Warning: contains spoilers for Sons Of Anarchy season 1-7
Let’s get this out of the way now: yes, there are going to be lots of things left off this list. Kurt Sutter’s biker melodrama ran for seven seasons, and pretty much every episode contained at least one jaw-dropping plot revelation and three stomach-churning scenes of extreme violence. A complex story of love, loyalty, and criminal activity, Sons Of Anarchy is one of the most relentlessly extreme shows ever aired, and it never saw a boundary it didn’t want to plough its way straight through at high speed.
So narrowing down its most shocking moments to just 20 is a tall order. But now it’s over and we’ve had time to process the final episode’s characteristically bombastic ending, it feels like it’s worth saluting the show by remembering the times it made us gasp, shriek, or hide behind our fingers:
(Another warning: in case it wasn’t obvious, the descriptions and images below might be kind of distressing!)
20. Bobby loses an eye
Greensleeves, season 7 episode 7
Being in an outlaw biker gang is dangerous business, and Sons Of Anarchy never shied away from punishing its core cast members. But there were a few Sons who seemed like they’d make it to the final episode more or less unscathed, and Bobby ‘Elvis’ Munson was one of them. When he got snatched by the ruthless August Marks, you’d be forgiven for thinking the club would make sure they got him back whole. Then Marks sent them a parcel containing Bobby’s gouged out eye.
That first parcel was followed by a box of fingers, and Bobby finally met his end at Marks’s hand, but that first delivery was by far the most harrowing. Marks even sent the Sons a shiny new iPad so they could watch a video of his henchman scooping out the aforementioned eyeball with a grapefruit spoon.
19. Tig shoots Donna
The Sleep Of Babies, season 1 episode 12
Tig does an awful lot of reprehensible things over the course of the show, but he is at least unswervingly loyal to the club. (Whether or not that’s a desirable trait is an argument for another time.) So it’s his conscience, ironically, that causes this tragedy. Having been ordered to kill fellow Son Opie by then-president Clay, Tig struggles to carry out the hit, and can only bring himself to shoot at Opie’s truck from a distance.
Unfortunately, his shoot-first-look-later strategy backfires massively, because Opie and Donna had swapped cars, and she took the bullet that was intended for her husband. Cue more lies, more misunderstandings, and plenty more blood.
18. The Diosa massacre
Poor Little Lambs, season 7 episode 4
The first half of Sons Of Anarchy season 7 is almost painful to watch, because as viewers we’re just waiting for the characters to find out something we already know. It takes forever, and Jax misguidedly starts a war with, well, pretty much every other gang and criminal organisation he can find in the process. There’s a lot of senseless violence along the way, all of which could’ve been avoided, but maybe the most upsetting bit is when the Triads target the Sons’ most legitimate business enterprise, killing all of the escorts at Diosa as payback for the Sons’ betrayal.
It’s devastating, especially because Kim Dickens’s Colette is among the victims. An awful lot of Deadwood alumni seem to end up on this show, and it’s always nice to see them, so it’s a shame she didn’t last longer.
17. Jax kills Tara’s stalker
The Pull, season 1 episode 8
Throw a stone in Charming and you’ll hit seventeen corrupt law enforcement officers. One of the show’s first baddies is ATF agent Josh Kohn, Tara’s creepy ex. His attempts to win her back became more and more violent, culminating in a scene where he breaks into her house at night to try to rape her.
There’s a happy ending, though: Tara shoots him in the gut, Jax puts a bullet through his brain, and the two of them comfort one another by having sex. With his corpse still in the room. That’s how you know it’s true love, right?
16. Hale bites the dust
SO, season 3 episode 1
Speaking of Charming law enforcement, the town did at least get one half-decent sheriff in the form of Deputy David Hale. Squeaky clean and sane, Hale represented a very real threat to the Sons in their criminal activities, because he couldn’t be bought off and, not being a total psycho like many of their other foes, was actually clever enough to figure out what they were up to and how to stop them.
