‘Sons of Anarchy’ at 15 on Hulu

Sons of Anarchy (2008-2014), a drama of family ties, brotherhood, loyalty, betrayal, and honor in an outlaw motorcycle gang that practically runs the (fictional) Central California desert town of Charming, grew from cult show to surprise hit for the FX network over the course of its seven season run.

It’s created by The Shield veteran Kurt Sutter and has a similar sensibility to that edgy cop drama. This one, however, is total outlaw culture. The Sons of Anarchy is a motorcycle club that practically runs the desert town of Charming, California in a mix of paternal protectiveness and criminal design.

Ron Perlman is club leader Clay, who has twisted the rebel philosophy of the original gang into a criminal enterprise of gun running and other illegal activities for profit. Charlie Hunnam is his heir apparent Jax Teller, son of the gang’s original leader and Clay’s son-in-law. Jax is a loyal lieutenant and a smart kid, but a chance discovery of his father’s memoirs leads him on a philosophical change of heart at the direction the club has taken what was once an idealistic rebellion against conformity. Which doesn’t sit well with his hell on wheels of a mom (a fierce Katey Sagal), who is now married to both Clay and his criminal enterprise. “That love’s going to kill me,” Clay mutters with a mix of adoration and resignation.

The series takes a sharp turn into Hamlet on wheels by the end of the season, but mostly it straddles the line between the idealism of men with a code that is their one and only guide and the selfishness of their lifestyle and the violence and damage they leave in their wake. These men are fiercely protective of their town, but part of that defense is a determination to keep it small and controllable, a home base where outside business is scared to enter and expansion is aggressively discouraged, by blackmail if necessary. “Time for a change,” agrees one grizzled, disillusioned veteran member by season end, disgusted with how the rebel philosophy of the original SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Originals) has soured since his time.

It’s also as much about Gemma’s journey as the ferocious den mother to this wolf pack. Jax’s hell on wheels of a mom is married to Clay (their marriage is one of the most loving and dedicated on TV) and devoted to Clay, Jax and the club. As Jax falls for Dr. Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff), a civilian from outside the biker culture, Gemma sees her a threat.

That tension is complicated in Season Two when a white supremacist gang (led by Adam Arkin, with Henry Rollins as his glowering muscle) moves in and declares war on the gang while they move into the legal (if still outlaw) porn business. Tara faces her own challenges trying to adjust to their outlaw code and the reality of their activities. On the one hand she’s put off by the violence and machismo and on the other is intoxicated by the rush of power she has as the girl of the gang’s deputy leader, which troubles her as much as it excites her. And Jax knows that Clay was behind a club assassination of an innocent man and becomes more confrontational at meetings, finally defying the king.

The club takes on the IRA and the FBI in Season Three when the infant son of the club’s heir apparent Jax is kidnapped by Irish gun runners. That’s no mean feat, even for a motorcycle mafia run by aging lion Clay and the fierce Gemma. When a cutthroat FBI agent (Ally Walker) more concerned with covering up her own disastrous missteps than solving cases gets tangled in everything, the choices they make to save the club look like they may tear it apart.

In Season Four, the club plunges into the narcotics trade, the one area they pledged to stay away from, and the violence this new trade attracts combined with the internal struggles for the soul of the club, tips the brotherhood into a brutal fight. Once it was all about family and commitment, but the codes are long forgotten in the volatility of this season.

Season Five elevates Jax to the head of the table as SAMCRO’s new president, where he tries to extricate the gang from the drug business (and the partners it his tied them to). Jimmy Smits joins the cast as a new SAMCRO business partner and Gemma’s new boyfriend, something Clay is clearly not happy with. By Season Six the Hamlet on Harleys took a turn into a biker Godfather with Jax getting slowly corrupted by the violence of his life.

By the time the final season roared out in the fall of 2014, the club had left enough victims in the wake of their criminal activities and territorial battles to fill a small graveyard. As likable as this scruffy but loyal brotherhood could be, it was hard to overlook the violence of their business, the bodies dropped in misguided acts of vengeance (either by impulse or spurred by the lies of betrayals or cover-ups), and the innocents killed in the crossfire.

Those reservations aside, I remained a fan of the show to the end if only for creator Kurt Sutter’s commitment to the whole twisted idea of brotherhood and the fantasy that they are the protectors of their town. The bad boy romance of their world is a façade, but Sutter sure knows how to work that fantasy into brutal, blood-soaked melodrama of retribution and redemption. The individual members of the club (at least those who survived to season seven) have all become distinctive, integral characters with their own issues—Tig (Kim Coates), utterly loyal but a wild card with insatiable passions; Bobby Elvis (Mark Boone Junior), the veteran gang consigliere, Chibs (Tommy Flanagan), the scarred Irish loyalist whose ties to the old country figure into the gang’s gun-running hustle; and Juice (Theo Rossi), the youngblood whose loyalties are put to the test.

Annabeth Gish joins the show for the Season Seven, the show’s final season, as the new sheriff of Charming, a veteran who understands that a certain amount of accommodation to the outlaw elements is necessary to keep things from blowing up on the streets. There are return visits from some familiar faces, notably Hal Holbrook as Gemma’s infirm father and Walton Goggins as Venus, a tough yet tender transsexual dominatrix with whom club hothead Tig falls in love in one of the most touching stories weaving through the series. And there are appearances by Marilyn Manson as a white supremacist taking care of business for the club in prison, Courtney Love as a pre-school teacher who tries to help Jax’s troubled son, and Glee‘s Lea Michelle as a truck stop waitress who befriends Gemma.

As far as the idea of justice is concerned, the show follows its own tunnel-vision code. These guys sell guns to California gangs and run a brothel and a pornography business (which, oddly enough, are managed by women and accommodating to the employees—you gotta love a socially progressive gangster) and routinely murder obstructions and threats, but Jax draws the line at drugs and the IRA pipeline that Clay established. In their world, that’s a moral stand, and while the show flirts with the collateral damage and unintended consequences of their business, it tends to overlook the bigger picture and ask up to look beyond the criminal code. The outlaw romance of their world is a façade but Sutter shapes that fantasy into a brutal, blood-soaked melodrama of retribution and redemption and delivers an operatic finish to the show. A few worthy characters even get happy endings.

The show ran on commercial cable, which meant that for all the sex and violence (and there is plenty of both), the show remained on this side of explicit in its imagery and language. The more explicit violence, sexuality, and foul language censored for cablecast, however, is intact in the disc releases and the streaming version of the series too, so in case the above description wasn’t enough of a hint, treat this as an R-rated production.

Rated TV-MA

Streams for a limited time on Hulu

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Sons of Anarchy: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]
Sons of Anarchy: The Complete Series [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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