When Kurt Sutter was writing for The Shield, he developed a reputation as being the groundbreaking cop drama’s resident sick soul, always arguing to push the limits of what basic cable would allow. Then, in 2008, the FX network debuted Sutter’s own series: Sons of Anarchy, a pulpy, Shakespearean saga about the criminal enterprises and family feuds of a small-town NorCal motorcycle club. Given the chance to make a TV show in his own image, Sutter served up a thick, raw, bloody cut of meat, seasoned liberally with the kind of “holy shit” moments that he’d brought to his previous gig.
Over the past six years, the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club: Redwood Original (a.k.a. SAMCRO) has wreaked havoc in and around the fictional Charming, California, engaging in high-body-count battles with law enforcement, racist gangs, rival clubs and themselves. All the while, bright young Jax Teller (played by Charlie Hunnam) has tried to follow the lead of the club’s founder — his late father — and disentangle the organization from all illegal businesses, over the objections of his Machiavellian mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal), and his stepfather, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman). Early on, Sutter compared his baby to Hamlet on two wheels, but as the series has played out, it’s moved beyond its origins to become a densely populated, corpse-strewn study of men and women steeped in a culture of violence. Even when these outlaws and mavericks try to live righteously, they end up murdering a few dozen people first.
Tomorrow night, FX will air “Papa’s Goods” — the 92nd and final Sons of Anarchy episode. In recognition of what Sutter has built up (and blown up), we present 20 of the show’s most memorable moments. Some of these are gory and violent, some of these were jaw-dropping and shocking, and some were quieter and more contemplative — an aspect that Sutter and his cast have handled just as gracefully as the big set pieces on this souped-up he-man soap opera, if far less often. But all of them remind us of why we’ll miss riding with Jax and Co. every week.
(Warning: For those not fully caught up on the show, there are many, many spoilers to follow. Proceed with caution.)
20. Gemma Exposes Tara’s Tattoo
Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
The very first Sons of Anarchy trots out most of the drama’s most important players — including Tara Knowles (Mad Men’s Maggie Siff), an old high school girlfriend of Jax’s who’d rejected the biker life and recently returned to Charming to work in the pediatric ward of the local hospital. Ever the club’s house mother, Gemma tends to takes every real and imagined rejection of the Sons as a personal attack. So when the two of them run into each other, Jax’s mom lifts up the back of the doctor’s shirt, exposing Tara’s biker tattoo to remind the young woman of who she used to be. Here, in one brief moment, is the introduction of one of SOA’s big themes: Some scars and stains are permanent.
19. Severed Head in the Chili
Season 4, Episode 8: “Family Recipe”
You’d think a biker-gang melodrama wouldn’t be loaded with comic relief, but SOA was often a very funny show — especially when Sutter would skew towards the unapologetically lurid. The character Chucky Marstein first appears in Season One as a compulsive masturbator; he later has his fingers amputated by a disgusted mob boss. When he ends up working for SAMCRO, Chucky becomes part mascot and part jack-of-all-trades, willing to do whatever it takes to help the club — even if that means hiding a severed head from the cops by dunking it into the pot of chili he’s making for a charity fundraiser. Delicious.
18. Clay Neuters a Rapist
Season 1, Episode 3: “Fun Town”
Sutter tended to bring a big jolt of his Shield-tested “that’s so wrong” to the series from the very beginning, and the third episode of the show sees SAMCRO hunting the man who raped local rancher Elliot Oswald’s 13-year-old daughter. When he finds the perpetrator, Clay orders Oswald to cut off the rapist’s testicles. When the rancher balks, the biker does the job himself, while keeping the rancher’s fingerprints on the knife for future blackmail purposes. Because in Charming, every good deed comes with more strings than a grand piano.
17. June Kills Her Partner
Season 3, Episode 12: “June Wedding”
One of the show’s early villians, June Stahl was an ATF agent who vacillated between tearing SAMCRO apart and working with Jax to cover her own ass. Agent Stahl’s indifference to any moral code, however, reached its peak when she murdered her own partner Amy Tyler — who also happened to be her lover — in order to set up the Sons to go to prison. Stahl gets killed herself one episode later, as part of what turns out to have been a nifty long con executed by Jax and Clay. But the show had already sent a clear message: There are no real heroes in Charming, only different shades of ornery.
16. Wendy’s Heroin Shot
Season 5, Episode 12: “Darthy”
Jax’s first wife and the mother of his first child Abel, Wendy Teller (played by The Sopranos all-star Drea de Matteo) is a meth addict who disappears for a few seasons. When she eventually returns, she’s cleaned up and keen to re-enter her son’s life, working to get the boy away from Jax and Gemma. But her ex keeps Wendy in check by injecting her with heroin, saying he’s going to contact the authorities to demand she be drug-tested unless she backs off. The show’s fifth season was where it really began to crank up its depravity, and Jax’s cruelty toward his former spouse stood out as one of grimmer plot twists.
