[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from the Season 6 premiere of Sons of Anarchy. Read at your own risk.]
Thanks to Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter's unfiltered Twitter persona, he has often been called controversial. But the Season 6 premiere of Sutter's FX drama has the potential to strike a considerably different nerve than his outspoken displeasure with the Emmy nominees.
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On Tuesday's premiere, while Jax (Charlie Hunnam) navigated the aftermath of framing Clay (Ron Perlman) and seeing his wife Tara (Maggie Siff) sent to prison, the episode followed a young boy through his day. As the episode drew to a close, the child removed a gun from his backpack, walked inside his school and began shooting as the camera panned over some disturbing imagery in the boy's journal.
Although Sutter says he's considered telling this story for several seasons, it's finally hitting the airwaves several months after 26 people, including 20 children, were killed in a school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Sutter insists that he's not trying to use the tragedy to grab eyeballs, but he also says he wasn't prepared to shy away from the sensitive subject matter either.
"When the shootings recently happened ... I thought, 'Am I just going to be swinging in the breeze if I tell this story?'" Sutter tells TVGuide.com. "But then I also felt like, 'I'm not going to not tell this story because I'm afraid that I'm going to get some blowback.' The best thing I could do as a storyteller was try to do it in the most organic way."
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Indeed, for five seasons the outlaw motorcycle club at the center of the show has made most of its money by trafficking illegal firearms. And because the gun used in the shooting ultimately leads back to SAMCRO, Jax & Co. will all have to wrestle with the consequences of their lifestyle. "We have a father who's deeply troubled with this sense of, 'Can I be an outlaw and still be a good father?'" Sutter says of Jax. "He's very concerned with where his kids are going to go and ultimately how they're going to be impacted by his lifestyle and the violence of all that. But he's also a guy who deals guns. So to me, quite frankly, how do you not tell that story?"
Even so, Sutter sought the approval of the network, to which he pitched the entire season before he began writing. "I was all for it," FX Networks CEO John Landgraf tells TVGuide.com. "If you're going to portray things, you should portray them honestly and fully, and you should be willing to confront the consequences of it. My only point of view, and fortunately Kurt shared it, was ... we just didn't want to see anything on-camera. ... It was understood from the get-go that he was going to find a way of portraying it that was respectful, that was non-explicit.
"I think it's vitally important that the creator and showrunner have ownership of their show," Landgraf continues. "Ownership means they need to be given a wide amount of latitude and discretion to tell the story that they want the way they want. Our default position is, 'Yes.' If and when we say no to something, it's only under the circumstance where we absolutely believe that what is being proposed is wrong or offensive or could be damaging to our brand. ... If Kurt had said, 'I want to see children being shot ... and I want to see dead children, we would have said no. Because there are very real victims of real tragedies who I think have the right to expect that not be put into their homes."
Even though both men saw eye-to-eye on how to handle the story, they each acknowledge there could be potential outrage. They just don't think it will come from people who actually watch the show. "I don't feel like it's a gratuitous, sensational story line," Sutter says. "I felt like it was filmed in a very artistic and obviously impactful way. People that understand what we do on the show, I think, will plug into that and will see that. The people who don't, they're going to take the shots that they're going to take."
Adds Landgraf: "I have no problem defending the way it's handled on-camera. I believe very strongly we did it the right way. I can't honestly worry about people who are going to take things out of context. I believe in context; that's why I'm in the business of telling stories. I don't believe everything can be reduced to a simple aphorism. I think things are complicated, and for people who do want to see the world in a very simple world of black and white, I respectfully recommend they not watch FX's programming because that's not what we do."
Sutter says it was also extremely important to him to not point fingers and place blame when it comes to this type of violence. "What I tried to do, in a non-preachy way, is layer in my point of view, which is that it isn't one thing," he says. "I put it in a Catholic school because I didn't want to make a statement about the public school system. I believe that it's about mental illness, which is why I layered that in. I believe it's about parent neglect, which is why I layered that in. I believe it's about the gun laws and illegal guns on the street. All those things contribute to that perfect storm. If I am making any kind of social statement here, it is the fact that it takes a village to heal a kid and it takes a village to f---ing kill a kid."
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But Sutter doesn't necessarily expect that this episode will re-ignite the political debate about gun control. "That's not what this show does," he says. "It's not my job. I'm a storyteller. It's not about making a statement. If it furthers [the debate] and brings more awareness and ultimately helps it, all that is great. But that's not my job."
It was that element of Sutter's approach that Landgraf also gravitated toward. "I think what's lacking in the debate in general is personal responsibility," he says. "What I applaud is that Kurt was willing to let his show and his characters take responsibility for these actions. This is a story about how our protagonists unwittingly but ultimately aid and abet a gun falling into the hands of a mentally and emotionally disturbed child and the horrific consequences of that failure."
And ultimately, that's why Sutter chose to tell this story now, as the show begins its penultimate season. "I couldn't do it in Season 3 or 4 or even 5 and then still have these guys actively engaged in the gun business for another two seasons," Sutter says. "I knew for it to be organic and real and ultimately about character, I'd have to use it as a catalyst that takes us into the final act of the series. The ramifications of it linger. I'm just finishing up writing Episode 10, and the reverberations are still being directly felt for Jax."
Sons of Anarchy airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on FX. What did you think of how the show handled the shooting?