The first episode of the final season for FX's biker drama Sons of Anarchy begins with a familiar scene: gang leader/hero Jackson "Jax" Teller brutalizing a man in jail, interspersed with images of his gang and family living life — including his mother caring for his sons — with a mournful tune playing in the background.
Airing on Tuesday, Sept. 9, it's a bracing way to bring viewers up to speed since the show's action-packed season finale last year. That's when Jax's wife was brutally beaten and stabbed to death in their home — by Jax's mother, in a crime that was covered up from everyone by another member of the gang.
But the opening is also a potent reminder of just how Sons of Anarchy has managed to become one of FX's highest-rated series. (The episode where Jax's wife was killed by Katey Sagal's Gemma Teller was the second-highest-rated episode of the show's history). FX reports that the sixth season averaged 5 million key viewers (age 18 to 49) — and 3.6 million of them are men.
Sons of Anarchy works, in part, because it's designed as a soap opera for guys, wrapping emotional stories of family love, betrayal, sacrifice, scandal and murder in a mix of high-adrenaline outlaw action.
For every scene with a shooting or beating — and there are a lot — there are also moments of misguided love, tangled loyalties, complicated friendships and deadly family politics.
"If Jax finds out, not only will he have lost a wife, he'll lose his mother," Gemma Teller tells Juice, the gang member who covered up her crime. "I'm the only thread holding this family together ... as selfish as it seems, keeping our truth away from him is the right thing to do."
Fans sometimes make a different comparison, likening Sons to Shakespeare. There's some truth to the analogy — especially when Ron Perlman played Clay Morrow, a guy who secretly had killed Jax's dad to marry his mom and take over running the gang. Back then, the show often felt like a Harley-fueled version of Hamlet.
Except Jax never wanted to kill himself, only those who stood in the way of taking care of himself, his family and his gang. Eventually, that list included Morrow, whom Jax killed last season.
Sons of Anarchy also humanizes characters often depicted as degenerate villains in other stories. The biker club sells guns to other dangerous gangs; their side businesses also include a porn video studio and brothels, but the show keeps viewers rooting for these characters by riding a fine line between outlaw and sleazebag. You almost never see them killing someone who isn't somehow involved in the criminal world or law enforcement.
It's a sometimes idealized vision of the outlaw life, where standup guys are judged by their loyalty to family and crew, absent some of the sordid realities in a life of crime.
These are also working-class guys. As I noted in 2011, FX has had a suite of high-quality shows that make antiheroes of working-class white guys in ways you don't see elsewhere in television, through programs including Justified, Louie and the long-gone, firefighter-focused black comedy Rescue Me.
The Sons crew members aren't driving big cars or living in nice suburban subdivisions; they're "average guys" who just happen to make a living selling guns, porn and prostitutes.
The show also has its own version of soap opera melodrama and unbelievable leaps of logic. Charlie Hunnam's Jax Teller has gotten away with more crimes than 10 guys on America's Most Wanted, and seeing him avoid suspicion in his wife's murder is yet another turn to stretch the bounds of logic.
Make no mistake: This is a story geared toward men, focused on fathers and sons, male bonding and loyalty, with an FX-level splash of violence and sexuality. The show's strongest female character, Gemma Teller, wound up killing Jax's wife Tara — the only other major strong, independent female character.
As this seventh season opens, Jax is more dangerous than ever, seeking revenge for the death of his wife by planning an elaborate scheme against the crime family he assumes murdered her.
Early in the show's run, tension in the series sprang from whether Jax would figure out that his mother and stepfather conspired to murder his father. Now, as the show spins out its last season — with guest stars like Marilyn Manson, Lea Michele, Courtney Love and Malcolm-Jamal Warner along for the ride — the question of whether he'll discover that his mother killed his only love hangs over everything.
Like many good soap operas, it all comes down to the good son and the bad parent — even when the story is laced with bullets and biker gangs.
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