Interview: ‘Sons of Anarchy’ creator Kurt Sutter post-mortems season 4

Senior Television Writer
12.08.11 105 Comments
“Sons of Anarchy” wrapped up its 4th season on Tuesday night, and I figured my review would be the last I’d have to say on the subject for a while. But the show’s creator, Kurt Sutter, changed his mind about doing a season-ending interview with me, and we spoke for a little under an hour this afternoon about various developments and criticisms from throughout the season. Here’s the Q&A; please note that Kurt talks vaguely about ways in which a few stories will carry over into the next season, and that we also talk about a story arc from the last few seasons of “The Shield,” so read at your own risk:
How reverse-engineered was the season? Did you know going in that you wanted to end it with Jax on the throne, Clay out of the picture, etc.?

I kind of go in with a pretty solid sense of what the big mile markers are going to be. I knew we were going to do the whole dynamic with Tara, I was going to build to Clay ultimately putting himself in that box, and with Jax taking the president’s patch. I knew that I ultimately, not unlike what we kind of did with Mackey, would trap Clay. To me, after everything we did with Clay, it was almost too easy to just put a bullet in his head. How do you ultimately punish that guy? It’s to strip him of his power, strip him of his virility, and I want to play out some scenes next season where he’s literally sitting in Piney’s seat with an oxygen mask. To me, there’s such a cool irony to play out that dynamic.

I knew that was going to go down. I didn’t know exactly how we were going to work the Tara thing or what the threat would be. In fact, fucking up her hand was literally something we came up with on the script level. We needed that one more thing to push her to the dark side, to get her to ultimately that place with Jax. That’s where we thought that taking away from her the thing that defines her was an interesting parallel with Jax, taking away the thing that defines her after he was about to get away from the things that defines him, which is the club.

At what point did you decide that Romeo and Luis were working for the CIA?

That was decided at the jump. It’s a tricky thing. I don’t know. I guess I just overestimated people’s espionage experience. (laughs) I was afraid we were going to tip our hands on that storyline. What we tried to do was lay in clues throughout the piece. And then I just found myself pulling some of those back in post because I didn’t want to tip my hand. At the very least, I feel like – whether you like the twist or not – because we did know we would do it from the beginning, it wasn’t something that was tacked on as a fix, if you go back and you watch those scenes, everything lines up, from them showing up in episode two to protect the club, to the little pieces of conversation between Romeo and Luis. And then especially with Tara. When Clay puts the hit on Tara, why doesn’t that guy just roll up and put a bullet in the back of her head and take off? Why did they kidnap her? And the other clue that I thought everyone was going to pick up, I guess people thought it was bad casting, was we had those guys in the truck speaking Spanish, and they just took their hoods off and they were clean-cut white guys. We tried to lay in some clues, but I think I was so cautious about not wanting to tip that reveal. I think it worked in terms of everybody was surprised. But the fact that everybody’s asking me when did you know suggests I may have pulled back a little too much.

You’ve read my review, so you’ve seen my take on that twist, and a lot of my readers were even more unhappy with it and said it felt like a cheat – that it came out of nowhere and wiped away all these stories you’d been telling. What would you say in response to that?

I created that arc from the beginning. I thought it would be an interesting commentary on law-enforcement. Everyone this season was usurped by a superior branch. Eli was usurped by Linc, Linc by the CIA. That to me was thematically kind of an interesting thing. I thought it was a fun, kinetic way to build to that story, and organically create a dynamic – what I wanted to end with was Jax really wanting to fulfill his desire. I didn’t want to bring Jax, all of a sudden, 180 degrees, where “Oh, I don’t want to go, I have to stay and take care of my club.” To me that felt like bullshit. So the only thing that seemed like it would work is to put a gun to Jax’s head: are you willing to destroy the club? He’s not there because he wants to be; it’s because he has to be. I had to create the dynamic where Clay had to stay alive, and that seemed like a compelling way to do that. I understand the reaction, and there’s a part of me that felt that could be the perception. But if it was a cheat, if it was something I was writing stories towards, and It was, “Oh, fuck, how am I going to tie this together?” and I slapped it on at the end, then I’d think there’d be more reason for people to be upset, and I feel we did weave it into the fabric of the season.

