NOTE: This article contains spoilers up to the current airing of “Sons of Anarchy.”
First things first: I don’t dislike “Sons of Anarchy.” Unlike some of my critical colleagues, I don’t hate-watch the show, hoping the SAMCRO crew all wind up dead in a ditch by the series’ end. When it goes dark in four short weeks, I want it to end on a high note, going down in history as one of the best final seasons in television history.
But I can’t. I just can’t. The mere act of typing this has me looking down at my Redwood Original onesie in shame, but there isn’t a comforting way to get behind where this show is going. Not when almost every episode pushes past the traditional hour-long mark, while nothing of substance is happening on-screen.
Let’s back up a bit, shall we? FX has long been known as a creative hub for television writers and producers who want to “break the mold” and create content outside the constraints of traditional networks. Thanks to John Landgraff and co. allowing showrunners to do their own thing, we’ve had groundbreaking programs like “The Shield” and “American Horror Story,” both of which invoked a whole new era of storytelling for the medium in their own rights. It’s hard to imagine any other network replicating the greatness that was the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo,” or bringing Elmore Leonard’s words to life with “Justified,” or remaking an Australian comedy in which a grown man believes his neighbor’s dog is actually a man in a dog suit (“Wilfred”). But FX did it.
However, while writing a TV series is hard — and I commend the people that pour their all into entertaining us on a weekly basis — as every writer knows, there are several golden rules to always follow. Show, don’t tell. Avoid clichés. Abolish exclamation points. Find a good editor who can rein you in. Maybe, when it comes to Kurt Sutter and the final season of “Sons of Anarchy,” it’s time to reexamine that last one.
Super-sized episodes aren’t a new thing. Many series have used them with great aplomb, giving fans a few extra minutes to process a crazed finale or setting up a season opener that needs to get through a ton of narrative. “Breaking Bad’s” final two episodes lingered a little longer as we bid farewell to Walter White, while the current season of “Homeland” kicked off with a two-hour event. Even network television gets into the game every once in a while, with a two-hour “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Law & Order: SVU.” That’s all fine and well.
Unrolling a 90-minute episode every week however, the way “Sons of Anarchy” has done lately, is not.
There’s the immediate problem of time. Most TV watchers have several series they like to tune into regularly, without seeing spoilers before they’re able to get around to that week’s episode. When it comes to a show that already airs at 10pm, people are going to be grumpy if their bedtimes keep getting postponed.
Then there’s the bigger issue, which is that by actually having too much story, you sacrifice the story itself. FX has allowed “Sons of Anarchy” to expand their episode lengths at what seems like an exponential rate ever since it became a “thing to do” in Season 5. This final seventh season has consisted of almost nothing but elongated narrative, gratuitous violence and general exposition that lends nothing to the story which viewers are expecting to see wrapped by Episode 13.
Rather than address the person the club is supposed to be avenging this year (Tara), we’ve spent extra time watching club members nap on bikes, relieve their bladders on trees or perform countless reps of naked pushups. Instead of moving along and pushing for fallout from the big reveal that everyone’s waiting for (Tara’s actual killer), we’ve been introduced to one-off characters that either don’t add anything worthwhile (Lea Michele’s waitress Gertie) or stretch the narrative as far as it can go. The entire situation with Marks’ dead priest, his junkie wife and their stepson comes to mind, as do the back-to-back episodes that ended the same way — with body parts being delivered to the club in a box. To make matter worse, when an important new storyline is revealed, such as the fallout from Jax killing a fellow Sons leader in a controversial argument, it’s relegated to a B story.
This season has been jam-packed with gun fights, gratuitous violence (severed fingers and gauged eyeballs, to start) and repetitive dialogue that each week has become a game of déjà vu. How many times has Nero pushed to leave? How many times has Chibs assured Jax that he’s “with” him? How many times has Gemma declared she’s doing something for the good of the family or club? These cliches have become so engrained that when we do finally see some storyline movement, the audience is so far ahead of the characters that we begin to discredit them. (Here’s looking at you and your sleuthing skills, Unser.)
We can keep the musical montages; those are a part of the show’s artistry and always have been. But when they come at the sacrifice of character development, audience closure or a twist that doesn’t involve a gratuitous kill, then sure—they could be eliminated every now and again. To be fair, there seem to have been less of them in Season 7 than in previous seasons — yet the episodes are still running long. Way too long. Delving into Ratboy’s love life with only five episodes left to go type-long. A sheriff and the club’s VP having weird sex in a parking garage type-long.
Potentially this is all part of Sutter’s greater plan, and everything will tie into the December 9 finale. Maybe, by the time we get there, all of the good stuff we’ve been waiting for will no longer feel rushed, and we’ll look back on these extended episodes with gratitude, thankful that we got to spend that little bit of extra time in Charming before it all ended forever. Or perhaps some editor will look at this paragraph and feel I’ve gone on too long, and have swayed from my original thesis by invoking my hopeful fandom for the show that once was. I suppose that’s up to them to decide though. After all, everyone needs an editor.