The most spectacularly violent moment on Sons of Anarchy all year has no bikes, no guns, not even blood – just a conversation between a boy and his mother. Jax, the blond baby-face biker-gang leader, is plotting revenge against his stepdad, Clay. So he sends matriarch Gemma as a honey trap to get the dirt on her estranged husband, slipping back into his bed until "the dirty secrets start to flow." He doesn't pull a gun on his mama; he doesn't have to. (She doesn't exactly have the leverage to complain, since she just got behind the wheel stoned and nearly killed Jax's kids.) It's pure black-leather Hamlet. And it sums up Sons of Anarchy: The emotional brutality is so horrific, the head-bashing almost comes as a relief.
After four already amazing years, Sons of Anarchy is going full-throttle and having its best, biggest, goriest and flashiest season ever. Kurt Sutter and the rest of the Sons creative crew have been showing off – revving the engines in the parking lot to make an attention-grabbing racket. This season has it all: drugs, bullets, transvestite hookers, banana vodka, killer snow globes, pussy salvation, even an ex-cast member getting killed in a real-life drug-crazed murder case. Plus Jimmy Smits as a pimp who prefers to be called a "companionator." And Peg Bundy beating the crap out of a hooker from High School Musical. (Take a bow, Ashley Tisdale!)
But as always, the power of SOA is the emotional conflict at the heart of the action, with the generational warfare between Charlie Hunnam's Jax, Ron Perlman's Clay and Katey Sagal's Gemma. It's all about the dirty secrets families share, and the ugly deals families make in order to stay together.
Clay originally founded the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club back in the Sixties, along with Jax's dad, after they returned home from Vietnam. They envisioned it as a hippie commune, with lofty ideals of living beyond the clutches of the Man. But the flower-child dream crashed and burned as the club turned into a criminal gang. So by the time Jax's generation came along to enjoy the California dream, there was nothing left for them. There's no romance of the road here, no euphoric strap-your-hands-'cross-my-engines ride. Instead, the Sons are trapped living out their father's worst nightmares. As the Replacements would say, they're sons of no one, bastards of young.
In the early days of Sons, Jax was a ringer for Kurt Cobain, with his dirty-blond hair and sad blue eyes. He should be strumming a guitar instead of handling AK-47s. But now that he's taken over the club from Clay, he's had to get more ruthless, yet he's still nowhere near as much of a hardass as the old man, who schemes to reclaim his throne. As one wiseguy cracks, "Suddenly the pretty guy they gave the gavel to, he ain't looking all that smart."
The tragic twist for Jax is that being a criminal mastermind is out of his skill set. He's too sentimental to be a professional-grade crook. He's living out the family curse his father left behind, the one he's already passed on to his young kids.
Americans have always loved the biker myth because it's about going places. They live out our fantasy of hitting the open road, raising hell, riding free. But these bikers never get anywhere. They hang around their hometown tangled up in their ugly family dramas. Their bikes might offer the constant promise of escape – but the blood in their veins keeps them trapped where they are. That's what makes Sons of Anarchy so sad and fascinating. These bikers have no time for anarchy – they're too busy being sons.
This story is from the November 22nd, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.