Look, I was talking to (FX PR chief John) Solberg about this. When you’re moving at such a fever pitch throughout the season, and with episodes that have such high intensity, I think there’s just an expectation at the end for all of that to come. I told John that I think people wanted the Hindenburg, and I didn’t. I don’t think everyone can be satisfied. Looking at some of the comments, people’s expectations, the only way I could have satisfied everybody would be to write a finale that would essentially end the series, and I’m not ready to do that.

Well, a lot of this season did feel like it could be the final season of the show if we didn’t know it was the fourth and you wanted to continue for maybe seven. Maybe, in hindsight, are some of these stories that might have played out better in later seasons rather than at the series’ mid-point?

I don’t think so, man. I just feel like to prolong the John Teller original sin hanging over Jax’s head for six or seven seasons, it would have gotten thin and really lost its potency. Season 3 helped set Jax up in terms of giving him some backstory on his dad, this season was the reveal on some of that backstory. And quite frankly, I know in your review you talked about the set-up for next season seems potentially less interesting for you. I knew I always wanted to play out at least a couple of seasons with Jax at the head of that table. In the evolution of the character, and the evolution of the prince, I think there’s a lot of room for great drama in this guy trying to figure out what kind of king he wants to be. Can he be Clay without becoming Clay? Can he be John teller without suffering the fate of John Teller? What’s Clay’s phoenix moment in season 5 and 6?

It’s interesting. We had some of the same conversations on the Shield when we did the thing with Lem. We came to the conclusion that it would be much more potent and much more fertile ground for drama to have a season or a season and a half where Vic knew what Shane did to Lem, and Shane was aware Vic knew. So you had this season where these guys wanted each other dead, and they had to swallow it and show up and work with each other, maintaining that dark secret, and it worked very well there. I thought, “Are we cheating ourselves, or cheating the fans, by Jax getting the information and just putting the bullet in clay’s head?” He lives with the pain for three scenes and then takes the air out of that build. Why not explore that for a few seasons? How do they deal with that? How do they be brothers? How do they get each other’s back in times of crisis with this secret and this sense of betrayal that they feel? That was really the idea for it. I think there’s room stories to be told in that dynamic.
You brought up the Vic/Shane/Lem situation in a few other interviews you did, and I went back and checked, and it’s almost exactly 13 episodes between when Vic finds out what Shane did and when Shane goes on the run and they don’t have to work with each other anymore. That’s basically one season of the show, and that was probably as long as you could have gone with that. How long do you think Clay and Jax can co-exist?

I think you’re right. We’ll jump into next season with a sense of playing that. Not that I want to spoil season 5, but it’s not about suddenly we come back to the exact same dynamic. I really want to see Clay broken. What does this guy do to fucking strap his balls back on, and steam rising up. You didn’t see that with the Vic/Shane dynamic. I think Clay has an interesting arc to play out with potentially Gemma and gathering his power base. Right now, the only one in his corner is Tig. I think there’s something to be played out with that, but at some point, there has to be some sense of, if Clay does rise up and becomes a threat to Jax, you can only get so much out of that, because we’ve played a lot of that. So I don’t know. I knew that this wasn’t the time for Clay to go away. Whether he makes it through all seven seasons, I don’t know.

You’re talking a lot about the Jax/Clay dynamic, and that’s the core of the show, but at this point Opie has just as much of a right to want Clay dead, if not more than Jax does. Opie’s fate is up in the air at the end of the season, but he doesn’t know what Jax knows, so how do you deal with that dynamic and plausibly keep Opie and Clay on the same side – twice now after what happened in season 2?

