'Sons of Anarchy' Makes a Lawless Return: A Q&A With the FX Show's Creator

That distant growl you hear is the impending return of FX's motorcycle-club drama Sons of Anarchy, which has its second-season premiere tonight. For those who haven't caught it yet, Anarchy follows the titular biker gang and the fractious relationship between its leader Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) and his second-in-command, Jackson (Jax) Teller (Charlie Hunnam). Complicating matters is the fact that Clay is married to Jax's mother Gemma (Katey Sagal), which lends the show a heavy Hamlet influence. The second season, premiering Sept. 8, finds the Sons of Anarchy doing what they do best: fighting to maintain control of their turf, a town called Charming that everyone seems to want a piece of. The show's creator, Kurt Sutter, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Joshua Alston about what's in store. Excerpts:

NOTE: The following interview is short on specifics, but the spoiler-averse should avoid it until after watching the season premiere.

What's so great about Charming?
I just think it's the quintessential American town. There's a lot of Mayberry references in the show and they are not by accident. It's an anachronism. There are a lot of mom-and-pop businesses. There are no big chains. People don't worry about locking their doors at night. Crime is low. It's sort of frozen in time as a result of this outlaw community. I experienced a little bit of that when I was in New York City living in Little Italy. I'd walk through Little Italy after I got off work at 4:30 in the morning. I'd walk that way to get home because it was the safest place in the city to be.

Without spoiling anything, Gemma has a pretty intense arc for this season. Was Katey excited about playing that?
Yeah, just because of the nature of it, I talked to Katey about it a little bit beforehand. I knew she would be up for it, but I wanted to explain what it was going to be as a narrative device and how it played into the overall arc for the season. But she was both excited by it and terrified by it. The first few episodes were really intense for her. She struggled a lot with letting it go, because sometimes it's hard to leave that stuff at work with you at the end of the day. That's why in terms of the story, there's about a month between episodes two and three, because I wanted to give her some space to breathe emotionally.

The final scene of the premiere is very difficult to watch. Do you ever worry about pushing the audience too far?
That's not really my job to worry about, it's the network's job. They'll ring that bell for me. My theory will all that is that I don't think in terms of manipulating the audience or pushing the audience, I just think about what's the most organic, interesting story to tell. And my bent, what I tend to do well, is dark world and messed up, damaged characters. And they tend to take those turns that can lead to violent circumstances. So I don't necessarily worry about pushing the audience too far. In terms of Gemma, I've had some responses to that scene and I feel like if people stick around, they'll understand that it wasn't gratuitous, it wasn't just a harrowing event to put into a season premiere. What happens will ultimately be this thread that weaves the entire season together, and at the end of the day it'll change Gemma, but not necessarily weaken her. She'll come out of the season a different woman, but that doesn't mean she's going to be any less fierce or determined.

Does Katey have an advantage over the other actors in that she gets to hear you kicking around ideas in advance or does she read the scripts at the same time as everyone else?
She doesn't get to read the scripts before anybody else. But in terms of Gemma, if Katey has questions about her character or about her arc, she has the advantage of being with me all the time. But the truth is I have an open-door policy with all my actors. If they have questions about the script or their characters or they are struggling with something, we can talk about it. It doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to change anything, but I'll walk through my process with them so they can understand and prepare. Most of the actors take advantage of that.

How did Henry Rollins join the cast?
I've always been a huge fan of his, starting from the Black Flag days through his spoken-word stuff. Originally when we were casting the role of Tig we wanted to bring Henry in for that, but he was on tour and wasn't available. I knew I wanted to do this character this season, so I met with him at the end of last season to see if he would be open to it and he was, so we took it from there. He's been great. I don't mean this in a disparaging way, but he's an actor that doesn't need to say much. He has really inhabited this character and it's pretty f---ing terrifying.

With Drea de Matteo joining Desperate Housewives this season, does that mean we've seen the last of Wendy?
Hopefully we haven't seen the last of her. We actually tried to make a deal with Drea. I had an idea to bring her in for five or six episodes, but we just couldn't make it work. But I love Drea, she took the gig on Desperate, which I think is fantastic for her. But Wendy is in this sober-living house, and our seasons only cover the expanse of a few months. So it's not a logical jump for Jax to go four or five months without seeing her. But the door is always open for her to return.

Will we get more this season on what happened between John, Gemma, and Clay, or is that still far off?
That's really the bigger Hamlet arc that we'll taste a little bit each season. We get a little more information about John Teller this season, and if we're lucky enough to get a season three, we'll reveal a lot of who John Teller was as a man.

What are the themes you want to explore this season?
There are some global themes that we're always exploring in the show, in terms of Jax and his struggle of being a good father and an outlaw. So there's a lot of father-and-son themes that are really the thrust of the show. But one of the things I've always found fascinating about the Gemma arc this year is that Gemma is this very tough, hardened, self-sufficient woman. So what happens when you turn that character upside down a little bit? She's sort of forced to look at her life and the karmic impact of the things she's done, and so you'd need an event as gruesome as what happens in the premiere to send a character like Gemma through that journey and rattle her cage a little. And with Jax, you have someone who has always kind of wrestled with his role. He's a smart, determined, courageous man, and he'll be a great leader one day, but he's still young and impulsive. He wants to be the guy who can put Donna's death behind him and move on for the good of the club, but he can't. He still feels that betrayal and he can't let it go, and it ultimately comes to a head in episode seven, and then there's a really big fracture that threatens the club at its core.