For one last episode containing gore-soaked mayhem, the December 9th series finale of FX’s Sons of Anarchy is the Worst Cable TV Show of the Week.
By 2008, the FX cable network had completed its rebranding from a home for movie geeks into its current emphasis on “edgy” adult dramas. But then, the network took its love for the corrupt to a new level. Previously, whatever their individual peccadilloes or flaws, the lead characters on FX dramas at least nominally represented normal society – tough (if corrupt) cops on The Shield; psychologically scarred firefighters on Rescue Me; surgeons (albeit sex-crazed ones) on Nip/Tuck. But with its newest show, FX abandoned any pretense to respect for conventional society – by choosing to glamorize the twisted exploits of a murderous, drug-dealing, gun-running, strip joint-owning, rapist motorcycle gang.
Sons of Anarchy was created by former The Shield writer and wanna-be biker Kurt Sutter. In a claim endlessly echoed by sycophantic critics, Sutter compared his writing on Sons to Shakespeare. How modest! In particular, Sutter said that the show’s plot ripped off gave homage to Hamlet – if Hamlet were a drug-snorting rapist and mass murderer. (Details, details.) The only real basis for such a comparison is the fact that lead character Jax Teller’s father used to be leader (“king”) of the Sons, but was secretly murdered by Claudius Clay, who then married Jax’s mother Gertrude Gemma.
In the play, because of his vendetta Hamlet inadvertently kills or otherwise causes the deaths of others who are innocent, and is ultimately killed himself. This, of course, is why the play is a tragedy – it points out the negative consequences of seeking revenge. The entire point of Hamlet is that violence and revenge are futile and ultimately lead to tragedy. By contrast, Sons of Anarchy was a freak show which applauds, glamorizes, and positively revels in them.
Then, too, there is the question of language. Hamlet offers magnificent soliloquies: Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be: that is the question,” Polonius’ advice to Laertes, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be…”This above all: to thine own self be true.” These and many – even most – of the lines from the play are considered so brilliant that, four hundred years after they were penned, they are still read and memorized by students. By contrast, Sons of Anarchy offers scintillating dialogue like:
Clay: “Holy s***!”
Tig: “I’m gonna lend you my hand so you can jerk yourself off.”
Stahl: “She tried to turn herself in and s*** all over our deal.”
That this squalid basic cable series, characterized by crude language, graphically depicted torture, a thuggish mind-set, and an utter vacuity of morals, is seriously held by anybody to equal one of the greatest literary works in history says much about the current state of Western civilization.
Admittedly, at first the show was built around a similar suspense element as Shakespeare’s play: when Hamlet/Jax learns of this deception, what will he do? Will he go mad? Forgive his mother? Or wreak a bloody revenge? However, it wasn’t long before even this plot thread disappeared, since as the show went on, no matter WHAT Gemma did or how hurtful or destructive it was to everyone around her, she just kept getting away with everything. (The fact that the actress who played Gemma, Katy Sagal, is married to Kurt Sutter in real life surely no coincidence.) Soon, the program moved away from even the tiny bit of interest it might’ve held at first, and became merely an excuse for phony, half-baked “artistry,” long, boring musical interludes, and non-stop, ultra-graphic perversion and ultra-gory violence.
Over the course of the show, Sutter’s nigh-erotic infatuation with the tough-guy ethos of the biker gang clashed prominently with his own real-life, fashionably left-wing, pacifist, vegetarian, Hollywood lifestyle. This was most prominently displayed in recent seasons, with one biker coming out to his friends as bisexual, and revealing his affair with a transgendered lover. (Because, yeah – if there’s anyone who’s sympathetic to LGBT issues, it’s the Hell’s Angels!)
Equally tiresome was the show’s emphasis on endless “artistic” montages of pouting, sulking bikers riding down the road, with dreary music and heavy “dramatic” pauses comprising most of the show’s excursions into alternately bloody and bleak tedium. Tedious scenes such as this managed to combine the profanity and graphic violence of The Sopranos with the thrills and excitement of double-entry bookkeeping,
But such irrational plot developments are merely amusing. What made Sons of Anarchy a repulsive series was its non-stop depravity, particularly in the area of sexualized violence. A few examples:
- The Sons hold the man who raped Oswald’s daughter.