That will be the crux of the Opie arc next season. I knew one thing. I knew that after the struggle that Opie’s had this season, and I dug the fact that this guy had to marry somebody else to finally start grieving Donna’s death. I think all of that felt real, all of these guys aren’t that self-aware and have the emotional skills to know how to deal with that shit. And to have the Piney death thrown into the mix. Which is why I felt it would be silly, almost, for Opie to suddenly sit at the table with Jax like that. I think it’s going to take a while for Opie to come back, if he comes back. That dynamic will play out between Jax and Opie. He’s definitely still part of the show, and I think there’s a way to keep him part of the club. Him sitting across that table form Clay will be a difficult thing to do. I think that will probably be a lot of what the Opie/Jax relationship wrestles with in season 5.

Given that Jax chooses to tell Tara about Romeo, and given what a raw nerve Opie is right now, and how dangerous and unpredictable he is, why doesn’t Jax tell him, too? Isn’t he risking Opie just putting a bomb under Clay’s car one day?

I think that will continue to play out. At this point, I think Jax is just trying to protect the information that he’s just received. Knowing that he ultimately has to tell Tara, and trying to figure out how to keep Opie close. But I think you’re right. Opie being in the wind will continue to be a threat to Clay and something that Jax has to rectify. Quite honestly, I just loved the dynamic of in that moment, with that information, I loved the way Charlie played the line in that scene with Opie where Opie asks him if he found anything out today, and Jax says, “Yeah, a little bit.” All that shit’s been downloaded on Jax in 24 hours. In that moment, he makes a decision to not violate the trust and give that information to Opie, because Opie’s in an unpredictable state. For Jax to give Opie the information at that point probably feels more dangerous than potentially keeping it to himself. Opie’s obviously a threat to Clay and will continue to be one, and that’s a problem. The state of mind that Opie’s in at that point, it feels too unstable for Jax to hand him that top-secret information.

One of the reasons everyone was so satisfied with last year’s finale was that after the Sons had been manipulated by the Irish characters for most of the season, they got to seize control of their destinies again, and everything that happened was as a result of their choices, not someone else’s. Most of this season was about Jax making choices, Clay making choices, Juice making choices, but in the end, everything is decided based on what Romeo wants. How much of the action on the show do you feel should be driven by what the main characters want versus what other people are deciding?

Obviously, there’s both of that going on. But some of that, dude, quite frankly, I understand it’s a show about our guys and our heroes, but the idea that the life itself is subject to so many variables. To me, I liked the fact that suddenly they’re moving towards one thing and they think they have control of the situation, and the truth is, they don’t. I think the season 3 finale was very satisfying, but I also think the experience of the season 3 finale was more enjoyable because I don’t think people were as invested in the season. I think people were distracted by season 3 and not as plugged in. I think the finale of season 3 felt like, “Oh, this is what the show is and they’re coming back.” I think the experience people had for the finale in season 4 was the season was building at such an intense rate that ultimately, they wanted that intensity topped at the end, and I just didn’t think that was good storytelling to put a bullet in somebody or blow it to hell. That was my thinking in terms of those two season finales.

Why does Jax not tell Opie more about their situation?

Two episodes this year built and built towards the death of a character, with Juice hanging himself and Opie shooting Clay. In both cases, the guys survived. How many times do you think you can comfortably do those kinds of cliffhangers?

I wouldn’t say I go to it consciously. The truth is, I just didn’t want to kill Juice because I really liked the actor a lot, and I knew what we were doing to Piney in episode 8. I felt it would have diminished both of those deaths if we had done them back to back like that. I didn’t necessarily see the shooting of Clay as necessarily a cliffhanger, you know? Meaning that with Juice, yes, there was definitely a sense of he’s dead, and then the branch breaks and he’s not. With Clay, I guess there was a perception because he took a couple of bullets, but we get out of that so quick that to me, there wasn’t a sense of finality of, “Oh, he’s dead,” and then we come back and not. There was a sense of, “Are they going to let him die? Is Opie going to put another bullet in him?” It’s not a device I consciously go to in terms of telling that story. It was the best way to do that, I feel, to really tell the story in that moment.

