Lynette Rice
October 11, 2013 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Death has become so routine on FX’s brutal motorcycle-club drama Sons of Anarchy that certain rituals are now commonplace. There are the technical aspects to consider, like how to angle a gunshot to the head and how much tinted oatmeal is needed to replicate splattered brain matter on an adjacent wall. There are the farewell traditions — the standing ovation after an actor’s final scene, the postmortem dinner — and even some mood-lifting jokes, such as the one Ron Perlman cracks after watching his castmates shoot a particularly gruesome murder scene: ”And on the next episode of New Girl…”

But most of all, there are the moments of reflection and sadness — kind of like what’s happening right now with Sons star Charlie Hunnam, who’s spotted sitting alone on the show’s North Hollywood set a few minutes before another comrade bites the dust. ”We are now in the classic three-act structure of things, and well into the third act,” he explains later. ”Historically, that’s when overarching stories get resolved and a lot of people start to die. There is a lot of death and mayhem this season.” Hunnam pauses, as if he has to convince even himself. ”There has to be a violent reckoning.”

We all knew this day would come eventually. After all, creator Kurt Sutter has said from the beginning that Shakespeare’s Hamlet served as his inspiration for Sons. It’s been a favorite guessing game for the show’s 4.9 million fans, trying to figure out the next victim in Sutter’s pulpy tale about an outlaw motorcycle club led by a brooding, increasingly morally compromised upstart named Jax Teller (Hunnam). Speculation has only escalated in season 6, the show’s penultimate act: Claudius makes it to the end of the play. Does that mean Clay — Jax’s stepdad and the Sons’ disgraced former president — will live through this season? Since Katey Sagal is married to Sutter in real life, does that mean Gemma, her fierce big-haired version of Gertrude, will escape death? But Sutter threw a spoke wrench into the mix when he killed off Jax’s best friend Opie — modeled on Horatio, the only major character to survive Hamlet — in season 5. So much for the Bard’s playbook: Now anyone can die, and at any time. ”We’ve already broken many of the patterns,” says Perlman, who plays Clay. ”I mean, Shakespeare didn’t write a show that lasted six years. He wrote a five-act play that was meant to be seen in one sitting. The world that the fans have begun to respond to become its own entity. It’s not Hamlet anymore. It’s Sons of Anarchy. Jax Teller is not Hamlet anymore — he’s Jax Teller.”

And Sons is no longer just a leather-clad family drama featuring sporadic bursts of violence; it’s a ruthless, dark exploration of the limits of human brutality. ”It’s like it’s eating itself,” says Maggie Siff, who plays Jax’s savvy wife, Tara. ”There’s something cannibalistic about it. In that sense, every season has been more horrible than the one that’s preceded it, and this one is no exception.”

She’s not kidding: So far this season, Sons has featured a little boy shooting up a school classroom with a machine gun (which will likely get traced back to the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club), a man-on-man rape, a visit to a torture-porn film studio, and a dude being drowned in a tub full of urine — and that was all just in the premiere. ”There are not many showrunners who would take it in the a– for their own show,” jokes Sutter, whose onscreen alter ego Otto was the victim of the aforementioned prison rape in Sons‘ Sept. 10 episode. ”You top that, Vince Gilligan!” (Actually, Vince, please don’t.)

Even his own cast has their doubts about the level of mayhem exacted this season. ”It’s almost too violent,” admits Kim Coates, whose character Tig remains in Jax’s crosshairs. ”It doesn’t ease up all season. Kurt is really treading a fine line this year. Obviously, you have to be doing something right to be such a big hit with a continued story line that seems to go down the s—ter week in and week out.”

Yes, in fact, Sons is doing something right: With 5.9 million viewers, the season 6 premiere ranked as FX’s most watched episode ever, and the season is on pace to be Sons‘ most watched on record. (The show’s success certainly helped raise Hunnam’s profile: He just booked the lead role in the film adaptation of a naughty little book called Fifty Shades of Grey.) Clearly, if viewers were repelled by the violence, they would have turned away by now, argues Sagal. ”The ratings keep going up. The storytelling is grim, but it’s not just horrific violent acts for the sake of having them,” she says. ”If you’re invested in this story, you’re invested in the characters.”

