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‘Sons of Anarchy’ Was a Criminally Underrated TV Show

In anticipation of its upcoming spinoff, ‘Mayans M.C.,’ an overdue appreciation of the FX motorcycle gang show which somehow failed to break our #100BestEps list

FX/Ringer illustration

Please know these things before reading further:

  1. Sons of Anarchy was a TV show that aired from 2008 to 2014.
  2. It was about a motorcycle gang (the Sons of Anarchy, as it were) that operated out of a fictional small town in California.
  3. The show pivoted around (and through) a lot of plot points during its seven-year run, but three main characters were generally at the center of everything: Clay Morrow, the exceptionally charming but ultimately ruthless, underhanded, and irredeemable president of the Sons of Anarchy; Jax Teller, the exceptionally handsome but ultimately ill-fated vice president of the Sons of Anarchy and the counterbalance to Clay’s borderless amorality; and Gemma Teller, wife to Clay, mother to Jax, and the matriarch who oversaw all things and all people.
  4. Clay is Jax’s stepfather.
  5. Clay and Jax spend nearly the entirety of their time on the show locked in a strategic (and sometimes literal) war with one another over the direction the leadership should steward the Sons. (Clay wanted lawless anarchy; Jax wanted a version of anarchy that was, at the very least, tethered to the idea of goodness).
  6. That’s about as much as I can tell you about the show without spoiling any of its best moments or parts, so if you’ve not seen it (and eventually intend to watch it), then stop reading this article right now.

Sons of Anarchy, which was sadly and unforgivably left off of The Ringer’s 100 Best TV Episodes of the Century list, was a very good TV show. Oftentimes, in fact, it was an excellent TV show. And occasionally—and this will sound like a lie or like an exaggeration but I promise you it is not—occasionally it was a transcendent TV show. It was smart, and it was funny, and it was gruesome, and it was auspicious, and it was inventive, and it was disgusting, and it was intricate, and it would every so often invite viewers to delight in all of those things at once alongside its characters, sometimes in ways that were so tense it felt like you couldn’t breathe and other times in ways that were so crushing it felt like the sun was never going to come up again.

But it feels like the show never got treated that way, and it feels like it isn’t remembered that way. And that’s dumb. And confusing.

Except I guess maybe it’s not confusing.

Because it’s very easy to look at the things that were happening in the Sons of Anarchy universe and decide that the whole thing was just too trashy or too wild to be taken seriously. (I’m always reminded, in these moments, of how one of the background characters in the show ended up having to wear prosthetic hands after he got his fingers cut off because he wouldn’t stop masturbating in front of people.) (By the way, the masturbating was a compulsion, not a sexual thing. It was a nervous tic, really.) (Or, dare I say, a nervous … prick.)

At any rate, I get that, and I understand why someone might feel that. It’s just that I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that a show automatically precludes itself from the Great Television Show conversations because it occasionally leans into its own silliness or because it makes an odd creative choice.

Because don’t try to tell me that Jax—with fire and fury packed so densely into his bones and cellular structure that he was always on the verge of bursting—wasn’t a wildly entertaining leading man. (I can hear him right this moment in my head grumbling, “Jeeeesus Christ” as he’s told about some new dilemma he’s going to have to deal with.) And don’t try to tell me that Katey Sagal wasn’t masterful as Gemma. (The scenes where she would peacock her feathers out to put someone in their place were always exhilarating, and that’s saying nothing of how she moved her way across the emotional spectrum from unflinchingly confident to entirely shattered without ever even showing a single seam.) And don’t try to tell me that Clay’s descent into the worst kind of evil wasn’t so believable that, near the end of his run, every time he turned up on screen you had to squint your way through it because you were certain that one of those times he was going to slither right out of your TV and into your living room. And don’t try to tell me that Maggie Siff wasn’t exactly perfect in her role as Tara Knowles, a good-hearted doctor who was pulled into Jax Teller’s world (and eventually destroyed by it).

And don’t try to tell me that the last few minutes of Season 3, when we find out that Jax masterminded a revenge plan as brilliant as any that has ever happened on TV, wasn’t breathtaking. (I will always remember the moment I realized what was happening as I watched it and shouting, “Holy fucking shit! He planned the whole thing!”) And don’t try to tell me that the fight scene between the Sons and the white supremacists wasn’t cathartic. And don’t try to tell me the way that they teased Donna’s death to the audience and then made you sit there and watch it happen wasn’t excruciating. And don’t try to tell me that Opie’s “I got this” scene wasn’t a hall-of-fame-level gut punch. And don’t try to tell me that Otto biting off his own tongue as a way to say he’d never talk to the cops wasn’t unbelievable television. And don’t try to tell me that watching Jax kill Tara’s stalker (AN ATF AGENT!) wasn’t a mouth-wide-open surprise. (THEY HAD SEX IN FRONT OF THE CORPSE IMMEDIATELY AFTER!)

And this is all just the top layer of stuff—there are so many more things that happen and so many more characters (Juice! Chibs! Tig! Bobby! Half-Sack! Agent Stahl! Unser! Jimmy O’Phelan! Venus Van Dam! Nero!), and big scenes (Jax outsmarting Pope! The Sons avenging Opie! Chibs getting his vengeance!), and philosophical reckonings (is the level of violence in Sons of Anarchy supposed to serve a larger point?! Are viewers supposed to try to reconcile the horrible things that happen to all the men, women, even children?!).

And listen: I don’t want to make this seem like I’m trying to argue that Sons of Anarchy is without its faults and hard-to-watch moments (because it definitely has those, particularly in the later seasons). And I definitely don’t want to make this seem like I’m trying to argue that Sons of Anarchy is on the same footing as, say, Breaking Bad or The Wire, because it’s definitely not that. But here’s the thing: That’s because there are only two total shows on that level: Breaking Bad and The Wire. That’s it. That’s all. Those are the two greatest dramas of all time. Literally no other show compares to them.

(Mad Men is the show I’m certain most people will take exception to being excluded from that top-level categorization. And that’s fine. But Mad Men is a good show to bring up when talking about Sons of Anarchy because they are as far apart stylistically and creatively as shows can get. You know what it’s like? If we turn this into a video game conversation, Sons of Anarchy is like NBA Jam; it’s based on a very clear and defined thing, but several pieces of it are exaggerated in the interest of entertainment. Mad Men, on the other hand—Mad Men is like the TV-show version of when you play Madden NFL 18 on Coach Mode. It can be fun, but only for people who think being extremely deliberate is the same thing as being extremely interesting. So it’s like you choose one of those things: You’re either a person who thinks that doing a flip-dunk from the 3-point line is interesting, or you’re a person who thinks it’s fun to click a button and then watch a computer control a digital football player into running for a 2-yard gain on second-and-6.)

Again, what I’m saying is Sons of Anarchy was very good, and oftentimes excellent, and occasionally transcendent. Let it live as that. It deserves to live as that.

Also: Mayans M.C., a Sons of Anarchy spinoff show, will premiere on FX on September 4. We should watch it.