Who thinks the final run of Sons of Anarchy is going to end with hearts and puppies for Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and SAMCRO? Even if this wasn’t the bodiless Internet, we can assume the amount of raised hands is minimal. And as it should be because from the start creator Kurt Sutter has crafted a biker tale so steeped in tragedy that, were he alive, Shakespeare would honor it with a slow clap.
The seventh and final season of the series returns on September 9 on FX, and if you aren’t among the returning fanbase, we present a cheat-sheet of Sons of Anarchy episodes that you can watch between now and the premiere so you can get to know the Teller clan, the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original (or SAMCRO), and have some semblance of what the hell is going on. (All six seasons of Sons of Anarchy are available on DVD, Bluray, Netflix and Amazon Prime.)
“Pilot” — Season 1, Episode 1
Any show that starts with two crows picking at a dead carcass isn’t interested in subtlety. Bless its attitude as the in-your-faceyness doesn’t let up as the pilot nicely sets up the hero, Jax Teller, his biker lady mom, Gemma (Katey Sagal), and Clay (Ron Perlman), his shady step-dad/president of SAMCRO. Thematically, the series begins the exploration of Jax’s increasing disillusionment with the violence of his club as he reads the words of his dead father, JT Teller. Adding to his angst is the return of first love, Tara (Maggie Siff), and the birth of his son, Abel. Violent, pulpy and sexy, it sets the table for what’s to come.
“The Revelator” — Season 1, Episode 13
The sins of the fathers are front and center in the first season finale for the series. The mistaken murder of Donna (Sprague Graydon) - SAMCRO member Opie Winston’s (Ryan Hurst) wife, by fellow member Tig (Kim Coates) in the prior episode - exposes the dark heart of Clay and the club. We’ve watched Jax’s season-long struggle with who he is and what the club is becoming, and its clear parallel to JT’s own struggle via his writings. Donna’s murder ends up calcifying Jax’s stance against Clay and sets up their decisive conflict that will fuel the. We all see where the story is going from this moment forward.
“Balm” — Season 2, Episode 10
In the beginning of season two, we meet the antagonists of the season: suited businessman Zobelle (Adam Arkin) and his thug toady, AJ Weston (Henry Rollins). They bring the League of American Nationalists into Charming to run SAMCRO out of town. They kidnap Gemma and have her violently raped, assuming it will break Clay and the club. Gemma keeps that assault mostly to herself until now and, with Clay and Jax at war, Gemma reveals it to rally the two around the common cause of revenge, saving the club. It’s the moment in which we see what Gemma is capable of, so don’t forget it.
“Dorylus” — Season 4, Episode 3
You know when you look back and can pinpoint the moment you made some bad decisions that will forever haunt you? This episode is all about those kinds of bad calls as Jax and Clay lead the SAMCRO vote that officially has them working with the cartel. MC member Juice (Theo Rossi) embarks on his epic and unexpected dark ark as he’s blackmailed by Roosevelt in regards to his black heritage which is a no-no in the club. And last but not least, JT’s letters from Ireland are finally discussed by a paranoid Gemma and an increasingly suspicious Tara. Just about everything bad that is going to roll downhill starts rolling here.
“Hands” — Season 4, Episode 10
The volatile but committed relationship between Clay and Gemma has been rotting for some time, but this episode is the beginning of their end. Their past sins start to overwhelm them and they come out in the ugliest way possible. But you need this episode to believe how they unravel further as the seasons progress. In the meantime, we get a glimpse at what life could be for Jax and Tara if they divorced themselves from the club. It’s a beautiful and bittersweet dream.
“Sovereign” — Season 5, Episode 1
Picking up where the season four finale left off with the literal image of Jax and Tara assuming the same position as Gemma and JT once did at the head of the SAMCRO table, the duo are now uneasy leaders of the club. Jax is immediately tested with the arrival of drug king pin Damon Pope (played with stylish ferocity by Harold Perrineau). Expecting retribution for the death of his daughter from Jax and SAMCRO, Pope enacts the most violent act the show has ever staged to that point (and that’s saying something) on Tig and his innocent daughter. Not for the faint of heart.
“Authority Vested” — Season 5, Episode 2
As Clay becomes persona no grata in the SAMCRO circle, this episode introduces a replacement mentor for Jax with Nero Padilla (Jimmy Smits). Despite being a pimp and an OG in the Byz Lats club, Nero’s the antithesis of Clay’s angry testosterone-infused leadership. Smits lays down his signature style of warm power and ignites some immediate chemistry with Segal. Meanwhile, Jax and Tara finally get hitched — even though we know their happiness will be fleeting.
“Laying Pipe” - Season 5, Episode 3
Get out your man tissues! This episode adds salt to the wound of “Sovereign” and lays out the stakes for the season. The deep bond between Opie and Jax comes full circle and the outcome changes Jax forever in the series. Opie’s sacrifice for the club and for Jax is one of the biggest emotional sucker punches that Sutter has executed in the entirety of the series and it makes a tremendous impact. From this moment on, Jax’s path becomes one of loss and it’s both captivating and utterly brutal watching him get stripped of the people who help him maintain his humanity.
“Aon Rud Persanta” — Season 6, Episode 11
The push and pull between Jax and Clay as alpha males, disparate SAMCRO presidents and men with morals (or the lack thereof) is one of core conflicts of the series. Clay’s machinations to keep his power while franticly squashing the secrets surrounding his part in JT’s death made the charming rogue a solid villain by the end of season four. From that moment on, Clay’s arc shifted to him trying to redeem himself in any way with Jax, Gemma and SAMCRO. This episode answers whether that is possible in a surprisingly restrained way.
“A Mother’s Work” - Season 6, Episode 13
Sutter plays out the painful estrangement of Jax and Tara through the entirety of this season as Jax’s inability to change the club finally motivates Tara to forcibly remove herself and her two boys from the chaos. Some fans accuse Tara of being disloyal, but if any of us lived in the maelstrom of violence surrounding the club, you’d hightail it out of Charming too. As Jax moves towards his climax and eventual resolution in season seven, we get a glimmer of hope — before the unimaginable plays out in the final moments to close the season.
Tara Bennett is a pop culture writer, author of Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show and the upcoming The Sons of Anarchy Official Collector’s Edition. She might be overly enthusiastic about xenomorphs and otters. Follow her at @taradbennett.