Kurt Sutter had a famously acrimonious relationship with critics. If you didn’t like what he was doing in Sons of Anarchy, he would rip you a new one (and he’s really, really good at that). Some of the critics were “names”, so Sutter named them, with Alan Sepinwall in particular coming in for some vehement dismissals. But Sutter also liked to rant against the nameless people like me who wrote about his show on blogs or other similar web sites.
I didn’t exactly take this personally … Kurt Sutter doesn’t know who I am. And his ranting was often profanely funny. But it got tiring, and I quit reading it.
Having seen the conclusion of Sons of Anarchy, I think I finally understand why Sutter obsessed so over critics. He knew the kind of show he wanted to make, and he proceeded to make it. If people didn’t like it, that was one thing. But if people had issues over the direction of the show, people who had liked it from the start and wondered what had happened, well, Sutter had no time for those people. It wasn’t the job of the critic or the blogger to tell Kurt Sutter how to run his own show. We might say that this scene or that episode wasn’t good, we might explain why we thought that, but Sutter didn’t think we had the right to question his show.
Sometime during the endless finale of Sons of Anarchy, I got Sutter’s point. He never made Sons of Anarchy to impress critics. He made it to impress himself, and was lucky enough to be working for a network that encouraged him because he brought home good ratings. People like me spent the last five seasons thinking that Sutter was failing the promise of SOA, but in Sutter’s eyes, he wasn’t failing at all, because he was always making the show he wanted to make. I might have thought that the things I didn’t like were missteps by Sutter, but in fact, “missteps” isn’t the right word, because it implies Sutter ended up in a place he didn’t want to be. He always went in the direction of his desires for his show.
This worked for most of his audience. I’m not just in the minority in the larger sense, I’m in the minority in my own family.
I don’t want to overdo my complaints. Looking back, I see I didn’t feel that strongly about the first season … I gave it a B … but in retrospect, I underrated that opening season. Season Two was easily the best the show gave us, prompting me to hand out an A grade. Then a B+ for Season Three, a bump to A- for Season Four and Season Five, then a B+ for Season Six. There were lesser seasons, but I never quit watching, always handed out at least a B+. Any series that makes it through six seasons without stinking deserves praise.
For whatever reason, though, Season Seven felt like it was in a rut, full of repetitions of things that had happened before. Maybe it just lasted a bit too long, became too familiar, so that those repetitions became less enjoyable and more annoying. Take those stupid end-of-episode montages. They were always there … we made fun of them for years … but this season, I just got pissed, especially in the penultimate episode, which should have ended with Gemma’s final bow, but instead ended with Yet Another Montage.
I once wrote an essay on House (check it out in House Unauthorized), a good show that relied excessively on formula. House used the end-of-episode montage on a regular basis, and I argued that this insulted the audience, by telling us what we already knew, as if we hadn’t the sense to understand it in the first place. Sutter’s use of these montages wasn’t quite as insulting; he used them not to reiterate, but to give a thoughtful fade-out to an episode. But they were rarely the best thing about any episode, and their predictability meant I giggled inappropriately more often than not. And Season Seven, being the culmination of all the episodes, made me giggle cumulatively, as each montage piled onto the ones that came before.
Then there was the central character, Jax. I thought Charlie Hunnam was OK … his slippery accent didn’t bother me, and he had some fine moments over the years. And in the early seasons, Jax as a character was interesting. But in Season Seven, Jax fell into full anti-hero mode, which was fine except he wasn’t a very good anti-hero. Week after week, Jax would come up with a plan to save the club. Usually, he’d do this on his own, just telling his club brothers after the plan had already been decided, and his brothers would always pass over any misgivings, assuring Jax that they were with him 100%. And week after week, Jax’ plans would fail miserably. People died, the club didn’t escape danger. Basically, Jax was the worst president of a motorcycle club in history. Yet come the next episode, Jax would have a new plan, his brothers would stand behind him, and more people died and the club did not thrive and things got worse. This set up the finale, where Jax finally cleaned up most of the existing problems, which might seem impressive, except most of those problems were of his own making because he was such a shitty club president. (It occurs to me … and I don’t think Sutter did this on purpose … but the Season Seven Jax, doing what he thought best regardless of what others might say, is a metaphor for how Sutter treated his show.)
Speaking of metaphors, the whole Jesus thing at the end was overdone and ridiculous, and seemed to come out of nowhere. Sutter happily played along with the “this is like Hamlet” angle during the series, and it was fun, partly because it was there if we wanted to find it, but it was always under the surface. Closing the show with a quote from Shakespeare, though … that was one of those “the audience is stupid, I’ll make it obvious for them” moves.
And I can’t let this finish without mentioning the CGI work as Jax-as-Jesus met up headlong with Vic Mackey’s truck. I can’t find the citation now, but at least one person compared that last shot of Jax with Sharknado.
It’s time to say some nice things about a show I often enjoyed over the course of seven seasons. Season Two was as good as television gets. Katey Sagal did work of the highest quality throughout. Some of the characters were memorable (I’d mention Opie, and who doesn’t love the Tig/Venus romance?). When time was taken for us to get to know a character deeply, their demise was emotional. And I’m not going to lie … no matter how formulaic it was, I always liked a good shootout.
Against that, there were the silly plot shenanigans … best/worst was the Season Four shocker where some characters turned out to be CIA agents … and the way Sutter, always willing to kill off an important character, still kept Clay alive for far too long. But I was saying nice things.
In retrospect, I’d raise that Season One grade, and lower everything from Season Three on. If someone down the road decides to binge watch, I’d recommend Season One for context, Season Two for excellence, and then go find another show. For one season, I thought this was a great show. But ultimately, I don’t think it ever lived up to that season. Grade for Season Seven: B. Grade for series: B+.