When I wrote a long essay early this year about the increasingly, luridly graphic violence in TV drama, I knew that one of the best people to talk to about it would be Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter. Sutter uses violence lavishly, and–he said as much in the interview–he’s not above using it to be a “provocateur,” to wake the audience up and get attention. But he also thinks a lot about why he uses it, why it’s important to a given story, and what it does to characters in the long-term. In his words:
When you don’t have that sense of responsibility and when you don’t look at the actions of your characters–What’s the reaction to those actions? What are the consequences? Who do they impact emotionally, physically, spiritually, whatever you want to – however you want to look at it. That’s, I think, when it gets sort of exploitative. That’s when it then just sort of crosses into violence for violence’s sake and then I think you get into glamorizing the violence and the shooting and all that stuff – when there is no consequence for that stuff.
The season 6 premiere last night was definitely an example of Sons using violence as a shocker; it could also, let’s hope, be an example of Sons showing that violence has consequences that can’t be avoided or forgotten. There were not one but two rape scenes; there was a drowning; and most horrifyingly after the events of the last year, there was the closing school shooting, which felt like territory that even Sons had not entered before.
[Arguable spoilers related to the coming episodes follow--I've seen two more--so be warned.] When Sons is at its best, it’s a show with a memory; it earns its bloody moments and doesn’t let them be forgotten. (Even Tig’s murder of the pornographer recalls the graphic burning of one of his daughters last year, as the sleazeball unwittingly recalls it by taunting, “Oh, Daddy, Daddy, that hurts.”)
Here, both the rape-porn storyline and the school shooting underscore the idea, repeated in Sons, that one you start crossing moral lines, you can’t control the repercussions, even when you tell yourself that there are worse bad guys than you. It wasn’t SAMCRO shooting up those classrooms or brutalizing porn actresses, but they’re not that far removed from either enterprise. You can tell yourself that you’re one of the nice pornographers, but you’re still working on a continuum that ends up with rape on camera. You can deal in guns and tell yourself it’s just business, but you’re still feeding a flood of guns that don’t kill only bad guys. (Talking about the episode at the TCA press tour, Sutter confirmed what the premiere episode hinted at, namely, that SAMCRO would end up entangled in the fallout from the shooting.)
You can’t, to borrow a line from SoA’s 1920s cousin in bloodshed Boardwalk Empire, be half a gangster, no matter how often you tell yourself you are. Jax has spent five seasons trying to find a way to change SAMCRO, to tame its worst impulses, but it increasingly looks like SAMCRO has changed him.
So was the shooting exploitative? Because SoA plays a long game, it depends on how well and unflinchingly it looks at the tragedy’s consequences, whether it’s something more than one more problem for Jax to deal with. Sutter has said that this episode marks the show’s gearing up for its final act (season 7 is expected to be the last, though it’s not official), so I’m hoping this climactic horror gets treated as the last “Straw”–see the episode’s title–that it seems to be.
And I hope it’s not just another plot twist to be one-upped by even bigger shockers. It would be a missed opportunity if, after a few weeks of horror at this scene, SoA moves on and forgets–even if the real world sometimes does just that.