How once-great ‘Sons of Anarchy’ ran off the road before the end

It sounds strange to say about a show I haven't watched regularly in two years – and barely at all in its final season – and stopped consistently enjoying long before that, but there was a time when I loved “Sons of Anarchy” about as much as anything on TV. Back in the day, Kurt Sutter's biker “Hamlet” was one of the shows I most enjoyed watching, writing about, and debating with critics and fans alike. In its second season in particular, it was one of the very best shows on television (on that year's Top 10 list, I had it only a couple of spots behind “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”) and every bit the Next Great FX Drama you would expect from Sutter, who apprenticed on “The Shield” and penned many of that show's most memorable (and/or disgusting) moments.

In retrospect, that second season – pitting SAMCRO against a band of white supremacists (led by all-purpose FX villain Adam Arkin) – wasn't so much a sign of a series taking The Leap, but an outlier year in which Sutter's skills as a dramatic craftsman were in perfect harmony with his provocateur side. In later years – as “Sons” became such a big hit that FX stopped putting any limits on Sutter at all, particularly in the punishing length of each episode (last week's was about 80 minutes without commercials, or twice as long as an average cable drama installment) – Sutter's desire to both shock and over-complicate the plot would push aside the sense of narrative coherence and restraint that led to that great second season. “Sons” became a frustrating, wildly uneven show that could occasionally offer a reminder of its earlier brilliance, but usually surrounding those moments with so much nonsense that it was hard to feel the reward was worth it.

Case in point (and some final season spoilers are coming, in case there are some of you still waiting to catch up): a few weeks back, “Sons” offered a huge episode in every sense of the word. It dealt with Hamlet himself, motorcycle club prince Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) discovering that his mother Gemma (Katey Sagal) had murdered his wife Tara – and that all the self-destructive, club-ruining actions he had taken in pursuing other suspects were all Gemma's fault. The episode had three absolutely dynamite scenes: Jax visiting disgraced club member Juice (Theo Rossi) in prison to get confirmation of what his mother did, Gemma's boyfriend Nero (Jimmy Smits) learning the truth about her and Tara, and Nero trying to counsel Jax on what killing Gemma in revenge might do to him. All three scenes lingered, taking advantage of a 72-minute running time, and all four actors involved did wonders at letting the long silences say so much about how much this news, and the blood behind it, was hurting their characters. (Smits in particular has rarely been better than in that moment where Nero found out the truth.) But those scenes were adrift in a sea of the unnecessary plot contortions that came to typify the show after the second season, so that it felt exhausting getting there.

Or take the moment at the end of last week's episode where Jax finally confronted his mother in the garden of her childhood home, and – at her own urging – put a bullet in the back of her head. This is arguably the biggest moment in the run of the series, one the show had been building to through years of unpunished Gemma misdeeds. And Sagal and Hunnam were, as expected, great. But the episode ended not with the gunshot, but with an eight-minute music montage of Jax riding home feeling sad, and of what the rest of the Sons were up to that night. The montage – a device Sutter leaned on increasingly as the show aged – took this seismic event in the series' history and made it feel like just another bloody day at the office.

As “Sons” became older and more popular, it became a show badly in need of editing, both to trim the episodes down to a length that didn't blunt the impact of the more important moments, and to challenge Sutter on the logic and necessity of many of the plot twists he favored. Far too often, events were driven not by what the characters would actually do, but by what endgame Sutter was going for, like keeping Club founder (and Gemma's second husband) Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) alive and active in club business no matter how many members had good cause to put a bullet in his head. (At one point, the matter of Clay's survival became so ludicrous that two of the club's contacts in the Mexican drug trafficking world were revealed to be undercover CIA agents with the power to force Jax to let Clay live – the SAMCRO equivalent of “A wizard did it.”)

On “Sons of Anarchy,” less could never be more, because more was busy trying to be morer. Even the shocks that Sutter had deployed so well for so long began to lose their power as he either repeated tricks or tried to expand on them. The ongoing mutilation of Big Otto, an imprisoned club member played by Sutter himself, eventually became a sick joke, then (probably around the time he bit off his own tongue and spat it out to avoid testifying against the club) simply numbing. When Gemma was raped by the white supremacists at the start of season 2, it was a devastating moment that would drive several major character arcs for years; within a few seasons, rape became just another utilitarian tool in the show's kit. The sixth season premiere ended with a school shooting perpetrated by a boy using one of the guns smuggled into the area by the club, but the show only used this politically and emotionally charged image as yet another trap Jax would have to pull a Houdini act to escape.

Maybe if the second season hadn't been so disciplined and so great, the show's later stumbles would have been less troubling. Those episodes opened a window to what “Sons” was capable of at its very best, and then the window slammed shut. Even Sutter seemed to feel burdened by the expectations created by season 2; the day after season 4 ended on the much-panned CIA twist, he published a blog post titled “CRITICS LAMENT…WHAT IS SONS OF ANARCHY?,” in which he suggested reviewers like me were missing the point of the show:

Some critics get it.  Ken Tucker, Matt Zoller Seitz revel in the giddy truth.  Sepinwall and others continue to bang their heads against a wall, applying a level of analysis that is best reserved for a David Simon show.  The Wire, we ain't, nor do we aspire to be.  For the record, SOA is an adrenalized soap opera, it's bloody pulp fiction with highly complex characters.  Often, I think the depth of the characters, the emotionality of the writing and the amazing performances is what confuses critics.  Those qualities put the show on par with other great dramas.  But then I'll go and cut the balls off a clown or turn a plot point absurdly upside down and I will most certainly blow something the fuck up.  It's those things that drive critics crazy.  Why can't I just stay the course.  Be what they want me to be — measured and predictable.

Sutter argued then, and later, that all the things that drove me and others nuts about the show were the whole point of the show. The later seasons certainly moved in that direction. But I think that argument sells the show, and Sutter himself, short. There's a batshit crazy, “adrenalized soap opera” version of the show that didn't have to tie itself into narrative knots to be effective, that didn't have to turn the extra-long episodes from an occasional bonus into the norm. (That's a move, by the way, that's the very opposite of what Sutter says the show was about; bloody pulp fiction is lean and mean, where presenting movie-length episodes each week suggested the series was aspiring to something grander.)

I know this is true because I saw it. I saw it at times in the first season, I saw it constantly in the second, and I saw it enough in the later years that I kept watching for a long time even as it made me bang my head against the wall. And I saw it in the two most recent episodes, which I couldn't resist watching, just as I'm going to watch tonight's finale (it begins at 10 p.m.), no matter how long it runs. It's not just about getting closure – if anything, Gemma's death suggests the finale will focus more on plot points I have no investment in – but about the belief, or at least hope, that Sutter has at least one more great scene up his sleeve.

When Sutter, director Paris Barclay, and the rest of Team “Anarchy” were operating at their peak – as illustrated by the 11 scenes I chose below (most from the earlier years) – the show was as badass as it aspired to be. But it was also deep and emotionally rich in a way that became increasingly difficult to sustain as the highly complex characters Sutter was so rightly proud of became puppets of stories that didn't make sense, stuck in a show in love with its own excess.

What does everybody else think? If you've stuck with it til the end, are you happy with that decision? If you dropped out along the way, when and why? (And is there any chance you might come back tonight for the ending?) What favorite moments do you have beyond the ones embedded below?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at