So of course he had to get killed off. Not, interestingly enough, by the Sons, or even really in the line of duty; he was at the wake of a murdered Son when rival biker gang the Calaveras rocked up and ran him over. Never a quiet moment on this show, eh.
15. Clay hits Gemma
Hands, season 4 episode 10
At the beginning of Sons Of Anarchy, Clay and Gemma are the king and queen of the MC. They’re well matched, as far as we can see, and though they’re both pretty ruthless, they seem to really love one another. But as time goes on, the cracks start to show. Tenderness is replaced with mistrust, and at the end of season 4, with Clay making plans to take out Tara, things reach a head. Gemma confronts him about his plans, and the two of them get into a fight that ends with him savagely punching her in the face. We always knew Clay was scary, but this particular display of brutality is seriously shocking.
14. Jax kills Gemma
Red Rose, season 7 episode 12
This moment would’ve been higher on the list, but honestly, by the time it happened, was anyone surprised? Gemma did a lot of awful things in her time, and though Red Rose was an episode all about seeing the person she was underneath all that evil, by that point, there was no going back. She was going to die, and it was going to be at Jax’s hand. Even she was ready for it.
It’s still hard to watch Jax pull the trigger, though. His body count might be higher than most actual wars by now, but killing your mother is a very different proposition, and the show wrung every last drop of misery out of their confrontation. Ouch.
13. Jax kills Clay
Aon Rud Pearsanta, season 6 episode 11
Ah, speaking of characters whose time had come (and Jax’s body count) the episode where former SAMCRO pres Clay takes a bullet is another shocker. Again, not because you couldn’t see his death coming; Clay had survived far longer than he ever should have, even through multiple murder attempts by members of his own gang. By this point in the story, all he was ever really doing was lurking evilly in the background. But his death was still a blow.
Turns out Jax had only been biding his time until Clay was more use dead than alive, and killing Clay got him off the hook with the Irish Kings. So he got a bullet in the neck, and the show gained a gaping hole where Ron Perlman used to be.
12. Abel self-harms
Faith And Despondency, season 7 episode 10
As the very title of the show makes clear, Sons Of Anarchy is about family – specifically, fathers and sons. It’s about legacy, and whether children can ever really escape the shadow of their parents. Jax’s two sons are too young, for most of the show, to ever really be characters in their own right, but they serve as motivation for Jax to try to change his life, to offer them a world that doesn’t revolve around drugs and guns.
So when, late in the final season, Abel shows signs of being severely disturbed, it’s a massive slap in the face. It’s not surprising, exactly, given the environment Abel’s grown up in, but the very idea of a five-year-old deliberately carving up his arm is a chilling one.
11. The clubhouse explodes
The Mad King, season 6 episode 5
The Teller-Morrow garage serves as a home base for the Sons throughout the first six and a bit seasons, and the show spends so much time there that it’s familiar to us, too. It’s where the Sons and their associated hangers-on go when there’s trouble, when they need to hide out, when they want to socialise, and, presumably, where they go when they need to get their brakes serviced. TM is practically a character in its own right. So it’s heart-breaking when it gets blown up by the Irish.
It could’ve been worse, of course. If the guy dropping off the explosives hadn’t left behind a jaunty shamrock-printed pen, Jax might not have realised what was going on in time to evacuate, and then the show would’ve come to an abrupt end as the entire club and everyone they loved got blown to smithereens.
10. The school shooting
Straw, season 6 episode 1
Sons Of Anarchy doesn’t really do subtle. It’s all about big, flashy, over-the-top dramatics. But there was one occasion when it held back – to devastating effect. At the beginning of season 6, just as Jax is preparing to get the club out of guns once and for all, a bullied kid at a Catholic school gets hold of one of the guns the MC has been illegally distributing, and shoots up his classmates.
For once, the camera doesn’t follow the action; we’re left in the school playground, outside the window when the screams and gunshots ring out. It’s one of the show’s most powerful, gut-wrenching moments, one of the few times the show makes it absolutely clear that the club is having a deeply toxic effect on the world around it.
