Essentials: Sons of Anarchy

Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy is the FX network’s highest-rated show ever. If you watch it, you know why. A gritty, violent, story, it is filled with dark humor, complex characters and an epic over-all story arc that has viewers rooting for the bad guys. The story centers on Jax Teller, a man conflicted by his own desires, the counsel of his dead father via a discovered journal, and the manipulations of his powerful mother. That framework might sound familiar to some, at its core, SOA is Hamlet in leather.

The Sons are an outlaw motorcycle gang founded by Jax’s late father, John Teller, and a group of fellow Vietnam veterans who, after returning home, could not duplicate the camaraderie and brotherhood they had learned to depend upon at war. At first nothing more than a social club, over time the club has become a large gun-running operation in Northern California. The birth of his own son, and the discovery that the club’s illegal activity was not the vision his father had for the club, leave Jax questioning his path and the future of his family.

The brotherhood

The heavy material fits perfectly as a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s tale of the tortured Dane, Prince Hamlet. Lending credence to the classic framework are the performances. The entire cast is well-played making this band of criminals more than their surface persona. They are complex, caring, honorable if judged by their established morality, and we are intrigued. There is “Happy” with his homicidal tendencies, the tender-hearted “Juice”, “Opie” the conflicted family man and (my personal favorite) “Chibs” the man without family or country who remains the most loyal of all. They and the other members and friends of the club are a family we quickly learn to love.

The most important performances are given by the three leading actors. Cast to near perfection, each brings the gravitas and charisma needed to turn Shakespeare into modern drama.

Charlie Hunnam imbues in Jax the enigmatic character of the prince. He is confused, desperate and brilliant as he struggles to find his way. Each decision Jax makes is well-intentioned and is meant to extricate himself from the chaos around him, but somehow only serves to pull him deeper into the abyss.

Ron Pearlman plays Clay, the current king and husband to Jax’s mother. He is ruthless, driven and deadly. Pearlman presents him in terrifying believability, a nuanced portrayal that fans familiar with his sterling career will expect to see. He is the antagonist disguised as a leader, and we love to hate him.

Creator, Kurt Sutter, has admitted to developing the role of Gemma (Teller) Morrow, Jax’s manipulative mother, with only one actress in mind. The role is portrayed by Sutter’s real-life wife, Katey Sagal. The conniving, sometimes heartless, sometimes magnanimous, actions of Gemma are mesmerizing to watch. Sagal brings Gemma to life with such delicious ambiguity that viewers cannot help but be enthralled. Most gratifying for this talented, long-working actress must be the fact that this role surely erases forever her automatic identification as Peg Bundy.

Gemma and Clay

With an epic structure, a talented ensemble and lead actors capable of carrying the burden, this retelling of the famous tragedy is television at its best. Each episode is a cinematic gem, and as a fan of the show I am hesitant to cull out only a few “essentials”. But, while the shorter story arcs are compelling, and offer a host of gut-wrenching emotional moments and shining performances, it is the shadowy re-telling of the Hamlet theme that is most intriguing. And so for purposes of this list I have elected to focus on that story. These are the episodes that give us the most vital moments in the greater tragedy.

Season 1

Pilot (aired September 3, 2008) Recommending a pilot as an “essential episode” isn’t surprising. Where else can you get a “first look” at the characters? But, the best reason to watch this one is simply because it’s good television. It is a mini-movie, an action-packed hour of television that will leave you breathlessly anticipating the rest of this series. Most importantly, we see the love and support of this unusual, but dedicated family. The birth of Jax’s son and the events surrounding it quickly reveal there is no line Gemma won’t cross to protect her family. It reconnects Jax with his long-lost love, Dr. Tara Knowles and hints at the passion and temptation she represents for our hero. Most notable moment of this episode: Gemma’s confrontation with Jax over what it means to be a parent.

