Forget House of Cards. Forget Game of Thrones. There’s one show out in recent years which eclipses them all in terms of brutality and intrigue. Sons of Anarchy.
A show about American bikers sounds like the last thing an up and coming novelist should be talking about. It might be brutal, but shouldn’t you be re-reading Tolstoy? Well in his own way I think Kurt Sutter has created something to rival Tolstoy, Shakespeare and even, dare I say it, Homer himself.
Sutter has an incredibly complex mind which makes watching Sons of Anarchy like listening to a great opera. He knows how to create and interweave the various strands of his plots. He knows when to delay things, and when to actually resolve them. My biggest problem with many TV shows is that they hook you with all these interesting but unresolved plot points from the beginning then just find excuses to not resolve them till they’ve made enough money out of you. Sutter does have his longer plot arcs like Jax’s inner quest to be like or transcend his father, but he still does resolve most of his plot strands in what feels like an appropriate time. I would argue the end of Season 3 is one of the best resolutions I’ve seen or read in anything created by the modern world. Game of Thrones might have the intrigue but I’d say we haven’t yet had similar moments of utter resolution to give us a complete sense of satisfaction. What Sutter does is actually resolve things in a brilliant way then goes on to create new strands, and bring in those few still unresolved, to make new and compelling stories rather than just dragging old ones out. It is a confident genius at work, rather than people with a few clever ideas they’re afraid to let go of.
But there are more things to a story than just plot, I hear you say. Yes, I know that. Sutter knows that too. His characters are complex yet believable; the sort of people you half want to hate and half can’t help but love. But I’d say he goes even further. I’d argue he understands the fundamental building blocks of our psyche, the archetypes. It’s not enough to “resolve” a plot strand. You need to know how to resolve it and why. You need to know when to make your hero suffer and when to reward them. You need to know when the villains get punished (and even who they actually are, and why). Sutter knows how to make you turn on a character you previously liked, how to redeem someone you previously hated, and how to recognise when, although you still can’t help but like them, your favourite characters get what they deserve. Maybe this sounds like it’s still about plot but it’s really not. Playing with the archetypes affects how we perceive the characters in the story, how the plot will resolve and what messages get taught along the way. They fundamentally underpin everything and Sutter, in my opinion, has mastered them. That’s why his work is so powerful.
But what about the violence? I accept that. There’s a lot of violence in Sons of Anarchy. I’d like to say there’s no needless violence, but there is. Yet paradoxically, even with the needless violence, I think Sutter is making a point. I said before that Conn Iggulden captures the grit and glory of war better than anyone else since Homer. I think Sutter takes that to the next level and looks at violence itself. Sutter forces you to ask questions like, when is violence ok? and is it ever justified?. Even if you end up deciding it’s still inherently destructive to yourself and those around you, he considers the powerful moments when people consider using violence. He considers the paradox of people doing some of the most terrible things imaginable but for reasons like camaraderie, loyalty, self-sacrifice and love not only for those dear to you but for society at large. But even at these times, I would argue, he questions whether such things justify the violence done. I think he is simply trying to ask a lot of questions, and seems to ultimately come down rather sceptically on whether such violence can be ultimately beneficial. He is a very nuanced and questioning man, and perhaps that’s part of why he’s such a great story teller.
Are you still sticking to Tolstoy? Still condemning what entertains the masses? I think every writer should consider not just the classics but also what’s popular at the moment as well—in all mediums. It’s not just about being commercial (though that is a factor), it’s about having the humility to acknowledge that there’s something in this (whatever “this” is) which has captured the heart of the masses. It’s about acknowledging that the “masses” are just the collective sum of real people and that something so popular has touched a lot of people for one reason or another, and it’s probably worth figuring out what that reason is.