9. Tig falls for Venus
Faith And Despondency, season 7 episode 10
This moment wasn’t shocking in the same way the other moments in this list were. It was shocking because it showed that even now, nearly seven whole seasons into a story where pretty much everyone was indelibly scarred by their crimes, it was still possible to find some tenderness.
When transgender prostitute Venus Van Dam was first introduced back in season 5, it seemed like she was just there as a one-off bit of outrageousness. And considering how hypermasculine this show is, that might not have been out of character. But Sons Of Anarchy brought Venus back, over and over again. Her relationship with Tig let both of them grow, and the scene where they both confess their love was the most honest we’ve ever seen him.
It’s bizarre that you can find sympathy for a psychotic murderer just because he says he’s in love, but hey, that’s Sons Of Anarchy for you. Kudos to Kim Coates and Walton Goggins for this episode, they played the hell out of it.
8. Gemma drives off the road
Toad’s Wild Ride, season 5 episode 7
No responsible parent should ever leave their child in the care of Gemma Teller-Morrow. For one thing, she never stops smoking, and she’s scary when she gets angry. For all her talk about how much she loves her grandchildren and how important family is to her, she’s often pretty lazy about actually taking care of them. And this episode saw her put Jax’s children in real danger. After trying to self-medicate her way out of her misery, she drives drunk and stoned, and ends up crashing her mini-van into a tree with the kids in the back seat.
The episode’s final moments made it looks like one of them might even be dead, though we shouldn’t have worried: Abel seems to have inherited Jax’s bulletproof aura and made it out in one piece.
7. Jax punishes Wendy
Darthy, season 5 episode 12
Sometimes, when Jax puts on his most sincere voice and looks straight into the camera with his big blue eyes, you can believe he really is trying to move the club in a better direction. He’s just a good guy facing down some difficult circumstances, right? Yeah, no, because then he does things like assaulting his ex-wife and forcing her to break months of hard-won sobriety by jabbing a needle into her arm.
There’s no real justification for what he does; he’d probably say he was doing it to protect his kids, but come on. He just wanted to hurt someone, and he picked one of the most vulnerable people in his orbit, and hurt her in the cruellest way he could come up with. The central tension of the show – whether Jax could be a better man than his father, either by improving the club or escaping it – collapsed here. For me, at least, this was the moment it became really clear Jax couldn’t be saved.
6. Kyle has his tattoo removed
Giving Back, season 1 episode 5
Fully patched-in Sons generally have at least one tattoo to prove their loyalty, as well as an assortment of Reaper Crew t-shirts and, of course, the leather kutte. And since you’re supposed to be a member for life, the permanency of the tattoo shouldn’t be a problem. But sometimes people do leave, or get kicked out, and in those circumstances they’re meant to get the tattoos removed or blacked out. So when former-Son Kyle shows up to a club barbecue and reveals he still has his tattoo, he’s given two options: fire or knife.
He chooses fire. So Tig burns his tattoo off with a blowtorch. Given that this happened just five episodes in, it was another clear statement of intent. Every time we saw Charlie Hunnam’s naked back, emblazoned with that giant Reaper tattoo, we thought of this scene, and how impossible it is to get out of the MC without serious damage.
5. Otto bites off his tongue
J’ai Obtenu Cette, season 5 episode 13
I probably could’ve given half this list over to Otto’s antics, and it’s hard to pick his one most shocking moment, but I’m gonna go for the time he bit off his own tongue rather than cooperate with the police. Otto’s always kind of been the club’s portrait in the attic, suffering one injury after another while in prison, and he’s also probably the scariest member (which, considering this is a charter that includes Tig and Happy, is quite an achievement). He’s unpredictable and aggressive, and apparently impervious to pain, laughing even as he spits out his own tongue at Lee Toric, the former Marshall who’s pretty terrifying in his own way.
The nice thing about Otto is that he’s played by showrunner Kurt Sutter himself, showing he’s totally willing to get his hands dirty for his show. Or maybe that’s a bit scary, too.
