"The outlaw had mercy." -OpieOne of the trademarks of "The Shield" was watching Vic and the strike team dig themselves a deep hole and somehow find a way to climb out. Most of the time, though - the final few seasons obviously excepted - the escapes were external and plot-based. Vic would find a patsy, or figure out a way to blackmail someone with influence, and the problem would go away (sometimes permanently, sometimes not).
It's not surprising, then, that Kurt Sutter would spend a lot of time on "Sons of Anarchy" on the SAMCRO members painting themselves into corners, then searching for an escape route. But what's been so remarkable about the episodes this season, particularly last week's and tonight's, is that the escapes (and in some cases, the additional jeopardy) are coming internally, out of character rather than plot.
Gemma heals the Jax/Clay rift by finding the courage to speak up about her rape. Opie finds out Tig killed Donna only because Tig was finally so consumed with guilt that he had to tell. And the inevitable Opie/Clay/Tig confrontation, which we all assumed would end with at least one fatality ever since Donna died, instead leads (for now) to a detente, as Opie comes to realize that he needs the club - and needs to find some inner peace - more than he needs vengeance on Clay, or Tig, or even Stahl. And that decision, in turn, helps save the lives of both Chibs and Piney, under circumstances where Clay might once have shot first and asked questions later.
Before watching "Service," I never would have imagined a circumstance under which Opie, Clay and Tig would all be living and riding together over whatever long term this series has. But because the solution came from the characters first, I completely buy that this could happen - that Jax and Opie, now teamed up again, may find a way to save the club without drenching it in even more blood, and have for now decided that's the best tribute they can give to Donna's memory.
(Or, conversely, Opie may just bide his time for a season and a half, then drop a car on Tig after he, like his old man, gets impatient with the pace of Jax's plan.)
It's pretty ballsy what Sutter (co-writing the script with Jack LoGiudice, based on a story by Brady Dahl and Cori Uchida) does here. "Balm" ends with Jax and Clay making peace, and "Service" opens with the two of them seeming to unite all of SAMCRO to avenge the attack. And just as we're all feeling somewhat complacent and ready to watch the club whup white supremacist ass, Tig has to continue his doom spiral by making out with Gemma, and chooses to punish himself further by spilling the beans to Opie (and then in front of Bobby). The episode still ends with SAMCRO united to go after Zobelle - and to get Chibs out from between the rock (Stahl) and the hard place (Jimmy O) - but it's a much shakier union now, one that no one feels very good about.
One of the episode's quietest scenes is also its most important. As Gemma sits with the priest, he tells her about the value of helping others to help assuage guilt over your own transgressions. Over and over, characters choose to live up to the episode's title at the expense of their own desires. Even before she met the priest, Gemma knew that she had to let go of her pride and fear to tell her men the truth. Tara downplays her career trainwreck because she knows Jax needs her to be strong now. Opie swallows his desire for vengeance to help the club, in the short-term trading his right to be aggrieved for the lives of Chibs and Piney. Clay lets Chibs and Piney walk because he owes that - and so, so much more - to Opie.
But if everybody makes the somewhat noble, community-minded decision in the end, they struggle on the way to those decisions, and the actors - directed by "Mad Men" veteran Phil Abraham - play the hell out of those journeys. I could spend paragraph after paragraph on the way Kim Coates shows how much this has been eating Tig up inside, or how Maggie Siff plays Tara's freak out about the life she envisions with Jax, or how Tommy Flanagan plays Chibs' despair with Gemma, or how Katey Sagal plays Gemma's fear for Chibs (Gemma knows Clay and what he's capable of), or how Ryan Hurst plays Opie's stoic anger, or how Ally Walker handles Stahl's shift from feigning control to realizing she's about to die, or... but in the interest of time and equality, I will just say this: everyone in the cast (everyone) was at the top of their games this week.
And for the second week in a row, this show about these tough men and their violent worlds ends on a scene of heartbreaking tenderness. Tig - who really, really wants to be something other than Clay's blunt instrument, and who has obviously nursed a thing for Gemma forever - points out to Clay that the best thing he can do for Gemma, even more than killing Zobelle and Weston, is to show her that he still desires her. And Clay - who has been shaken to his core by the developments of the last two episodes, and who seems to finally realize he needs to step back and think about things, rather than simply acting on his gut - hears him, and goes to his wife and sweeps all of her fears away as easily as he sweeps all the papers off her desk.
And it's great.
As Dan Dority once told Al Swearengen, we're fixing for a bloody outcome, but what "Sons of Anarchy" has shown us lately is that the show can be just as powerful when restraint is being shown: when it's just a woman telling a painful story, or a grieving man showing mercy, or a husband making sweet, necessary love to his wife.
Only two episodes left in this season. Based on the two we've just seen, they have a lot to live up to.
Some other thoughts:
• I want to see how the Jimmy O and Zobelle stories intertwine over these last two. Jax seeing Zobelle with the Mayans paints such an obvious picture of how SAMCRO is going to take down his operation that I have to assume there will be some more twists along the way.
• It's been implied that Unser feels more than just big brother affection for Gemma, and Tig's aborted makeout session with her only crystallized the idea that all the men of a certain age in SAMCRO's sphere of influence would have some kind of crush on her. Like, of course they would. Hell, even Half-Sack once called her a MILF (much to Clay's displeasure).
• Speaking of Unser, I wonder how big a deal it is that he's unofficially made Hale the acting chief. What exactly is Wayne planning that requires him to surrender the responsibilities of the top job?
• More idle speculation: what are the odds that the clip Opie handed Stahl had any of the homemade bullets in it? I'm guessing not - and I'm also guessing that June Stahl will never, ever tell anyone she knows (let alone any fellow ATF agents) about what happened in that parking lot.
• Interesting to see Tara and Lyla hanging out without incident, or even any real tension. I guess things have now gotten so bad for Jax and Opie that they, like the men, have to put that junk aside.
• Though it sounds exactly like The Rolling Stones doing a country song, the closing tune is actually "Can't Make It Through The Night" by Deadstring Brothers.
As we head into the home stretch, let me remind you about the commenting rules - specifically, the No Spoilers passage, which includes the part about not discussing anything in the previews. Period. Any comment in violation of that will be deleted.
What did everybody else think?