Ten years ago, “Sons of Anarchy,” Kurt Sutter’s crime drama about a gun-running motorcycle gang in the fictional town of Charming, Calif., premiered on FX. Over the course of the seven-season run that followed, the show became the top-rated show on the cable network and developed a dedicated audience on social media before concluding in 2014.
Starring Ron Perlman as MC president Clay Morrow, and Charlie Hunnam as vice president and Clay’s stepson, the show offered up themes of brotherhood, redemption, and most of all, family. Loosely framed around the story of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the members of the motorcycle club clashed with rival MCs, forged uneasy alliances with other criminal outfits, they worked constantly to earn a living while staying one step ahead of the law.
Prior to “Sons,” Sutter was working on “The Shield” for the cabler, starting as a staff writer there but ultimately promoted to executive producer.
“My experience really was limited, in that I had only written for table,” says Sutter of the time he was developing “Sons.” “I hadn’t really done anything, nor have I really ever done anything, that was broadcast television. I was used to the creative landscape of that medium, and obviously working with FX.”
Sutter believes that his own creative growth was intertwined with the evolution of the show itself.
“The stuff that I learned on ‘Sons,’ the education of how to tell stories, was part of that mythology,” Sutter says. “It’s hard to look at it and go, ‘Oh, if I knew this, I would have done it this way,’ because the fact is I like to think that all that sort of unraveled as it was supposed to. And not just in terms of story, but in terms of where I was at and the creatives I surrounded myself with.”
When “The Shield” concluded its run in November 2008, the current era of peak TV was beginning to take hold. HBO series such as “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” had helped pave the way, while AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” were just starting to tell complex stories of their own. With these shows came a new, creator-driven market for television, and Sutter felt ready to tell the story of “Sons of Anarchy.”
“My opinion [of TV] was somewhat excited about it,” says Sutter.
After pitching the show to various networks, he opted to stay with FX “not because I had a comfort level, but because I really believed that they were the right world for it.”
His experience on “The Shield” helped him feel confident FX was the right place to “foster” the show, not only in the production stages but also marketing. “I really felt like their brand was the right fit,” he says. “To me, it was all of the variables in the right place.”
Knowing where the show would live was only one part of the equation, though.
“I knew from being on ‘The Shield,’ and having some experience in the financials of all of it, that after seven seasons the production model changes and reverts back. It becomes a much more expensive show to do and perhaps the economic feasibility of it somewhat goes away,” Sutter says.
Sutter admits he did not initially set out specifically with a seven-year plan, but he felt if he was “lucky enough to have a full run” of the story, that would be his “yardstick” by which to measure success.
Sutter did have a “general sense of how I wanted Jax to evolve and perhaps what the end game might be,” from the outset. Subsequently, he went into each season with a “blueprint” of what it should be.
“I learned that the looser my grip was on that, the better the show was. Meaning, most of the time I hit all those [individual characters’] mile markers, and I moved the mythology forward in the way I wanted to, but what creatively got me excited about the work was that I never knew how we were going to get there. I never knew what the stories were going to be. I didn’t know how the characters would evolve. I didn’t know which characters would become essential in the revealing of the mythology,” he says.
In order to flesh out those elements, Sutter relied on collaboration with his staff writers to help understand the world he was building.
“That all happened as a result of [sitting] down with five or six other talented writers and breaking story. That, to me, was the exciting part,” he says.
In that collaboration, Sutter admits he “let the story unravel as organically as possible.”
“Things didn’t happen in a vacuum, [there] was cause and effect to everything,” he says. “If I allowed all that to inform my writing, the story sort of guided itself because it became the thing. Like…because of that relationship and the thing that happened two seasons ago, and the maternal or fatherly instincts that character has now grown into, then that’s the choice that makes the most sense.”
Some of those stories involved the deaths of major characters, some of which were beloved by the audience and therefore a controversial decision t lose them. Sutter personally feels the most heartbreaking one was Opie, played by Ryan Hurst, who sacrificed his own life to save his clubmates in the season 5 episode “Laying Pipe.”
“I loved the actor and the character, but the road we had taken him down was so heavy,” Sutter says. “The amount of death and sense of betrayal, I just organically could not have that guy sit at the table with Clay. It just didn’t make sense.”
Sutter used the moment of killing off a venerated character to help invigorate the rest of the story moving forward.
“Really it was about, ‘All right, the evolution of the character has reached this point [so] how do I use that to move the mythology around? How do I use that to send my hero in a different direction — or on a collision course with X?’” he explains.
Another death that was difficult for Sutter to ultimately come to terms with was Gemma Teller-Morrow’s (Katey Sagal). She met her end at the hand of her son, Jax, in the series’ penultimate episode, “Red Rose.”
“At that point, the train was just off the tracks,” he recalls. “It was just this sense of ‘the reckoning has come.’”
Sutter admits her death was “really hard,” in part because so much was happening in the final few episodes of the series that “you didn’t really have time to process that death before the ultimate climax of the show.”
Looking back on “Sons of Anarchy’s” seven seasons overall, Sutter still exhibits pride in the world he created, which is continuing with spinoff “Mayans MC,” premiering 10 years and one day after “Sons” initially bowed.
But while Sutter isn’t looking at the strengths of “Sons” as guidelines for “Mayans,” nor as pressure for his new show to perform, he is applying storytelling lessons learned from the first show to the new one.
“We didn’t set out to create strong female characters. We didn’t set out to unravel the relationships the way we did. We just started telling organic stories,” Sutter says of “Sons.”
“I had to be aware of the fact going into ‘Mayans.’ … I have to trust that I tell stories the same way, organically, I let the stories evolve and the characters evolve as a result of that story, and therefore the ‘Mayans’ mythology will hopefully have its own things that stand out memorable.”