By Ken Tucker
Updated November 08, 2011 at 12:00 PM EST

This week, Sons of Anarchy addressed some of the aspects of the motorcycle-gang life that have most frequently prevented me from completely buying into this very good series. (And yes, I wrote “gang,” not “club,” the Sons’ preferred-or-we’ll-bash-your-skull-in term.) No coincidence: I thought this week’s SOA, titled “Hands,” was the best episode of a very strong season.

Pulling back from the inter-gang intricacies that have only grown more snarled since Clay got the Sons involved in drug-running, “Hands” was going to be an episode that allowed Tara and Jax to see what life might be like if they were to opt out of SOA life. I’ve never bought the idea that a woman as intelligent as Tara, even as much as she loves and recognizes the good in Jax, could stomach the grotesque value-system of the motorcycle gang ethos. The Tara we’ve been seeing in different weeks is that smart, torn woman, who knows she can’t allow the children she loves to be raised in this kind of environment.

What sort of environment? One in which Clay puts out a hit on Tara because he thinks she’s going to reveal the full extent to which Jax’s father wanted the SOA to live a more peaceful life and thereby potentially destroy the very heart and soul of his club. I didn’t expect that the hit-man would orchestrate a kidnap attempt, but that surprise only added to the brutal drama of this episode — creator Kurt Sutter has a gift for dramatizing agony and anguish in action terms, and he didn’t settle for stock scenes of a gun man aiming his rifle at Tara. No, the artfully staged smash-and-grab of Tara was jolting and terrifying.

But even more powerful was the way secrets and lies have fractured the marriage of Clay and Gemma, each concealing things from the other. Clay, giving in to an anger inspired by the guilt he felt over the hit and Gemma’s suspicions, began with a verbal insult: Telling her she should keep out of the club’s business, he snapped, “You’re an old lady, and don’t forget it.” “Old lady,” used as motorcycle-gang slang that’s barely a notch above “groupie,” is creepy, sexist language. In the context of this series, though, it was even more hurtful to Gemma, since Clay has long confided in her, and sought her advice in SOA matters. If ever Gemma needed a sign that Clay was pulling away from her, this was it…

…until something even worse happened. Having pulled a gun on him, Gemma was met first with Clay’s bitter taunt, “You gonna kill me like you did the first husband?” and then came at her. The ferocious beating Clay gave Gemma — with the hands that are afflicted with the arthritis that are making him an ever-more insecure, desperate man — was sickening to watch, and utterly in keeping with where this storyline, and series, has been headed. Sutter and his writers want to make sure we realize how difficult life is within this subculture for everyone.

The title “Hands” also referred to Tara’s broken one, as she lay in a hospital bed, her right hand bandaged, being told of nerve damage. Saying she now has “no way out” of the life she’s chosen, that she will “never save another life” (she meant as a doctor, but implied was saving Jax’s life and soul), Sons of Anarchy became the tragedy it has frequently aspired to. “Fate,” said Tara to Jax. “We’re supposed to be together, right?” This leather Romeo and Juliet are playing out the inevitable.

So are Clay and Gemma. The cold-blooded way Katey Sagal delivered Gemma’s final pronouncement — “Clay can’t be saved… No, he’s not going down by law. He’s gonna die by the hand of the son” — was bone-rattling. (The slit-eyed intensity Sagal brought to these moments was superb, as was Ron Perlman’s carefully built rage and release.) I hope Sons of Anarchy has the fortitude to see this plot-line through to its end; if it does, it could lift the series to a new level of low poignance.

Did you watch this week’s Sons of Anarchy?

Twitter: @kentucker