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It Still Stings: The Quick Rise and Tragic Fall of Sons of Anarchy

Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:

The art of television is rarely perfect, especially over an extended period. But it doesn’t make it any easier to watch a good TV show lose itself in the middle of its second or third act. And because of the personal nature of most art—how we connect with it, what we get out of it—we often take it personally when something we love crumbles to dust before our eyes. It’s why, for many, the rise and fall of FX’s biker drama Sons of Anarchy remains a sore spot after all this time.

When the show first roared to life in the fall of 2008, The Sopranos had only ended a year before, while FX’s network-defining original about corrupt cops, The Shield, was preparing to sign off after an exceptional seven-season run. Over on AMC, Mad Men and Breaking Bad were still in their infancy but slowly gaining ground. No one needed another show about the lives and questionable actions of morally compromised white men. No one needed another show about an antihero. But it’s hard to deny the appeal that Sons of Anarchy held at the time.

Created by The Shield’s Kurt Sutter, the exhilarating series—which counted William Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a defining influence—promised an adrenaline-fueled adventure that, for one hour every week, would allow viewers to live out an escapist fantasy. It also pulled back the curtain on motorcycle clubs, a distinct subculture of American life that was likely a mystery to many who tuned in. While the vast majority of real clubs do not fall under the outlaw classification, the culture of brotherhood depicted is realistic. And those personal relationships made it easy to connect with and root for the men of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original (SAMCRO), even when they gave in to their base instincts or committed heinous crimes.

Told from the perspective of Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the crowned prince of SAMCRO, Sons of Anarchy was an action-packed thrill ride grounded by emotionally charged performances, strong interpersonal relationships, and ruminations on inherited trauma. The first season set the stage for an epic power struggle between Jax and his stepfather, club president Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), though it quickly became apparent that the true puppet master was his mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal). Shaped by the unforgiving, male-dominated environment in which she existed, Gemma rarely got her hands dirty—yet her fingerprints were all over many of the show’s most tragic moments.

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