Influenced by Hamlet, Sons of Anarchy centered around a family (both blood-related and not) of grim reaper patch-wearing outlaw bikers in a club known as SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original), based in the fictional town of Charming, California. The show debuted on September 3, 2008 and, over the course of seven seasons, became FX’s top-rated drama.
Katey Sagal played the matriarch, Gemma, whose Harley-riding son Jax (Charlie Hunnam) is the "Hamlet" character; he’s caught between pleasing his mother and his stepfather, Clay (Ron Perlman), and honoring his dead father John, a founding member of SAMCRO.
SOA courted controversy because of its grizzly scenes of violence, everything from a tattoo being burned off to a character being forked to death. But the show’s creator, Kurt Sutter, explained: “For me, all that violence—because it’s not who I am and it’s not where I come from—it’s all fantasy. I might as well be writing about wizards and fairies,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.
Before creating SOA, Sutter had been a producer and writer on The Shield. Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield, recommended Sutter to producers Art and John Linson. They pitched Sutter a show about outlaw bikers and allowed him to build it from scratch. After 92 episodes of family drama (and multiple major character deaths), the show aired its final episode on December 9, 2014—though FX will premiere a spinoff, Mayans MC, this week. Here are 10 fascinating facts about the beloved biker drama.
1. KURT SUTTER WROTE THE PART OF GEMMA WITH KATEY SAGAL IN MIND.
Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter and Married... With Children star Katey Sagal married in 2004 and have since collaborated on several projects together. In an interview with NPR, Sagal said Sutter wrote the character of Gemma with her and their family dynamic in mind.
“If you asked him, what he would tell you probably is when he came into my life, I already had two children, and he’s their stepparent, and I was very protective of my children," Sagal said. "... He hadn’t been around that kind of energy quite so much, so I think that’s what was the springboard for Gemma. It was not so much the heinous things she does; it was that at her core, her motivation is her children, is her child. At any cost, she will protect him and her club.”
2. RON PERLMAN WASN’T THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY CLAY.
The original pilot featured Scott Glenn as Clay Morrow, president of SAMCRO. “The network decided that they weren’t getting what they were hoping to get and ... they loved the series enough [that] if they thought they found the right actor, they were willing to reshoot the pilot and restart the clock and green light the show for a whole first season, which is 13 episodes,” Perlman told NPR. The producers felt Glenn was too subtle and not dynamic enough. “So I understood going into it that, you know—that they were looking for a more operatic version of this guy,” Perlman said. “I happened to be free that week.”
Perlman auditioned for the show, unsure if he could play a character that lacked duality. “He has no feminine side whatsoever and I really didn’t know whether I could, whether I had the chops to pull it off,” Perlman told Collider.
3. TARA WAS “THE MORAL CENTER” OF THE SHOW.
With chatting with Entertainment Weekly, Maggie Siff—who played Dr. Tara Knowles—agreed that her character was "the moral center of the show" for part of its run. “I think Kurt used her as a window, through which the audience could experience the club and the life of the club,” she said. “You could see her loving these people in spite of herself, in spite of knowing better. I think she remained a moral center in that she continues to be one of the only in the world who experiences real emotional conflict around the violence and the difficulty and the pain of the life and wanting something better for her children.”
4. PEOPLE LOVED TO GIVE CHARLIE HUNNAM KNIVES.
On the show, Charlie Hunnam's character Jax carries around a Ka-Bar knife. Hunnam said knives were part of biker culture, and California allows people to carry them. “You’re allowed to carry a knife with a no longer than six-inch blade," Hunnam told GQ. "Still, six inches is a pretty big knife!”
That signature accessory became a popular gift from Hunnam's fans. “I have dozens of Ka-Bars that military guys have given me and I’ve been told that a couple of them ‘have been used.’ Which is a little bit ... grimy, you know? I’m not sure about the energy of that.”
5. SUTTER RAN INTO ISSUES WITH STANDARDS & PRACTICES.
Because FX forbade the use of the F-word, characters replaced it with “Jesus Christ.” “There was one season where they were, like, counting my ‘Jesus Christs’ because somebody on the Fox food chain thought it was so blasphemous,” Sutter told Entertainment Weekly.