15. Sex Next to a Corpse
Season 1, Episode 8: “The Pull”
Throughout the first half of Season One, Tara’s intention was to steer clear of Jax and concentrate on her work. Enter John Kohn (The Shield’s Jay Karnes), who’s both an ATF agent gunning for the Sons and Tara’s creepy ex-boyfriend. Kohn’s investigation gets him chased out of town, but he later comes back to sexually assault his former flame; he gets non-fatally injured by her in return. The doctor calls her old beau to clean up the mess, and after Jax finishes off the d-bag with a headshot, the two resume their teenage love affair — right there, in Tara’s house, with a bloody Kohn still crumpled on the floor.
14. Tara Fakes a Miscarriage
Season 6, Episode 7: “Sweet and Vaded”
Jax and Tara only get back together because of his promises to set the Sons on a new course and then get out. But she’s unsure of whether they will ever be free of the club, so the good doctor decides to take matters into her own hands. One big step in Tara’s plan: She fakes a pregnancy, and then uses a blood-bag to fake a miscarriage, blaming Gemma for the assault that caused her to lose her “baby.” It’s a shrewd bit of business, though not shrewd enough to avoid a date with destiny that involves the manipulative matriarch.
13. Tig Kills Donna
Season 1, Episode 12: “The Sleep of Babies”
The original sin that sets much of Sons of Anarchy in motion happens before the series begins, when Clay sabotages John “J.T.” Teller’s motorcycle, killing Jax’s father and necessitating a decades-long cover-up. But the crime that defines the show’s first few years happens at the end of Season One, when Clay is led to believe that reluctant club member Opie has become a confidential informant for the ATF. So Tig is ordered to kill Opie; instead, he mistakenly shoots Opie’s wife, Donna. The resulting attempt to throw the fellow Sons off the scent tears the club apart over the next few seasons, while the killing itself lets viewers know that the show was willing to play rough.
12. Burned Alive
Season 5, Episode 1: “Sovereign”
Alexander “Tig” Trager (Kim Coates) was one of SOA’s darkest and most complicated characters — a fiercely loyal, ice-cold enforcer who’s also funny, surprisingly compassionate and inclined toward tragic blunders. In Season Four, Tig accidentally ran over the daughter of powerful Oakland mob boss Damon Pope (Harold Perrineau). To retaliate, the criminal kingpin has Tig chained up in a rail-yard, where he’s forced to watch as Pope sets his daughter on fire.
11. Bobby’s Return
Season 6, Episode 6: “Salvage”
In Season Six, the Sons were more scattered than ever, with rivals and cops encroaching from every side. But their outlook brightened briefly when Jax reconnects with one of the club’s old guard, Bobby Munson (Mark Boone Junior). It was presumed that the disillusioned member was recruiting people for a splinter charter; it turns out that Bobby was only finding replacements for some of SAMCRO’s fallen members. Sons of Anarchy’s early seasons lived and died by the sense of camaraderie between this band of brothers, which faded as the series wore on. But Bobby’s return brought a lot of that old warmth back — for one week, at least.
10. Jax Pledges to ‘Go Nomad’
Season 2, Episode 9: “Fa Guan”
Some of the show’s best scenes happen at “the table,” where SAMCRO officers gather to debate, vote on and enforce their arcane, unbreakable rules of order. Unlike later seasons, where disputes are easily (too easily) settled with gunplay, the tension in Season Two ratcheted up every time Jax makes a passive-aggressive move against Clay at the table, persuading the club to rule against their president’s plans. The legislative stand-off culminated in Jax quitting the club — a decision that requires a vote, since no one just gets to leave the club with no consequences. The public rebuke of our hero’s legacy felt as vicious as an execution.
9. Jax Shoots Clay
Season 6, Episode 11: “John 8:32”
As soon as Jax uncovered the full extent of what Clay had done to keep SAMCRO in the gun-running business, the old boss’ days were numbered. The problem for Sutter as a show-runner was that the president of the club was such a strong character, and Ron Perlman such a charismatic actor, that Sons of Anarchy was bound to lose some spark once Clay was gone. By the time Jax finally killed him toward the end of Season Six, SAMCRO’s co-founder had been disgraced, humiliated and was a shadow of his former self. His shooting was practically a mercy killing — but no less satisfying for being long overdue.
