By Mandi Bierly
Updated September 25, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT
Prashant Gupta/FX

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t watched this week’s episode of Sons of Anarchy yet, STOP READING. Sorry, West Coast, we need to start the viewer support group now.

We all knew someone was dying this hour. According to our Inside TV poll, which counted more than 41,000 votes, 39 percent of fans believed it would be Unser. He was followed by Juice (18 percent), Tig (16 percent), Clay (13 percent), Opie (9 percent), and Tara (6 percent).

UPDATE: In the comments, some fans are saying they’re going to stop watching the show because it was Opie, a man who’d already lost a wife and his father because of the club, who leaves behind two kids, and who was beautifully played by Ryan Hurst. But as I argue below, and as other readers are articulating in the comments, his death makes sense. Great showrunners aim to surprise viewers, but they also know that fans have to be able to look back, connect the dots, and think, oh, of course. Kurt Sutter set the stage for Opie’s farewell. You may not have wanted it to be Opie, but were you blindsided? Opie admitted he wasn’t sure he was capable of loving anyone when he gave his ex $20,000 to take care of his children in last week’s episode. He told her he was going out-of-town and wasn’t sure when he’d be back. He was already dead inside. He soured on the club, but Jax was his best friend — that’s who he wanted to protect when he got himself tossed in jail and then thrown into the death match. Maybe Jax was the only person Opie could remember how to love.

The fact that fans are talking about sobbing and feeling as though they were going to vomit means the loss mattered. That’s what you want from a great show. That’s a drama in its fifth season having the power — and the balls — to destroy you in an epic way. When a turn was earned, as this one was, you mourn the death of the character and celebrate the vitality of the show. As Pope said, the pain will take Jax to a new level. It had to cut that deep.

UPDATE #2: Here’s what Kurt Sutter had to say about the episode. Now, back to the recap…

Once Pope had his sitdown with Jax in the Commander’s office, it would have been a cop-out had it not been one of the guys in jail. Pope gave Jax his terms: he’d be taking half of SAMCRO’s cartel payday from now on ($50,000 a shipment), Tig would get life in prison and suffer accordingly, and one Son would die as retribution for the Niner and the cop they’d killed. Once the Son was dead, the witnesses would recant their stories, the murder charges would be dropped, and Jax would be set free “to earn.”

Jax: Come on, man, I’m not just gonna kill one of my guys.

Pope: [Smiles] Yes, you are. Before the next guard shift. The cost of doing battle.

Jax: I’m not goin’ to war.

Pope: You already in it, son.

The Commander told Jax this needed to go down in solitary and the shift Sergeant would walk him through it. To get all four of our boys in solitary, Jax had them pound on the prisoners with ties to Pope in the yard. Both sides were put in solitary, two to a room. (That’s still solitary? Okay then.) Jax ended up with Opie, who knew Jax was holding back something. Opie heard it when the Sergeant came in to tell Jax whichever Son he picked would be put in “the box” with Pope’s guys to fight until he loses. When Jax admitted to Opie he had no idea how to keep everyone alive, and the two sat there in silence — that’s when I started to tear up. I couldn’t figure a way out for them either.

Jax then told Opie the truth about everything — why Clay had killed Piney and why he couldn’t let Opie kill Clay. Now I was panicking. I kept asking myself why is Jax telling him all this now? Was it because he was going to choose Opie and owed him that much? Because he was going to pick himself? Because he couldn’t ask Opie to help him come up with a solution with this weighing on him? When the Sergeant came back for Jax’s decision, Opie and Jax tried to stall. The Sergeant clubbed Jax in the knee, and Opie made a move — until the Sergeant pulled his gun. “This is my hell, b—-. I make the rules. If you don’t pick which guy fights, I will,” he said. Opie asked Jax what he was going to do. “Pick the guy,” Jax answered.

When Jax and Opie reunited with Chibs and Tig, Jax told them Pope wanted Tig inside forever and one of them dead. Chibs asked how they were going to handle it. “I don’t give a s— who Pope is or how deep his reach is. He doesn’t make that call. We decide our fate,” Jax said. The Sergeant entered with other guards and asked if he or Jax was making the decision. Jax looked at the boys and said, “My call.” He turned and was about to punch the Sergeant when Opie said, “No,” stopped Jax, and headbutted the Sergeant. In my mind, Jax hadn’t chosen himself — he’d told the boys they were taking their chances and fighting the guards, who hadn’t handcuffed them, together. But Opie, who’d seen the Sergeant pull his gun earlier, knew it wouldn’t end well. All four boys could die.