John Landgraf, CEO of FX, took issue with some of Sutter's ideas, including the castration of a clown—Kurt wanted the visual, FX did not. “I totally acknowledge the need for violence,” Landgraf said. “It’s a violent world and a violent show. He’s portraying really tragic, dark consequences of violence. Kurt wants to show it in very graphic detail, and I want to leave more to the imagination.”
Sutter told GQ that all of the violence had to be organic, not gratuitous. “When we’re f***ing burning a tattoo with a blowtorch off a guy’s back, that is one of the most extreme decisions these guys may be making, but it’s real to the world,” he said. “I love being able to do things like that, and playing in worlds that allow me to do that.”
6. SAGAL WORRIED HER CHARACTER WOULD ALIENATE FANS.
[SPOILER ALERT] During the season six finale, Gemma unexpectedly murders Jax’s wife, Tara, using a carving fork. “When I first realized that Gemma was going to kill Tara, I had a moment like, oh s**t, man, nobody’s going to wanna see Gemma again. She’s killing beloved Tara!” Sagal told People. Fortunately, the death didn’t alienate fans like Sagal thought it would. “The very next day, I went to do an autograph session and people were showing up with forks for me to sign,” Sagal said. “And I thought, 'Oh, okay.'”
7. SUTTER LIKED THE IRONY OF MOTORCYCLE CULTURE.
Sutter, who rides motorcycles in real life, told The Verge that he'd always been "fascinated by the irony of motorcycle clubs. Because they say they’re all about 'ride free' and 'f*** the establishment.' But within the structure of these outlaw clubs, there are more rules and regulations than you or I have. They’re like little military units. And I love the irony of that."
Sutter further explained that the club represents the ideal of how Americans “take care of our own,” which is the theme of the show. “Yes, it’s about family, but it’s also about community and village and the organization you belong to … That’s part of the positive stereotype we represent as a nation—that sense of no matter how f**ked up or damaged these people are, and they are, there’s something wholly familial about them.”
8. STEPHEN KING WAS A MAJOR FAN, AND MADE A CAMEO.
Stephen King was a big fan of the show, writing in an Entertainment Weekly column that “it’s one of those shows that seems to have gotten better as it goes along.” Sutter contacted him and asked him to appear in an episode.
“He assured me that he’d write me a suitably nasty part (in various films I’ve been stuck playing a series of mentally challenged country bumpkins); most important of all, he said he’d put me on a bitchin’ Harley. How could I say no?” King wrote on his website. In the season three episode “Caregiver,” King played a cleaner named Bachman—a reference to Richard Bachman, a pen name King used to go by.
9. WALTON GOGGINS CONVINCED SUTTER TO LET HIM BE TRANSGENDER.
Sutter invited some former cast members from The Shield to cameo on Sons of Anarchy, but he was initially against having Walton Goggins appear. “It would be very hard for our audience to accept them as anybody else,” Goggins told Entertainment Weekly. “I called and said, ‘That’s bulls**t! Come on!’ And we went back and forth, like how would we do it? I wouldn’t want to do it as anything that would be compared to The Shield. And then I just said to Kurt, ‘I’ll do it if I can be a transgender. I would like to play a transgender.’ He said, ‘No, you wouldn’t.’ I said, ‘Oh yes, absolutely, I would. Let’s do it as a transgender.’”
For six episodes, between 2012 and 2014, Goggins played Venus Van Dam, a play on Goggins’s Shield alias Cletus Van Damme. At one point, Venus began a romance with SAMCRO member Tig (Kim Coates).
10. CHARLIE HUNNAM HAD A DIFFICULT TIME LETTING GO OF JAX.
Hunnam played Jax for eight years. When it came time to end the show, he said it was emotional for him to separate himself from the character. “I found myself going back to set a lot,” he told Glamour. “I knew the security guards and for a couple of days said, ‘Oh, I forgot something,’ so they’d let me onto the set, and I’d just walk around at night because I wanted to be in that environment and go through a personal process of saying goodbye. After a couple of nights I didn’t really need the alibi to get in, and then after a while I just said, ‘OK, enough, this is done.’”