Clay: “Here’s the scumbag raped your little girl.”
Oswald approaches the bound and gagged rapist. He holds up an implement.
Oswald: “Cattle guys call this an Elsie-maker. It’s used to cut the balls off of bulls.”
The bikers strip the rapist.
Clay: “He deserves every second of the pain.”
Oswald drops his knife and leaves. Clay picks up the knife and cuts the testicles off the rapist. A graphic close-up shows the bloody, severed testicles on the ground.
Clay: “Pick those up and gift-wrap them. Let him bleed out. Bury him in the woods. Mark the grave.” (September 17, 2008)
- Opie’s wife Donna has been murdered. Opie stands over a member of the Mayan gang, and sticks his gun in the Mayan’s mouth, but the Mayan continues to insist that his gang had nothing to do with Donna’s murder. Opie refuses to kill the Mayan until he confesses. Tig shoots the Mayan in the side of the face, near his mouth so he can’t talk. Blood and gore splatters on the ground. Opie shoots the Mayan in the head, killing him. Opie then takes out his knife and carves an “A” for anarchy into the victim’s torso. Jax mutilates the corpse by shooting it full of more bloody holes. (September 8, 2009)
- A white supremacist gang kidnaps Gemma and gang-rapes her. She is shown handcuffed to a fence as masked men tug at her legs. After one rapist finishes with her, another steps in and says, “I want you to pass on a message to your old man. Tell him to stop selling guns to n****** and wet*****. Or we find you and we do this again.” (September 8, 2009)
- Sons member Juice is imprisoned. To forge an alliance with a black “family” of prisoners, the Sons’ leader Clay orders Juice to “take one for the team,” by allowing his ribs to be broken, and then submitting to homosexual prison rape. Juice is later stabbed by another prisoner. (October 20, 2009)
- Gemma is on the run from the ATF. She stabs a random stranger in his genitals — because he tries to stop her from stealing his car. (September 7, 2010)
- Gang member Chibs takes out and slashes Jimmy across the face with a pair of knives, then plunges them into Jimmy’s chest. The gang members stand around and watch O’Fallon die slowly. Another member shoots Stahl in the back of the head, with blood spraying on the windshield. Chibs dips a handkerchief in blood and uses it to make an IRA cross on the windshield. (November 30, 2010)
- Jax decides to get out of the title crime-ridden biker gang and settle down with his girlfriend Tara and their two children. Clay fears information Tara has about him and sends an assassin to murder Tara. When Jax foils the killing, Clay invents lies to cover his involvement…lies which require him to graphically beat his own wife. Gemma submits to the beating. (November 15, 2011)
- Gang members Tig and Opie visit a pornography baron. They lock him in a car trunk and murder him. Opie finding the rotting corpse of his father, flies buzzing about, whom Clay also murdered. (November 15, 2011)
- Gemma graphically engages in sexual intercourse, kneeling on all fours, as a naked man thrusts into her from behind. The viewer later learns that Gemma was so intoxicated on pot and liquor that she has no memory of picking up a total stranger or of having sex with him. (September 11, 2012)
- Tig has killed the daughter of top crime boss Damon Pope. Pope has Tig’s daughter kidnapped, placed in a pit, and doused with gasoline. Pope deliberately sets the girl on fire, allowing her to burn to death before her father’s eyes. (September 11, 2012)
- Jax and the Sons help the male-to-female transsexual prostitute Venus recover “his” son Joey from “his” abusive mother Alice. Jax shoots Alice in the head. Blood and brains spray out, covering the wall. (October 22, 2013)
- A gang member is struck and killed by a car. The car is shown driving at high speed into the gang member. A huge spray of blood erupts into the air. The body of the gang member is shown wedged under the car, being dragged down the road, and tumbling end over end down the street after being dislodged. The gang member’s body is torn apart underneath the tires. The camera pans lovingly along a gigantic trail of blood, then zooms in on the corpse’s hideously mangled face. A number of other bodily wounds are also shown, including a ripped-open leg, displaying bloody flesh. (October 29, 2013)