Getting back to what you said before about how Jax is forced to stay, how much legal jeopardy is he actually in if Potter’s case comes back to life? Could he just walk away, or would he be in just as much trouble as the rest of them?

I think that there’s a sense that if RICO goes down, they’d all go down, unless he cuts some kind of deal. The idea is that they have enough on these guys to bring them down. Obviously, they want to cast a bigger net. For me, the idea that if Jax undermines this deal, at that point, Romeo is going to hand back over to the feds to process them. Don’t forget: there may be more steps to do that, but we’ve seen the information established, and we know that the case is ready to go. It’s significant leverage for Romeo. But I do think that Jax would be part of that. But I think the bigger thing for Jax is really, the idea that he’s willing to walk away from the club, but it’s still too much a part of him to let it all just fucking go away. I really wanted to create a dynamic where it just felt too easy for Jax to read those letters and then to say, “Oh, Clay killed my father and now I have to stay here and avenge my father’s death and fix the club because that’s where you wanted,” that felt a little too Shakespearean and a little too unrealistic with everything we’d done with Jax’s season, the revelations he’d had in jail and desire to take care of his family. To have him throw that out and say “I have to do this for my father” didn’t have enough weight for me and didn’t feel real. It was really about choosing between the life or death of SAMCRO, and he couldn’t let it die. So he is sort of being forced to stay, and what does that look like, with that element in play? He’s a guy who still loves his family, still wants to get them out, but he’s forced to stay and keep the secret to keep them alive. Does that ultimately impact his ability to lead? Does that all go away and he gets caught up in the life he knows? Does he lose focus of his family and his other desire to get out? I think that creates more internal conflict for the character.

You referred before to the guys in the club as “heroes,” or maybe that’s just how the viewers look at them. The episode where Tara was abducted and injured her hand seemed to have as its theme the idea that the club is a cancer that destroys everything it touches, and that no one can get away with it. Is that how you feel about the club at this stage of the series? Is that how you want the audience to feel?

What I enjoy about the nature of the world and the things we do on the show is that we embellish and we, in a pulpy way, we build up these themes of brotherhood and freedom and power. It’s all the things that people plug into the subculture for. But there’s also the underbelly of that world, which is incredibly dangerous and incredibly violent. For me, what I like to do is, as we’re moving along and playing with these other themes and values in terms of what the MC is, to then have those moments where we slap the people in the face and go, “Don’t forget: this is who these people really are. They are racists, or have racist roots that are part of the club’s foundation. They are guys who beat the fucking shit out of their women.” Jax says it in the beginning, in the first episode: “We’ve lost focus.” It’s not about brotherhood, it’s about greed. The idea of these guys you love are also incredibly dangerous and despicable. For me as a storyteller, I like playing with that notion, of pulling people in and saying, “We love these guys and they’re funny and they would kill for each other – and, oh yeah, by the way, they’re this, too.” There’s that constant sense of push and pull. I’d like to think that helps make the show more interesting to watch and more compelling to play out those two things.