4. Dawn gets burned alive
Sovereign, season 5 episode 1
There have been a couple of season premieres on this list already (and there’s going to be another one) because Sons Of Anarchy likes to start with a bang. Season 5 introduced a new antagonist with one of the most brutal murders in the entire show. Damon Pope, played by Harold Perrineau, was a drug kingpin slash property magnate with a grudge against the MC after his daughter was accidentally killed in a bungled hit on a rival gang member. His revenge? He snatched Tig’s daughter Dawn and had her burned alive in front of Tig’s eyes.
By season 5, we already know Tig’s capable of some pretty extreme violence himself, but this was extraordinarily nasty by anyone’s standards.
3. L.O.A.N. rapes Gemma
Albification, season 2 episode 1
And here’s the other horrifying season premiere. If there’s one group continually portrayed as the worst kind of people in this show, it’s white supremacists, and the second season kicked off with the League Of American Nationalists demonstrating just how awful they are. Beneath their respectable front as cigar salesmen, L.O.A.N. are violent brutes, and by kidnapping and gang-raping Gemma, they set themselves up as possibly the most repulsive antagonists the Sons will ever go up against.
Rape is often used as a cheap and easy shock tactic in movies and TV shows, but it’s worth saying that Sons Of Anarchy actually handles it pretty sensitively. After all, it’s not like it’s short of ideas on how to shock its viewers.
2. Opie gets killed
Laying Pipe, season 5 episode 3
Another instance of this show killing off even main characters when necessary, Opie’s death was one of many turning points for Jax and the whole club. Since Sons Of Anarchy is Jax’s story, there are lots of other characters whose trajectories are similar to his, and function almost as alternate universe Jaxes. Like Jax, Opie was the son of a Son, and like Jax he struggled with the demands club life made on him. Opie’s wife, Donna, wanted him to leave, and he almost did, but then she got killed, and everything went to hell. (Does that count as foreshadowing?)
Opie himself meets a nasty end when several of the Sons end up in prison. Damon Pope is demanding more blood in payback for his daughter’s death, and it’s Opie who takes the fall – and the pipe to the back of the head. It’s a particularly important moment because Opie is one of the few voices of reason the show had left, and Jax is utterly helpless to save him. All he can do is watch and scream from the next room as his best friend gets his head smashed in. Yikes.
1. Gemma kills Tara
A Mother’s Work, season 6 episode 13
There’s no way the top spot on this list could be anything else, is there? Tara’s murder is ultimately Jax’s undoing, but though her life has been in danger throughout, it’s the way she goes that finally unravels the club. Throughout the seasons we’ve seen Tara struggling with Jax’s criminal life, trying to get first him and then his sons away from the MC in hopes of a better life. She even went so far as to frame Gemma for assault in order to get Jax to sign a restraining order against her, so by the end of season 6 we know she’s pretty determined to escape. And Jax, for once, looks like he might do the right thing. He agrees to let Tara take the kids and get out of town, while he turns himself in to the cops for supplying the weapon that led to the school shooting at the beginning of the season. It’s a neatly wrapped up ending that would’ve let Tara and the kids escape while Jax pays for (some of) his crimes.
But as always, Gemma is the spanner in the works. Hearing half the story and assuming Tara has turned rat, she sees red and kills her in what is probably the most brutal murder in the whole show. She doesn’t use a gun, or a knife, or any of the things an actual gang member might use: she bludgeons her with an iron, half-drowns her in the kitchen sink, and finally stabs a barbecue fork into her head. It’s a scene a long time coming, considering the relationship between these two women, but even knowing it’s on the cards doesn’t soften the scene’s impact. This is a moment that changes the Sons’ world forever, and there’s just no coming back from it.
Honourable mentions: Tara faking a miscarriage in season 6; Gemma threatening a baby in season 3; Tara’s hand getting smashed in the van door in season 4; Clay killing Piney in season 4; Nero’s sister shooting herself in season 5; Chuckie hiding a severed head in a bowl of chili in season 4; Half-Sack getting killed in season 2; Juice murdering Miles in season 4; Stahl killing her partner in season 3; Clay castrating a rapist in season 1. Oh, and Jax embracing a lorry at high speed in the final episode. Can’t forget that one.