With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
In a recent interview, series creator Kurt Sutter gently poked fun at his ambitions for his biker-club drama Sons Of Anarchy, which is about to air its series finale—the final beat of a seven-season crescendo of chaos, disorder, and brutal violence. Speaking on Anarchy Afterword, a Sons post-show, a self-deprecating Sutter referred to his “pretentious Hamlet archetype,” the loose concept for Sons’ overarching mythology. Early on, Sons followed the Hamlet template faithfully: Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam) is the backbone of Charming, California’s chapter of the Sons Of Anarchy, an outlaw biker gang. At the head of the club, known as SAMCRO—an acronym for Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original—is Clay Morrow (played by Ron Perlman). Morrow is also Jax’s stepfather, having married Jax’s mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal), and the pair are the likely suspects in the mysterious death of John Teller, Jax’s father.
Sons follows Jax as he struggles to reconcile John’s more peaceful, progressive vision for SAMCRO with the present realities of managing an a gang of outlaws that counts gun sales, drug distribution, and prostitution among its chief business interests. Sadly, Jax starts out believing there’s a way out of this life. He spends most of the series blind to the harsh truths around him, while the audience witnesses all of Clay and Gemma’s various manipulations, many of which include murder. But it’s one thing to know Jax’s path to redemption is hopelessly blocked with obstacles; it’s another thing to watch the slow, bruising process through which Jax gives up and lets his goodness slip away.
Sons has quickly grown beyond its Shakespearean silhouette, but the real issue was never that the Hamlet riff was pretentious; it’s that the Bard only had five acts to fill. Sutter had 13 episodes a year, necessitating a larger universe of characters and a far more circuitous route to the inevitable tragic end. But in the back half of its final season, Sons has started hitting the classic dramatic notes Sutter teased at for years. The show was never known for its consistency or its depth, but with those early hints of Hamlet, Sutter promised to march his tragic hero toward complete disintegration, and he nailed it, though it took some time to get there.
The following 10 episodes feature key moments in Jax’s tragic downfall and are among the heights of Sutter’s Shakespearean ambitions.
“The Sleep Of Babies” (season one, episode 12)
The earliest catalyst for Jackson’s tragic downfall isn’t a trauma he suffers; it’s one suffered by Opie (Ryan Hurst), the closest thing to a brother Jax has ever known. In “The Sleep Of Babies,” Opie’s wife, Donna (Sprague Grayden), is accidentally killed in a hit job intended for Opie, and one of Jax’s fundamental, grounding relationships goes with her. Never again does Opie command the authority to remind Jax of his goodness or to convince him they still have a chance to right SAMCRO’s course. At first, Jax isn’t perceptibly affected by the shift in his relationship with Opie, but their division widens as Jax burrows deeper into SAMCRO, while Opie straggles along out of habit and inertia. The list of Clay’s offenses against his stepson could fill volumes, but the hit on Donna remains the first and deepest cut because it cost Jax his best friend. At this point in the series, the mythology around John Teller’s mysterious death has barely started to coalesce, making the attempt on Opie’s life the first irreparable fracture in Jax’s relationship with Clay.
“Na Triobloidi” (season two, episode 13)
Revenge isn’t a corrosive act for Jax, it’s a cultural imperative. Slights against the club cannot go unanswered (though they can certainly be placed on hold if an important strategic relationship hinges on the proper care and maintenance of the status quo). So while season-two finale “Na Triobloidi” finds Jax in revenge mode, in pursuit of Ethan Zobelle (Adam Arkin) and the skinhead goons who raped Gemma, the most corrupting moment comes after Jax dispatches some of his foes, when his son Abel is kidnapped and taken to Ireland. Abel’s kidnapping is when Jax discovers he’ll never truly be able to keep his loved ones out of harm’s way. And given his instinctual grasp at retaliation, “Na Triobloidi” is where Jax’s downward spiral becomes inevitable. It’s the moment at which Jax finally begins to grasp the dangers inherent to his lifestyle and view vengeance as his only available recourse given his deep roots in the club and his reluctance to get out and stay out. The episode also leaves Zobelle in the wind, taunting Jax with a lack of closure to which he’s never been accustomed and infecting him with a bloodlust that can never be fully satisfied.