Opie had told Lyla that he wasn’t sure he loved anything anymore when he asked her to watch his kids. In his mind, he was already dead inside, so he was the one who should make the sacrifice (since Pope wouldn’t allow Tig to). Jax loves his kids and Tara; Chibs had nothing to do with this mess. “Throw him in,” the Sergeant said. As Opie was led away, Jax screamed and tried to stop it, but Chibs and Tig held him back. The Sergeant had pulled his gun again. The Sergeant gave Opie a pipe and told him, “Keep it interesting, s—head.” He must have bet that the Son would last longer than a second against Pope’s four men. Jax beat on the glass and called to Opie. “I got this,” Opie said.

In the comments, I would love for everyone to describe your experience watching this next part of the scene unfold. It’ll be therapeutic knowing that at that moment, I wasn’t the only one who not only teared up but also paused, shouted an expletive or two, and picked up a pillow to hold. You can be honest. I’ll admit that I actually left the room, pillow in hand, and paced and whimpered before pressing play again. When I finally resumed watching, I sat as far away as I could from the screen. Opie did okay just long enough to give you the slightest hope. But the biggest guy grabbed him from behind, and another guy punched him and took the pipe. He struck Opie hard in the face, and Opie collapsed as our boys watched. Jax fought back tears, and Chibs beat on the glass wailing. Opie got back up to his knees, ready for his execution, and kept his eyes on Jax. Tig turned his back, he couldn’t watch. The only sound was Opie’s heavy breathing until the swing and the snap of his neck. Chibs again beat on the glass and wailed, but Jax turned to face us. As we saw one of the guys continue to beat Opie’s lifeless body over Jax’s shoulder, Jax’s chin quivered. Was he still fighting back tears or was it from the anger? His eyes had already turned steely. I say the latter.

The Sergeant walked Jax to the Commander’s office. How much control did it take for Jax not to slam that guy’s head into a wall? Instead, Jax warned him: “I’m gettin’ released. There’s nothing you can do to stop that. I’ll find out who you are and where you live, and then I’m gonna kill you.” Not looking at him while he said that made it even more chilling. Pope was waiting for Jax in the office. Stone-cold Jax told Pope there was a new plan. He’d get the club to sign off on splitting their money with Pope, but he wanted Tig on the outside. Knowing Jax saved his life, Tig would be in Jax’s debt, which gives Jax an internal advantage. “And when I’m done, you can send him out the same way you did his kid. ‘Cause I really don’t give a s—,” Jax said.

“There you go,” Pope said. “Finding the hidden advantage in an unfortunate circumstance. Using pain to take you to the next level. Those are the things that turn players into kings.” Now I understand what Kurt Sutter meant when he said Nero would be a mentor to Jax but Pope would also become an example for him. Pope agreed to the terms and told Jax to keep Tig on a short leash. Jax told Pope the home invasions had to stop as well, and Pope told him those weren’t his doing and better not be the Niners’. Pope’s parting words: “Be smart, Mr. Teller. It’s who you are.”

Jax told Chibs they were getting out the next day, so he should figure out who they owe favors to and get intel on the Sergeant. He told him Tig was going with them but didn’t tell him how. Jax then told Tig, who knew it should have been him in the box, that he’d gotten him cleared. In exchange, Jax wants Tig to back his every play and never vote against him again — which Tig is cool with. Jax neglected to tell Tig that Pope gets to kill him in the end. Was that because Jax has no intention of letting that happen, or because he really doesn’t care about Tig now that he’s watched Opie, his best friend, die because of him? I’d like to think the former, but I fear the latter.

NEXT: Gemma and Tara wage their own war, plus Juice provides much-needed comic relief

Jax had phoned Tara to tell her he was safe. (I assume Bobby and Happy were there to protect her and the kids, but it was fun to see Happy playing with Abel.) I wonder if Jax broke the news about Opie to her then or will wait until he can tell everyone in-person… Tara had already had a crap day. She’s back at the hospital, where Gemma found out Tara hadn’t put her name down as someone who could visit the two boys at daycare. Gemma confronted Tara, who wouldn’t budge. I’d actually side with Gemma here — assuming Tara could have specified that Gemma can see the boys but not sign them out. So it’d be like supervised visitation. Still, I think Gemma going to see Wendy and telling her that Tara is self-medicating with Oxy because of her hand and Jax’s murder charge was a bit drastic.