So gird your loins, brothas, it’s about to get even more horrific for the boys of SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original). ”Jax is doing all these things in the name of ‘I want to get away from all the things that are dangerous.’ And yet to do that, he’s having to be more violent than he’s ever been in the past,” explains Sutter. ”There’s a very real and ironic component to that. It’s almost like you have to burn it down to the ground so you can walk away. That’s ultimately what we’re going to see this season.” And now that the Irish have blown up the Sons’ clubhouse, look for the inevitable showdown between Jax and Galen (the intimidating Timothy V. Murphy), who is looking to spring Clay from jail so he can run the gun syndicate overseas — if the Sons don’t have Clay killed first. Perlman, who knows there’s no shortage of fans who think his character has overstayed his welcome, would only say this about Clay’s fate: ”I could be thinking about how am I gonna escape and kill Jax and get back everything I wanted. Or I’m gonna accept responsibility for my sins and go out quietly.”

Tig fans, meanwhile, can breathe a sigh of relief, because he’s going to keep breathing…for now. The animal-loving softy — who’s been living on borrowed time ever since he accidentally killed a powerful gangster’s daughter in season 4 — has narrowly avoided death this season, but his tenure in the club is by no means secure. (Did we mention that he was the one who drowned the guy in the tub of urine — and then tried to hide it from the club?) ”Tig just plainly lied to Jax,” says Hunnam. ”I don’t know if that warrants his execution, but that warrants Jax not going out of his way to continue protecting him.”

Now that Lee Toric (Donal Logue) is dead, District Attorney Tyne Patterson (the always superb CCH Pounder) will assume the role of antagonist as she does whatever it takes to bring down the Sons. Fan favorite Juice (Theo Rossi) — who’s racked with guilt over suffocating a heroin addict at Jax’s behest earlier this season — becomes dangerously unstable, and Bobby (Mark Boone Junior) rustles up enough lost biker souls to potentially go nomad — biker-speak for an SOA group with no charter. And because Sons is all for equal-opportunity shock value, expect Tara and Wendy (Drea de Matteo) to employ some abominable tactics to get what they want. (For Tara that means an escape from the Sons and the MC lifestyle; for Wendy it’s time with Abel, the child she had with Jax in season 1.) Tara, says Siff, is ”becoming more and more Gemma-like in her machinations. Her methods are a little devious.”

Speaking of good ol’ Grandma, she’s the only character who’s actually in a good place these days, what with her blossoming relationship with Nero Padilla (Jimmy Smits) and tentative truce with Jax. Sure, she was just forced to have sex with Clay by lascivious prison guards, but other than that, all’s right in Gemma’s world. ”She compartmentalizes,” explains Sagal. ”She’s able to move on completely from her marriage with Clay. We’ll see a little bit of melancholy for that relationship, but she’s totally able to turn the other cheek. She’s with Nero. She’s in love. People who live this way have to be able to turn a blind eye to goings-on. They’re survivors.”

But for how long? This is where the conversation turns to Sons‘ last act in fall 2014. Hunnam certainly has an opinion of how it should all wrap up in the show’s much-anticipated seventh season. ”If Jax is smart he’ll get his wife and kids, get out of here, and go and live on a mountaintop where he can find truth and happiness,” he says. ”He’s never going to find it in this world.”

Since that won’t make for good TV (and there’s already a show called Mountain Men), Sutter has a much more gripping plan for the series’ final hours. ”There will be something potent and epic about the way this all ends. Although there are some foreshadowing and some winks at Hamlet or even Lear more than anything, it’s not like I’m following any kind of trajectory in terms of story. I mean, I already killed Horatio!” But for those worried about the grimmest of outcomes, Sutter does offer this quantum of solace: ”I don’t think everyone will end up dead.”

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