“With An X” (season four, episode six)
The world of SAMCRO is cruel, but often just. The people who create chaos and misery for others also expose themselves to it, so there’s often a rudimentary moral logic to Jax’s most revolting choices. “With An X” is the episode when Jax starts making truly indefensible choices. Ima, a SAMCRO groupie involved in the club’s porn business, winds up pulling a gun on Gemma and Tara after being discovered in an illicit tryst with a remarried Opie. Jax, who also had a fling with Ima, visits Ima’s dressing room and slams her face into a makeup station to let her know she’s not welcome around him, Opie, or the club. Jax commits horrific acts early and often in Sons, but typically in service of some pragmatic goal or to protect his family. Jax believes bloodying Ima’s face is arguably an extension of his role as protective husband and father, but it’s one of the first awful things Jax does that feels mostly gratuitous—he caps off the abuse by blowing a wad of phlegm into Ima’s face, an act so revolting even Jax is conflicted about it, and Hunnam plays that ambivalence beautifully.
“Laying Pipe” (season five, episode three)
By season five, Opie has long outgrown his narrative utility to Sons, but remains a symbol of a theoretically possible redemption for Jax and the club. While the audience is prepared for Opie’s demise, Jax certainly isn’t, and watching Opie get beaten to death in prison as a sacrifice for the club is the most pivotal point for Jax’s metamorphosis. Opie is the heart and soul of SAMCRO, a symbol of the loyalty, sacrifice, and brotherhood that make the club so alluring for the lost boys it attracts. But Opie reflects both the beautiful and the ugly sides of unwavering devotion to the club, and once Jax sees his best friend clobbered to death with a metal pipe (the episode title is among the show’s cruelest jokes), he’s never able to romanticize the club again. Kudos to Arkin, who directed the episode, and managed to make a nauseating moment out of a character death that felt necessary and overdue. Jax is devastated by the loss, but at this point, Clay still hasn’t been properly dealt with, allowing Jax to continue viewing Clay as the source of the evil that permeates every facet of SAMCRO.
“Ablation” (season five, episode eight)
Jax’s pragmatism condemns him as a person, but it acquits him as a leader. He distinguishes himself as president material early on by always having a novel, if icky solution to the club’s most pressing problems, a quality that takes an especially sinister tone in “Ablation.” Jax and Gemma’s relationship is dysfunctional and incestuous from its inception, but it’s never creepier than when Jax blackmails Gemma into seducing Clay to get proof of his crimes. Jax aims an arrow at Gemma’s softest spot, telling her manipulating Clay is the only way to work her way back into Jax’s good graces after her alcoholism endangers the grandchildren she loves so fiercely. Gemma doesn’t always make herself easy to empathize with, but given that she had already lost a child of her own, it’s easier to empathize with her in “Ablation.” She’s forced back into a romantic relationship with the man who beat her to a pulp, a scenario that would be horrific enough were it not her only son pulling the strings.
“Darthy” (season five, episode 12)
Jax’s chilling actions in the climax of “Darthy” aren’t without precedent because of “With An X,” when Jax makes clear there are no allowances for gender when dealing with threats to his family. It’s still heartbreaking to watch Jax shoot a newly clean and sober Wendy (Drea De Matteo) full of heroin to prevent her from gaining custody of Abel. What makes the scene even more disturbing than the act itself is the lead-up to it: Clay is spared the execution Jax so badly wanted for him, leaving Wendy, Abel’s mother, as the only threat he could neutralize himself, without bylaws, rules, or limitations. The righteous anger Jax feels for Clay is redirected at Wendy, who has her flaws, but is reasonable in having parental aspirations that don’t involve international kidnappings. Worse still, Jax was operating from Gemma’s playbook without even realizing it, forceably reprising Gemma’s use of heroin to hasten Wendy’s death in the pilot.