As I said in my blog, if it was just a straight drama of what that life really was like, it’s fucking dark, man. I love these guys and I go to toy runs and I hang out with them, but it’s not like I would want to be part of that on a daily basis. And yet I can’t just play out the Peter Fonda of it all where it’s just open road and parties and brotherhood and love. We all read the newspapers. I just had a long conversation with a guy from the New York Times doing an expose on the rise of violence in MCs. We know what the world is. I guess I’m trying to honor both of those and use it as a device to smack ’em around a little bit. I think that’s my point of view of it too. The point of view is the one I have about that world, too. I do find it fascinating and exciting, and the level of brotherhood and commitment, and militaristic guidelines, but I’m very aware. I’ve lost two guys already that I’ve done research with, both of them under 30 years old, who’ve been killed since the show began. I’m very aware of the dark side of the life as well.
You brought up that blog entry from yesterday, and at one point there was the notion that people shouldn’t take some aspects of the show too seriously – that in your intention, it’s a pulpy soap opera. In last week’s episode, for instance, there’s the car chase from Oakland to Charming, and the Sons are in a shootout while they’re riding past row after row of abandoned, empty cars. A lot of people started questioning the reality of that, and that comes up from time to time. To what standard do you want your fans and viewers of this show to hold it, in terms of reality and quality?

I don’t know what the standard is. I just think that sometimes, I love what I do, I think I do it well, and I feel like sometimes the analysis of this show, people are missing some of the point of it – or at least the function of it. That’s just my perception of it, whether it’s true or not. All that stuff is true. The guys I know in the life, they love this show, but they love it because it’s a soap opera. They laugh at me at the shit we do, that it’s so over the top and would never happen. The prospects give me shit all the time, because the guys on our show treat the prospects way better than in real clubs.

In terms specifically of that shootout? The interesting thing I try to do on the show – and, yes, sometimes the absurdity is the absurdity, and we never call focus to it – but Jax shooting that dude in that chase scene doesn’t mean it’s not going to have ramifications. Obviously, it’ll have ramifications with Laroy, but were there witnesses? What did Laroy do with that body? That’s stuff we quite often like to play with. I try not to let things just happen in a vacuum, violent things. The stuff we did with Luann in season 2, I think people felt like that was something that happened in a vacuum, but we got to play with that this season, and it became an integral platform for a story arc. Although some of that shit happens as a device, we’ll come back to play with that.

But in terms of your question and the standard I expect people to watch the show with? I don’t know what that is, and I can’t impose it and control how people watch the show. That’s just what I do on my blog: I get to vent about what frustrates me sometimes when I read these reviews. I think, quite frankly, and we never experienced it on “The Shield,” because there weren’t so many people blogging on every line and moment. The scrutiny of hundreds of people commenting on every episode and scene, I think at a certain point, the scrutiny gets a little absurd and overwhelming. I think it was more a response to that. I have no standard by which I want people to watch the show. I just know that, for me, some of the things we do are just the pulpy nature of the show. It’s what I enjoy doing creatively, and it helps keep the show entertaining, and as I said in that blog, it’s the things that make the brutality and the ugliness of the world a little more palatable. It distances itself from the reality of the show a little.

UPDATE: Sutter emailed me a follow-up thought on how the finale wound up being cut into two pieces at the last minute (which is a question I meant to ask but never got around to). Here’s what he wrote:
in retrospect, seeing the reaction of some critics and fans, i think splitting the finale into two parts did not serve the show. i stand by the story and the twists, but i feel like somehow i assumed people would sew 413 and 414 together as a viewing experience. see it as first the half and the second half (that’s why i called it act 1 and act 2). i realize now that i put the expectations of an entire season on an hour of tv that was really only half-structured. meaning, 414 was never written as an episode, so structurally it was off.
why did i do that? well, when you’re sitting in post with a cut that’s 28 minutes over, trying to figure out what story arc to gut, you look for solutions. i couldn’t get a two-hour finale (it’s a union thing, turns it into long-form tv which impacts every rate from the ground up), adding the extra episode seemed like a valid (and generous of the network and studio) solution. i found a natural break in the story and recut both of them as separate hours. 413 got the lion’s share of action and energy, 414 got the reveal and slower emotional decisions. i think if i delivered 413 as a one 90-minute episode, although the story would be the same, the viewing experience of the finale would have been much more satisfying. honestly, and this is the truth, i just didn’t want to cheat the fans — i wanted to give them all of it. and critically, i’m paying for that. more lessons.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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