Fun Town (aired September 17, 2008) With this episode we begin to see that the Sons’ position in the town of Charming is more than criminal element. In Charming, the bad guys are the protectors and they take that duty seriously, as a good monarch should. That tradition works to their advantage when a leading citizen comes to Clay for help. He wants the Sons to find the man responsible for the rape of his teenage daughter and in asking for their brand of justice he places his power and influence at the club’s disposal—a decision that will have far-reaching consequences. This episode also introduces ATF Agent Kohn, a threat from Tara’s past, and an impetus for her to overcome her resistance to a reunion with Jax. Most notable moment: Gemma’s speech to the grieving mother of a raped child.

The Pull (aired October 22, 2008) By the time this episode unfolds viewers are eager for the result. Kohn clearly must be punished and his end is justified. The predictable result is the collapse of the walls Tara and Jax have placed between them. The prince now has every incentive to change his club or walk away. In addition, the club’s gun activity introduces them to Cam Hayes, an Irish rebel who will soon bring new torture to Jax and his family. Notable moment: Tara’s terrifying moments alone with Kohn.

Better Half (aired November 5, 2008) While Agent Kohn was no true threat to the club, ATF Agent Stahl is and in this episode it becomes clear just what she is willing to do to advance her investigation. Targeting the heart of the club she uses their devotion to family against them. Women and children, innocent of the illegal activity surrounding them, are her targets and she is relentless. Most notable moment: The malice-laced exchange between Gemma and Stahl as the agent rounds up yet another victim in her dirty game.

The Sleep of Babies (aired November 26, 2008) This penultimate episode of the first season has us witnessing the first true tragedy to this tale of the Sons. Stahl’s manipulations have bred paranoia in the most ruthless members of the club and prompt them to action. On what should be the joyous celebration of Jax’s son’s release from the hospital, Clay makes a terrible mistake and the first wedge grows between father and son. Most notable moment: Opie’s heartbreaking reaction and Stahl’s chilling response to what she has caused.

Season 2

Albification (aired September 8, 20009) Season two opens on the orchestration of a new deal between the Sons and their gun supplier, the True IRA. The tension between father and son over Clay’s previous action is at a breaking point and it is clear a power struggle is underway. We are also introduced to a new threat to the club, businessman, Ethan Zobelle (played by Adam Arkin), and his neo-Nazi muscle AJ Weston (the forever hardcore Henry Rollins). Zobelle is intent on ridding Charming of the SOA in objection to their connection to gangs of color. When Clay is not intimidated by their threats they abduct and rape Gemma telling her to carry a message back to the club to stop their arms sales. Notable moment: Good guy, Assistant Police Chief David Hale, refusing to cooperate with Zobelle and his hate group just to drive the Sons from his town.

Balm (aired November 10, 2009) Tensions between Jax and Clay reach a head and Jax decides to leave the club. Trying to interpret the words of his father has him feeling more desperate than ever and he acts to prevent the destruction of what he loves. Gemma tries to change his mind by admitting she knows of John’s journal and the advice Jax is reading from his dead father. He listens, but refuses to change his mind. His decision forces Gemma to reveal her rape and the animosity between Clay and Jax is instantly dissolved in the light of a united purpose. Notable moment: Gemma’s revelation of her secret to Jax and Clay.

Na Triobloidi (aired December 1, 2009) Zobelle’s manipulations come to a head and the club reacts with force. Vengeance however, takes a back seat when Stahl’s interference with the Irish backfires and baby Abel is threatened. Forced to choose between duty and family, Jax chooses family, but he can’t prevent what is already in motion. Notable moment(s): The shocking and horrible moment when Half-Sack meets his fate and Jax’s anguish as Abel is taken from his reach. 

Season 2 ends in heartbreak for Jax.

Season 3

SO (aired September 7, 2010) The chaos and destruction that has enveloped his club and family has Jax in a state of inertia. Fueled by fear and shock, his confusion is worse than ever and he cannot choose a direction. Notable moment: Clay’s ‘heavy is the head that wears the crown’ speech to Jax.