“Aon Rud Pearsanta” (season six, episode 11)
Jax’s execution of Clay in “Aon Rud Pearsanta” is a blessing and a curse. It’s a settling of scores years in the making, and Jax, results oriented as always, turns Clay’s reckoning into an opportunity to take out Galen O’Shay (Timothy V. Murphy), one of Jax’s most intransigent foes. But it would prove far less satisfying than Jax expected. Since the show’s earliest episodes, in which he gets embraces some hippie notions from reading his father’s manuscript, Jax has been aware of an institutional sickness within the club. Clay becomes emblematic of the decay instantly, given the discord in John and Clay’s relationship and Clay’s advocacy for the club’s involvement in the gun trade. Clay burnishes that image by being completely amoral and cutting a swath of destruction just to lay claim to a bundle of letters. It’s understandable why Jax would become convinced SAMCRO could rebound with Clay finally out of the picture. But the bitter aftertaste of killing the club’s biggest internal foe comes later, as Jax comes to grips with the hollowness of Clay’s death. Clay was a symbol of the SAMCRO curse, but not the cause of it.
“A Mother’s Work” (season six, episode 13)
The steepest slope in Jax’s decline follows the gruesome death of his wife Tara (Maggie Siff) at Gemma’s hand, the point where a theoretical someday in which Jax gets to live out his days with Tara and his children evaporates once and for all. Jax’s duty to protect his family grows more important to him as the possibility of doing so becomes more remote, so even while Jax has grown accustomed to tragedy, he’s superlatively devastated upon finding Tara forked on the kitchen floor at the end of “A Mother’s Work.” Jax isn’t gutted just because the love of his life has been murdered, but also because his delusion of being able to protect Tara grew stronger as the threats to her became more imminent. The even deeper tragedy is Jax finally gaining an understand of Opie’s grief and dissociation following Donna’s murder in season one, but only after Opie is already dead. After failing to protect Opie and Tara, Jax is officially lost to the dark side. Gemma’s only saving grace comes from Jax’s willful blindness about her potential involvement. Luckily for Gemma, Jax wasn’t ready to lose anyone else just yet.
“The Separation Of Crows” (season seven, episode eight)
It’s easy to forget when “The Separation Of Crows” begins that it’s going to address a piece of the SAMCRO mythology never before dealt with directly. The audience knows about the suspicious circumstances around the death of John Teller from SOA’s earliest episodes, but until “Crows,” Jax has been kept in the dark with little to no evidence to confirm his suspicions. Jury White (Michael Shamus Wiles) knows all too well what happened to John, having known the elder Teller since serving with him in Vietnam. But Jury doesn’t lay out the events as cleanly as Jax might have liked, suggesting that while Clay was responsible for tampering with John’s bike, John would not have unwittingly ridden the bike. He would have done so as an act of sacrifice, well aware it had been tampered with. It was an alternate history for which Jax was not prepared, and Jax’s rage paired with his suspicion of Jury leads him to kill a brother, further narrowing his path forward.
“Red Rose” (season seven, episode 12)
The Jax of “Red Rose” is practically killing for sport at this stage. At the very least, he’s killing in the same callous, indifferent manner in which Tara was killed. When Jax finally learns that Gemma killed his wife and catches up with her in Oregon, he finds out just how cruelly arbitrary Tara’s death was. “I barely remember what happened that night,” Gemma says. It’s fortunate for Jax he’s been out of redemption mode for months at this point, because at any other time it would have been impossible for him to shoot Unser (Dayton Callies), then Gemma, and comport himself calmly. But in “Red Rose,” he’s accepted his father’s death, Opie’s death, Tara’s death, and even his own, having admitted to killing Jury. Jax understands this is not a story from which the characters are supposed to walk away clean. There are karmic debts to be paid, for him as much as anyone else caught up in SAMCRO’s maelstrom. Sutter might not have hit all the Shakespearean beats he had in mind, but he nailed the tragic hero who accepts his fate.
And if you like those, here are 10 more: “The Revelator” (season one, episode 13), “Gilead” (season two, episode seven), “Bainne” (season three, episode 11), “Hands” (season four, episode 10), “Small World” (season five, episode six), “J’ai Obtenu Cette” (season five, episode 13), “Poenitentia” (season six, episode three), “John 8:32” (season six, episode nine), “Black Widower” (season seven, episode one), “Suits Of Woe” (season seven, episode 11)
Availability: Seasons one through six are available for streaming via Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime. Season seven is available for digital purchase.