8. Goodbye, Tara
Season 6, Episode 13: “A Mother’s Work”
For all the organizations that have jostled with SAMCRO — the Mayans, the Nordics, the Triads, the IRA, the ATF — the real conflict has always been between Jax, who wants a better life for himself and his family, and his mother Gemma, who won’t let him leave. At the end of Season Six, the club’s leader decides to do jail time in exchange for the federal government leaving the group alone. But Gemma assumed her daughter-in-law was about to spill secrets to the feds, and just when it looked like everything’s going to be OK, Mom stabbed Tara in the head repeatedly with a barbecue fork. You could practically hear the sound of people yelling “What the fuck just happened?!?” from Bakersfield to Bangor.
7. Gemma Goes Home
Season 3, Episode 1: “So”
Gemma was on the lam and hiding out from the cops at the end of the second season, but after she’s heard her mother has passed, she risks capture to visit her Alzheimer’s-stricken father (played by Hal Holbrook). Gemma is painted throughout SOA as a proud, defiant woman. When back in her dad’s house, however, she’s anything but a tough, take-no-shit motorcycle mama. The woman who strikes fear in the hearts of Feds and bikers alike is just a frightened kid again, in a place she doesn’t want to be, with a parent who barely recognizes her. The show’s resident Mom-monster has become humanized.
6. Otto Borrows a Crucifix
Season 5, Episode 10: “Crucifixed”
Kurt Sutter had cast himself occasionally on the show as Otto Delaney, a club member and rough customer who serves SAMCRO’s interests inside the state prison. Pressured by the U.S. attorney’s office to rat, Otto concocts a bizarre plan. He asks Tara to bring his late wife Luann’s old crucifix into the prison, and then uses it to murder a nurse. The killing temporarily keeps Otto from having to snitch, but it also gets Tara in trouble with the law, putting Jax in a precarious position.
5. Otto Bites Off His Own Tongue
Season 5, Episode 13: “J’ai Obetenu Cette”
The great Donal Logue pops up at the end of Season Five as disgraced U.S. marshal Lee Toric, the brother of the nurse Otto killed. Toric promises to force the blind prisoner to testify, but Otto defies him — by chewing his own tongue off. Whenever Kurt Sutter’s character showed up, you assumed something memorably disgusting was bound to happen. This, however, still ranks as one of the grossest scenes in the frequently stomach-turning show.
4. Opie’s Sacrifice
Season 5, Episode 3: “Laying Pipe”
In the pilot, Jax convinced his best friend Harry “Opie” Winston (Ryan Hurst) to come back to the club, despite the fact that the latter had spent five years in prison thanks to SAMCRO. When Jax, Opie and Tig end up in prison together, mob boss Damon Pope demands that one of them fight to the death against his men. Opie steps up — and takes a lead pipe to the back of his skull. Many of the show’s characters have gone to that great biker hang-out in the sky, but the death of this fan favorite still hurts the most.
3. Juice Shoots Miles
Season 4, Episode 6: “With an X”
Because SOA regularly kills off its cast, nearly every minor Son has been a given a chance at his own plot arc. But none moved as dramatically from the margins to the center as Juan Carlos “Juice” Ortiz (Theo Rossi). In the fourth season, Charming’s sheriff threatened to tell the club that Juice’s father is black — a violation of SAMCRO rules — unless he gathered incriminating evidence. When new member Eric Miles caught the older biker stealing cocaine, Juice shot the kid and pinned the theft on him. From that moment on, one of the show’s sweetest, most likable characters became one of the series’ most tragic figures.
2. Tig Reassures Venus
Season 7, Episode 10: “Faith and Despondency”
The transsexual prostitute Venus Van Dam (Walton Goggins, FX MVP and veteran of The Shield and Justified) was introduced as a one-off comic character in Season Five — and immediately caught Tig’s eye. Then, in the middle of one of Sons of Anarchy’s more violent stretches in Season Seven, Sutter slows the action down. Venus admitted that she’s in love with Tig; even though he’s from a culture that would never understand what he’s doing with Venus, he confessed that he’s willing to keep their relationship going. While SAMCRO pays lip-service to the values of brotherhood and freedom, its members are still bound by conventions and obligations that prevent them from ever truly being themselves. This scene, however, transcends all of that. It’s the most tender moment of the entire series.
1. Burning for You
Season 1, Episode 5: “Giving Back”
Remember the pilot, when Gemma pointed to Tara’s tattoo as a sign that she’s SAMCRO for life? And then there was the third episode, when Clay cut off a man’s testicles? This one combined torture and tattoos, clarifying that this show was going to follow Sutter’s gruesome vision as far as FX would let it. When disgraced former member Kyle Hobart returns to Charming, the club was annoyed that he didn’t follow custom and black out his Sons ink. So they gave him a choice: “Fire or knife?” Kyle picked fire, at which point Tig put a blowtorch to Kyle’s back. For the next six years, Sutter & Co. would continue to show just how painful and difficult it was to leave SAMCRO behind. You’re in it all the way or you’re out for life.