Bainne (aired November 16, 2010) This is possibly the most powerful episode of the entire series. What would you do to secure your child a better future? Would you do the unthinkable if it gave him something you want for him but can’t give? Abel’s abduction forces Jax to face the very real possibility of his son following in his own footsteps. Struggling to find his own path, his greatest fear is that he will subject his own son to the same steps. The moments spent following Abel’s would-be adoptive parents are poignant and heartbreaking. Jax’s decision is later made all the more painful when he realizes that hope for Abel has only placed the baby in greater jeopardy. Notable moment: Gemma threatening a ‘King Solomon’ solution when the nuns refuse to tell them where to find Abel.

NS (aired November 30, 2010) Season 3 ends in a breathtaking rush. Each of the major players has laid their own snares and backdoor plots and in a single day they all come to a final end. Nothing is as it seems and just when you think you have it figured out, it turns into something completely different. Notable moment(s): Stahl’s end, Chibs’ revenge and the Sons’ ride toward a prison sentence.

Jax’s love for his club conflicts with his love of Tara.










Season 4 

Putting every single episode of season 4 on this list would be justified. All fourteen episodes are filled with gripping moments. It is a heart-stopping ride from start to finish. Since, this is a list of essentials it had to be narrowed to that…the most essential. But, do yourself a favor. If you only watch one season in its entirety, make it this one.

Booster (aired September 13, 2011) With a second son and a promise to Tara, Jax’s ambiguity is now replaced with a determination to leave the club. Meanwhile Gemma has discovered a new avenue by which her dead husband could speak to their son, a new set of letters, and she alerts Clay to the danger. To ensure his escape from the club, Jax makes a reprehensible deal with Clay and new divisions form within the Sons’ kingdom.  Notable moment: New Sheriff, Roosevelt provides a very real demonstration of how he intends to play against the Sons.

Fruit of the Crows (aired October 18, 2011) Jax’s deal with Clay forces him further and further in a direction he never wanted to go.  Desperate to make his plan work, he upholds his alliance. The fallout from their choice is causing unrest inside the club and Clay faces open rebellion against his leadership.  Notable moment: Juice’s personal conflict leads him to an act of desperation.

Jax’s confrontation with Clay finally arrives.

To Be, Act 1 and 2 (aired November 29, 2011 and December 6, 2011) The title of this two-part season finale is no mistake. This is Shakespearean drama. Pulling out all the stops, Sutter embraces his framework and shows us just how closely he has mirrored the bard’s tale. In its original, Hamlet’s famous soliloquy is delivered as he becomes convinced his father’s death was murder at the hands of his now step-father. He faces the need for retribution and assumption of his place at the head of his kingdom. That moment is the same one Jax faces. This is the culmination of four seasons of turmoil, conniving and self-reflection. With Jax poised to leave the club for good, Gemma reveals to him the hidden truths, confirming the suspicions Jax read in his father’s letters, and encourages her son to take control. It is a powerful two hours and leaves us waiting for the start of season 5 with baited breath. Notable moment: Gemma’s soliloquy to Jax about his birthright and Clay’s treachery. It is an Emmy worthy performance.

And there you have it, my ‘essential’ list of SOA episodes. It’s completely subjective. I could have drafted an entirely different list by altering my criteria. I could have listed episodes with wonderfully dark, laugh out loud humor like “The Caregiver” which gives us a wonderfully cooky guest-appearance by Stephen King. I could have chosen episodes that let each cast member shine in their own unique way, like Chucky’s “head chili” in Family Recipe, or  Unser’s devotion to Gemma in Call of Duty. It could have happened in a long list of ways, with a wide variety of criteria, because ultimately SOA is great television. Leave a comment, share your favorites.

Essentials: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

One of the projects we have planned for this blog is a series (done by a number of different people) on the essential episodes of TV shows, both past and present. (What constitutes an essential episode will probably vary from person to person – fan favorites, their personal favorites, best character moments…the list is endless.)

For Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), I’m going with the episodes I believe necessary to understand the larger story being told. My favorite TV shows tend to be those that tell a long, involved story over several seasons through the mechanism of shorter arcs and individual episodes that are themselves a self-contained story. In theory, then, my ‘Essential’ episodes would be those that are key to understanding the big story.

