’t bet against Ron,” Landgraf said. “I don’t think he’s going to be anybody’s favorite or I don’t think anybody’s going to root for him, but I bet Ron and Kurt will always find ways to bend the character in ways that give you at least some level of understanding or compassion for him. I don’t have very much right now. I think there’s a lot of people that were looking forward to him dying, but it’s a much more interesting choice, I think, that he doesn’t.”
From the beginning of developing the season, Sutter and the writers crafted the RICO storyline, with the idea that Lincoln Potter’s (Ray McKinnon) investigation would be undermined by the CIA, allowing Clay to stay alive and in the game. Romeo (Danny Trejo) and Luis Torres (Benito Martinez) were designed as CIA operatives from the onset, but making sure their undercover status was kept from the motorcycle club as well as from viewers proved to be one of the season’s biggest challenges, because if it didn’t track, no one would buy it.
“My struggle was not giving away too much that people know they’re undercover or they’re feds but to give you enough so that when you get that information you don’t turn around and you go, ‘Bullshit!’" Sutter said. “Some of this is based on actual historical facts. It’s basically what the CIA did with [Pablo] Escobar. We go in there and empower these regimes to ultimately take control, and for the good of the cause, you get behind one to have a controlling voice in the political and economical flow of the territory or a country. It’s the idea that it’s ultimately the machine that undermines some of these law enforcement-dynamics more so than the bad guys. As Link points out in the last episode, ‘The bad guys won.’ And he’s not talking about the club. He’s talking about the powers that be. To me, that’s an interesting dynamic and very true.”
Jackson’s forced change of heart and the domino effect it creates will dominate next season’s storylines. Clay will interact with his club as a member, not the leader. Opie will have to decide whether to trust Jackson again and be his vice president. With Tara now in First Old Lady position, Gemma will have to adjust to not being in control. Tara and Jackson’s relationship, strengthened by their new no-secrets policy, could be threatened if Jackson learns that Tara knows his mother also had a hand in his father’s death.
“Jax has committed to the club; he doesn’t want the club to die, but you’re not sure the depths to which he is committed,” Sutter said. “And, quite honestly, I did that on purpose because I want to give myself flexibility in terms of where I continue to take the story. Jax is a guy who, like in real life, commits to things and gets pushed in directions based always on more than one reason.”
Sutter hopes FX will grant him three more seasons to finish the SAMCRO story. With 5.5 million viewers, Sons of Anarchy is registering its highest-rated season and stands as basic cable’s No. 2 drama. The unprecedented extra episode Landgraf ordered, at Sutter’s request, to finish out the season indicates the network’s strong support of the show.
“I can’t guarantee it at this point, but if that’s what Kurt believes he needs and what he wants, I will do everything in my power to make it available to him,” Landgraf said. “I know some of the details of where he wants to go next season, and I have a sense of the end season, but I need a better sense of what the penultimate season would be. That’s what we’ll be talking about in the near future.”
For now, Charming’s Hamlet has chosen to be. And that’s a good thing.