- The Sons ambush and machine-gun a half-dozen Chinese gang members. Jax blasts another in the chest multiple times with a pistol. The ambush occurs in slow motion, with bullets lovingly shown piercing the Chinese men and erupting into the air. The men stagger and crumple to the ground, again in slow motion. More mobsters are shown in the building’s rafters, shooting down at the helpless men. Bikers shoot men in the stomach, leaving them to die in agony. A biker administers the coup de grace, shooting the Chinese gang boss in the chest multiple times. As the bullets pierce him, blood is seen spurting out, covering the man’s shirt as his body spasms in death. (December 3, 2013)
- Jax rips out a man’s eyeball with his bare hands. The eyeball is seen dangling from the socket, blood gushing freely, as various other gang members kick and beat the victim. Another member then cuts off the victim’s fingers with a knife, as the victim screams in pain. A close-up shows the severed fingers in a pool of blood. Jax then shoots the man point-blank in the head, killing him. (November 11, 2014)
But while the program’s graphic gore, explicit sex, and non-stop profanity were more than enough reason to revile Sons of Anarchy, perhaps the most truly horrific thing ever on the show was the hypocrisy of its creator, Kurt Sutter. On December 14, 2012, America was horrified when Adam Lanza brutally murdered 26 people – most of them elementary-school children – in Newtown, Connecticut. Less than a year later, Sutter cynically exploited this tragedy by using a similar shooting to kick off the new season of his depraved drama.
On the September 10, 2013 season premiere, an 11-year-old boy removes his suit jacket on a bench outside a Catholic school. He rolls up a sleeve revealing arms with cut marks. He places his notebook on the bench, revealing it is filled with grotesque drawings and images of dead bodies and murder. The boy removes a semi-automatic weapon from his bag and heads inside the school. Viewers hear the sound of screaming and gunfire, and see blood splatters on the windows as the boy opens fire on schoolteachers and children.
So disturbing was the scene that the superintendent of schools in Newtown warned parents at his school about the episode before it aired.
Sons of Anarchy creator/writer Kurt Sutter claimed that, by showing this scene, he was trying to “start a conversation” about violence in America; but this cynical lie rang totally false. Because neither the boy doing the shooting nor any of the people killed were continuing characters on the show, had anything to do with the show, and were never even been seen on the show before, the program did not truly engage with the emotions of horror and sorrow generated by such an act. Instead, the school shooting was used merely to set up the season’s “how-the-gang-outsmarts-the-cops” storyline. And, in typical Sons of Anarchy style, the gang confronted the murder of schoolchildren by – that’s right! – murdering the mother of the child who did the shooting, thus giving Sons of Anarchy yet another opportunity to revel in sordid violence.
But even worse than the disturbing scenes of the school shooting was show creator Kurt Sutter’s sanctimonious hypocrisy about his crassly commercial decision to use the Newtown tragedy as a means of creating controversy and drawing attention to his sick program. Given the way Sons of Anarchy positively revels in violence, and makes heroes out of a murderous, drug-dealing, gun-running, white slavery crime gang, Sutter’s claims that he was trying to “start a conversation” about media violence would’ve been hilarious — if they weren’t so transparently self-serving, phony, and disgusting.
The PTC publicly called Sutter out on his hypocrisy. Sutter replied with an abusive, profanity-laden rant – hardly the response of one trying to “start a conversation.” In fact, Sutter was merely engaging in hypocritical, drama-queen posturing.
The FX network boasted that the series finale of Sons of Anarchy had the largest number of viewers in the show’s history, with approximately 9.2 million people watching either live or via recording within three days. But this victory is nowhere near as impressive as it sounds; as the PTC has noted elsewhere, almost as many people watched a 60-year-old RERUN of I Love Lucy as watched the Sons finale. From beginning to end, Sons of Anarchy appealed to only a tiny minority of viewers who enjoy its depraved and ultra-graphic violence, language, and sex…yet every American was forced to pay for it.
Maybe, as in the old joke, the final episode drew the most viewers for the same reason so many people went to their hated, tyrannical boss’ funeral: they wanted to make certain he was really dead.
Thankfully, at long last Kurt Sutter’s sex-and-gore-soaked biker soap opera is. And in celebration of that fact, the PTC is delighted, one last time, to award FX’s Sons of Anarchy with the title of Worst Cable TV Show of the Week.