But with Buffy, that leads to a different question, which is, ‘which big story?’ Is Buffy the story of a girl and her friends growing up? The story of a town being sacrificed for a greater good? The story of different individuals trying (with various degrees of success) to find redemption? The show is all of those things, and more. You could also do a list of episodes focused on the philosophy of good and evil expressed in the series, one looking at what the show has to say about romantic relationships, or even family dynamics.

I’m intrigued by all of those, but for the purpose of this list, I’m going with the first one – Buffy and her friends growing up – because that theme actually ties to all the others, though individual episodes from some of those stories won’t make this list. (The list also doesn’t include some of my favorite episodes. I’ll note a few of them at the end.)

  1. Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest – the two parter that introduces the setting (the town of Sunnydale) and the main players (aired March 3, 1997)
  2. Angel – Where we begin to get back story on Angel (April 14, 1997)
  3. Prophecy Girl – The S1 finale, where Buffy dies and is brought back to life (June 2, 1997)
  4. School Hard – Where we first meet Spike, and Buffy’s mom begins to realize there’s more going on in her house than the usual teen growing pains (September 29, 1997)
  5. Surprise/Innocence – Buffy has what is arguably the worst morning-after-first-sex experience ever, and we meet Angelus (January 19-20, 1998)
  6. Becoming (two part S2 finale): Life goes to Hell for Buffy, in every way possible (May 12 and May 19, 1998)
  7. Faith, Hope and Trick: Angel returns and we meet Faith. (October 13, 1998)
  8. The Wish: A turning point Buffy didn’t take (December 8, 1998)
  9. Helpless: Buffy and Giles part ways with the Watcher’s Council (January 19, 1999)
  10. Graduation Day (two part S3 finale): Buffy and the Scoobies defeat the Mayor and graduate from high school; Angel leaves for L.A. (May 18 and July 13, 1999)
  11. Primeval: Overcoming alienation caused by Spike, Buffy and the gang reunite to defeat Adam (May 16, 2000)
  12. No Place Like Home: We learn that Dawn is the Key and meet Glory (October 24, 2000)
  13. Fool for Love: We get Spike’s backstory and an explanation of the Slayer Death Wish (November 14, 2000)
  14. The Body: Buffy’s mom dies of natural causes, leaving her to care for Dawn (February 27, 2001)
  15. The Gift: Buffy sacrifices herself for Dawn and the world (May 22, 2001)
  16. Bargaining (two part beginning to S6): Buffy is resurrected again (October 2, 2001)
  17. Once More, with Feeling: Musical episode where secrets come out…including Buffy’s admission that she’d been in heaven (November 6, 2001)
  18. Smashed: Buffy begins a really dysfunctional relationship with Spike (November 20, 2001)
  19. As You Were: Buffy breaks things off with Spike (February 26, 2002)
  20. Seeing Red: Spike leaves on a soul quest; Tara dies – and Willow doesn’t respond well (May 7, 2002)
  21. Grave: Willow, still grieving for Tara, very nearly succeeds in ending the world (May 21, 2002)
  22. Selfless: Anya’s story, looking both backwards and forwards; Buffy decides even the Scoobies can be slain if they’re killing humans (October 22, 2002)
  23. Chosen: Angel arrives and gives Buffy an amulet meant for a champion with a soul; Buffy activates all the Potentials and the Hellmouth is closed when Spike uses the amulet, sacrificing himself in the process. (May 20, 2003)

Bonus feature: six episodes that I love that didn’t make the list: “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “Amends,” “Earshot,” “The Prom,” “Hush,” and “Pangs.”

Second Bonus feature: EW recently ran a  list of Joss Whedon’s favorite Buffy episodes.  As yet another bonus, the cable channel Logo is going to air all ten of them tomorrow (May 19)  starting at 10AM.  W00t! Buffy marathon!

Note: It’s freakin’ hard to pick essential episodes for this show. Pals Laffers and Readerjane contributed enormously to my final list.