Spoilers for the latest episode of "Sons of Anarchy" after the jump:
Okay, fine. I was wrong, and everyone else was right. And by that I refer to my belief that Juice's suicide attempt at the end of last week's episode succeeded. I figured that would be the case. This kind of storytelling move has always struck me as a rather cheap way to increase tension without having to actually kill off a main character, although it's something even the best shows (at least those that feature characters constantly being put into peril, which definitely includes this one) use on occasion. So yes, it bothered me a bit initially, even if it's kind of my fault for jumping to a conclusion that I probably shouldn't have. (But then again, the episode did end with Juice still hanging, so I don't think I was entirely unjustified in doing so.)
However, that changed after the rest of the episode unfolded, for two main reasons. The first is that the small amount of material involving the aftermath of Juice's failed suicide was quite terrific (it'll be discussed briefly in the other thoughts section). And the second, even more important reason is that "Family Recipe" is one brilliant hour of television. It's quite possibly the finest episode of "Sons of Anarchy" to date, featuring riveting scene after riveting scene: some quiet, others... not so much. It also functions as a showcase for some pretty amazing acting. Don't get me wrong, the acting is always great on this show. But for some reason it was on a whole different level this week.
Among the standouts is Ron Perlman, who brings out so many different aspects of Clay in just a couple of relatively short key sequences. During the fundraiser we get to see him play a little bit of politics, as he uses his and Elliot's donations to get in a few pointed jabs at Jacob Hale. It's a reminder that Clay can be diplomatic when he needs to be, which is generally in his dealings with outsiders. I also get the feeling that he's sincere when he tells Elliot that he just wants Charming back, though it's more for his own reasons (Hale has been trying to push the Sons out for what seems like forever at this point) than because of any philanthropic motives. This move serves to get the public back on the side of SAMCRO, and it does so without a drop of blood being spilt.
The same can't be said of the way the tension between Clay and Piney is finally resolved. The general suspicion from most people (myself included) was that Piney was a goner the moment he started to put pressure on Clay. It was an easy prediction to make. Piney's an important part of the show, but not so important that the show can't afford to kill him off, and certainly not as important as Clay is. He's the most logical choice, and therefore it's not all that shocking that it happened. The way it went down nonetheless manages to be surprising and riveting, particularly since Piney starts out with the upper hand before Clay all too easily gains it for himself. His final words to Piney ("too late", in response to Piney's admirable but futile attempts to deny Tara's involvement) are chilling. And then he pulls the trigger.
All of this is great. But these two scenes take up five or six minutes tops, which is a very small amount of time when compared to the time spent on the war between the two cartels and how it impacts SAMCRO. They remain firmly trapped in the middle, and it's hard to see a way out for the club that doesn't put their lives even more at risk. Bobby knew that getting involved with the Galindo cartel was a bad idea, and the club should have listened to him. But at this point he realizes that his issues with Clay's decision need to be put aside for now as they deal with this threat, which has already left members of the both the Tuscon charter and the Mayans dead.
It's also taking its toll on both Jax and Tara. For Jax's part, he's just now realizing how much danger everyone's really in. His conversation with Piney (in which Piney comes this close to telling him about the letters) reveals just how messed up things have gotten for him. Getting into business with the cartel was his ticket out not just for him, but for Tara and his kids as well. But at this point he's just trying to keep himself, them, and the rest of the SAMCRO members alive. And with no end to the bloodshed in sight, doing that is going to get harder and harder.
What we see in that remarkable scene between the two of them is Jax Teller with a look of defeat on his face, unable to come up with any answers. And Tara doesn't have any, either. Her only solution is to take the kids and get away. For how long is anyone's guess. There's no fighting here, no "you can't leave" from Jax or "this is your fault" from Tara. These are simply two tired and emotionally drained people (who still clearly love each other) searching for a solution and coming up empty. Their exhaustion is palpable, and Maggie Siff and Charlie Hunnam deserve all the credit in world for that. In the end Jax agrees because he doesn't know what else to do. For my money this is the most powerful sequence in the episode, although the death of Piney is obviously what's going to get the most attention.
There are other aspects of the episode that deserve praise, but this review has gone on long enough, so I think I'll save them for the other thoughts section. What fascinates me the most about "Family Recipe" is that it's only the eighth episode of this season, which has quite suddenly gone from good to incredible. Clay's decided to frame Lobo Senora for the murder, but it could backfire on him if Tara doesn't buy it when she finds out. And she's still got the letters. There's also the matter of the leadership vote, which has been put on hold but isn't going away. This is a high point for the series, yes, but I have a hunch that "Sons of Anarchy" may still wind up topping it this season. For now, though, I'll just say wow and leave it at that. Wow.
- Chibs isn't stupid. He's clearly noticed what's been going on with Juice these past few episodes, and as such it was a natural development in this storyline's progression to have him stop Juice's second suicide attempt. Great stuff, although it was overshadowed a bit by everything else that happened.
- He couldn't have known what was going to happen, but in retrospect it definitely feels like the final scene with Opie and his father was Piney's way of saying goodbye. It wasn't all that sentimental (this isn't that kind of show), but at least Opie's last memory isn't going to be of Piney punching him in the face. And "keep your head down" is appropriate advice for these times, don't you think?
- That sequence between Tara and Jax was great, but I do have a slight problem with the reasoning behind it. If that threat did come from the cartel (which it didn't, but they don't know that), how are she and the kids going to be safer in Oregon? It wasn't clear whether Jax is going to send someone to protect them. He has to, right? But then again, this is the show in which Zobelle survived due to the characters acting like idiots when Abel was kidnapped. I love this series, but come on... no one is that stupid. Hopefully they won't repeat that mistake here.
- Haven't even mentioned the great bit of black comedy involving the severed head and the chili. Funny stuff, and got even more hilariously deranged as it went on. Gemma's reaction was terrific.
- Speaking of Gemma, she knows that Clay wasn't where he said he was the time of Piney's murder. Any guesses on how long it'll take her to put two and two together? My prediction: not long. How she'll react is the more interesting question.