Sons of Anarchy is the kind of television drama that only comes along once in a lifetime. It is able to be timely without being sensational, poignant without being preachy, and always grounded in, an albeit gritty, reality that is both a cautionary tale and pretty aspirational. In that way, series creator Kurt Sutter considers the show a "morality play," focusing more on the characters' emotional reactions and alterations from big event catalysts than those big events themselves. What happens on the show matters, but not as much as how what happens affects everyone in its aftermath. Just how does he do it?
"I have a loose structure, a loose sort of blueprint I go in every season with, and with big mile markers, and I kind of have a sense of where I want to begin and where I want to end," Sutter said, giving most of the credit to his "great team" of writers that "really hang the meat" episode by episode.
"What I've learned over time is that the looser I hold on to those ideas, the better the seasons are...When I loosen my grip, and I sort of let the season kind of take on a life of its own, it's why I don't like to get too far ahead in terms of production and writing because I kind of like to sort of feel out where the first few episode are going and what's working and what's not working."
Being able but most importantly being willing to live in the moment with each season and adjust as he goes along, Sutter is then able to take on topics and stories that often reflect where the larger society than "just" the SAMCROs of the world are while still weaving more universal and classic themes in. Sutter shared that he doesn't tell stories just to be controversial, nor would he ever shy away from telling a story because it was a controversial one.
"[The show follows] fairly organic narratives, having our characters develop and each season get richer and deeper and more complex, having all our relationships continue to be real and grow and get more complex and that it stays on this trajectory to wherever it's going to end that, you know, continues to be real and organic to the path that we've been on. So at the end of the day, I just want it to be looked at as, you know, a solid TV show with great characters and really good storytelling," Sutter said.
And that is the path Sutter plans to stay on even while writing the final episodes of the series. He anticipates coming in with a "sense" of where it's going and where he wants it to end, but really he uses those as jumping off ideas that will then inspire even better ones. You don't air your first draft of a script, and you often don't even write a full script off your first idea. Instead, Sutter feels rigidness and narrow-minded-ness are the enemies of strong storytelling.
"I have an idea what the final shot [of the series] is," Sutter said. "If that's what it ends up being, that's what it will end up being. For me I need... that marker to sort of go towards, and then I'm led to the right place. But I do have a sense of what I want it to be. Whether or not it will be that, I'm not sure."
Of course it helps that FX gives Sutter more leeway than other networks might-- both with content, as well as season shape. He knows when the end he is writing towards will be, for one thing, which is sadly rare for many television writers. But he also knows that if he can't organically get to the end in that time frame, he can go back to FX and ask for more-- whether its "super-sized" episodes or an additional season ("Our characters get developed and our stories get thicker and our relationships get more complicated, these episodes just take longer and longer and longer to sort of unfold," Sutter admitted). There is a discussion process, a real partnership, that Sutter has accounted for in his writing Sons of Anarchy that changes the process, too.
Sons of Anarchy returns to FX on September 10 2013 at 10 p.m.