Spoilers for the series finale of Sons of Anarchy follow:
Did you know how Sons of Anarchy was going to end? If you’ve watched the show for any length of time, I bet you did. Maybe you didn’t know that Jax would arrange his exit from the club and from Charming, that he would die and that he would give himself up to death by crashing into a truck riven by Michael Chiklis’ Milo, a nod to Chiklis’ The Shield, which SoA creator Kurt Sutter once worked on. (See Melissa Locker’s recap for more details.)
But you knew it would end with a montage.
The montage would be long (around seven and a half minutes, scored to the original “Come Join the Murder” by house band The Forest Rangers). It would be mournful. It would intercut the series’ final actions with resolutions and goodbyes to cops and club members and family members, zipped up body bags and California landscapes, a presidential motorcade of police vehicles and a heavenly/hellish murder of crows flying an aerial salute to Jax before he raised his arms in a crucifixion pose and drifted into the path of Milo. (Who yelled, correctly, “Jesus!”)
If it was not a great ending, it was a fitting ending for Sons of Anarchy, which, for better and worse, was always an extended classic-rock song of a show. It was unedited and undisciplined, a colossal anthem taking up a whole vinyl album side, with cowbell and extended drum solos and a dozen guitarists lined up on stage to get a turn to riff over the coda. If it felt an emotion, it primal-screamed it. It threw in intrigues and complications like a jam band throwing in bridges and time changes. At its best it was “Sweet Child o’ Mine”; at its worst, “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
This was the reason I drifted out of the show’s lane over the last few seasons, though I was a fan early on. There was a strong story at the core of it: J.T.’s legacy, Jax’s conflicts with Gemma and Clay and the question of whether Jax could change the club and himself. But as the show sustained itself over seven seasons, that became buried under a vast amount of gang wars and investigations and bloody machinations with the Irish and the neo-Nazis and black and brown and yellow and for all I know purple.
As the show got more and more popular, the complications only multiplied. It became clear that Sons of Anarchy the show was not going to give up its violent entanglements any more than Jax was going to get SAMCRO the club to do so: too many people were too invested in keeping the mayhem going. And at the same time, the show took an approach to storytelling that was emblemized by those montages and its growing episode run times. It left everything in: to SoA, everything was important, but that undercut the sense that anything was particularly important.
For all that, there were moments in the last few episodes that still hit me, as a longtime viewer. Katey Sagal’s final moments in the garden as Gemma were genuinely affecting as she accepted, even invited, her fate. In the finale Jax’s recognition that his only hope for his kids was that they grow up hating him was a simple, powerful admission. Both characters’ ends returned to the show’s tragic theme: these people knew they couldn’t really change their fates or their selves. But it was also diluted by the long, long walk of goodbyes and tying up loose ends.
Sutter, of course, was not interested in making a show for people who wanted less, and I assume he made the maximalist finale he wanted. There was enough talent and thoughtful provocation in SoA‘s best moments that I’ll watch with interest what he does next. But I’m hoping it’s a little more punk rock.