When surveying the wealth of dark, serialized dramas that have flooded the television landscape over the past decade, two distinct patterns of narrative approach start to emerge. On the one hand, you have shows like Mad Men, which choose to increase the level of menace within their narrative atmosphere slowly, over time, season to season, until what was initially only a fleeting sense of doom permeates the very air the characters breathe. On the other hand, there’s shows like Sons of Anarchy, where the sense of inevitable collapse looms large from the very first frame – an already thick fog that only grows thicker and heavier the further the series moves along. Both approaches are effective in their own ways, but the former undoubtedly has the advantage when it comes to the structural nature of a television series. More specifically, the structural element that is simultaneously television’s greatest gift and its harshest curse: longevity.
Mad Men’s writing staff has handled the unavoidable sprawl of their storytelling format well – choosing to increase the darkness of Mad Men’s tone and the intensity of its urgency bit by bit as the story has progressed, always mindful of the fact that the narrative must sustain and build on itself over the course of multiple seasons crafted over a number of years. Sons of Anarchy, however, must constantly grapple with a sizable roadblock it almost immediately set up for itself: how do you continue to expand on a story that’s been defined by rapid collapse since its very first chapter? It’s one thing to present a narrative world and have it slowly come apart at the seams over the course of five to seven seasons – it’s a whole other challenge to begin a narrative in the midst of that world already violently falling apart, only to have to continue exploring it for an indeterminate amount of time.
Had the show’s writers stayed true to the narrative, Sons of Anarchy would have concluded after 26 episodes. After the death of Donna, the club would have fallen apart, loyalties would have been severed, and many would have died as a direct result of the damage Clay caused the club. The show built its narrative around themes of loyalty, family, and fellowship – the club at the show’s center found survival in them. And then, in the final moments of the show’s first season, all of those things were irrevocably broken. Sons of Anarchy is, after all, much like its brethren: a story of collapse, of apocalypse, of inevitable end.
Of course, Sons of Anarchy is also a television show, and, naturally, the show had to go on. And when it did, the problem with the series’ accelerated storytelling methodology reared its ugly head. There was no solution to the problem of longevity, and as a consequence, the world that had been rapidly spiraling out of control suddenly had to be pieced back together. With the show’s tension and its darkness already at its peak, the show’s writing staff were forced to backpedal, despite every element of the story demanding the opposite. This resulted in many story threads that promised profound payoffs having muted ones, or none at all. Sons of Anarchy became a show of distractions, detours, and delays. Five seasons later, there is still little to no indication of where this story is headed or if it’s headed anywhere at all. “Authority Vested” is not a bad installment of the series. In fact, neither was last week’s premiere. The problem with Sons of Anarchy’s fifth season does not reside within the content of the episodes themselves, but instead, within the show’s bigger picture. While the individual seasons move forward as thrillingly and as masterfully as any other critical success currently on the air, the series itself is at a standstill – treading water where it once tore through it.
This article was first posted on September 20, 2012