Did Gemma really want Wendy to get custody of Abel, or was she just setting Wendy up (Tara would turn to Gemma for help and all would be well between them again)? I’m thinking the latter, since Gemma knew that Tara and Jax are now married, which would make it tougher in court. Also, Tara would, you know, pass a drug test. Wendy saw through Gemma, but still, with Jax inside, it’s a good time to argue that she deserves to see her kid. Wendy went to see Tara. Tara quickly pieced together what Gemma had done, and even though Wendy was playing relatively nice, Tara didn’t. “What truth? That I’m a surgeon, and you’re some ex-junkie biker whore?” Tara said. “You want to come after me and my family. Bring it on, darlin’. I’m not afraid of you or your bulls— custody threat.”

I know some fans hate it when people say that Tara is the new Gemma (she’s her own woman, yes), but can we all agree that the use of “darlin'” at least sounds like Gemma?

Tara found Gemma and told her she loved her. Then, she put her in her place.

Tara: Don’t ever try to hurt me or my family again.

Gemma: Or what, doctor? You gonna kill me?

Tara: No. But my husband might.

Reminding Gemma that Jax would choose her over his mother = knife twisting. Tara is turning steely, too.

Gemma’s day wasn’t any better than Tara’s. It had started with Nero’s “Whore Friday” Carla interrupting her morning pillow talk with Nero. After Tara’s verbal throwdown, Gemma got a call that Clay and Juice had shown up at Nero’s. Clay had guilted Juice into telling him where Gemma was spending her time since she’s all he has left now. (He’s lost half a lung and his seat at the head of the table. He could lose his vote if he doesn’t ride in a month.) Clay promised Juice he wouldn’t cause trouble. Of course Juice shouldn’t have taken him, but then we wouldn’t have gotten our much-needed comic relief. Clay and Nero had a civilized conversation, then Clay saddled up to “freelancer” Emma Jean (guest star Ashley Tisdale), who’s been brought in from Indiana because, in Nero’s words, “depravity craves innocence.” (That’s why you cast a former Disney star.) Nero wasn’t the only one who questioned whether Clay’s heart could take it.

Juice: Come on, Clay.

Clay: Shut up.

Juice: Okay.

An even better Juice moment: Carla took him to a room in the back.

Carla: Come on, baby. It’s time to graduate.

Juice: Really?

Carla: Really.

Nero: What are you doin’?

Carla: You think you’re the only one who gets to play with white trash?

Juice: [To Nero] Actually, I’m Puerto Rican.

Carla: Stop talking, honey.

Juice: Okay. [Off-camera] Is he chargin’ me?

When Gemma arrived, Nero tried to tell her Clay and Juice had left. When Juice came out, putting back on his shirt, Carla was happy to tell Gemma which room Clay was in. When Gemma blew through the door, Clay was sitting there alone, calm and clothed. I thought maybe that was his plan all along — not to cheat, but to show Gemma she got jealous, so she must still care about him. All was well until Emma Jean came out adjusting her shirt. “What’s goin’ on?” she asked sweetly. Gemma then attacked her. She slammed her head against the door, tossed her to the floor by way of the couch, and tried to strangle her. I howled. And rewound. It was awesome. Clay chuckled, too. On second viewing, I realized Clay was sitting there barefoot. Do you think Emma Jean gave him a happy ending or just a foot rub while wearing lingerie? (Okay, I don’t think Sutter would take a page from The Client List.)

Nero wondered if Gemma had love for Clay on the other side of that hate. “I got nothin’ good left for Clay,” she assured him. Believe her? I do. Especially if Clay is the one who later called in the cops and had them raid Nero’s brothel and put everyone, including Gemma, in cuffs. Though Carla had another theory. “It had to be Emma Jean,” she said. Emma Jean had left without talking to Nero and went to another escort service. We’ll see her again…

Your turn. Sound off on the episode below. Are you angry that Opie died, or do you understand why he’s the one who had to fall? Sutter has long said this season is about seeing what kind of a leader Jax is, and whether he can be president without becoming Clay or suffering the same fate as his father. Who knows which direction Opie’s death will send Jax careening. Sutter is doing a conference call with reporters at 1 p.m. ET Wednesday. If you have questions about what went down, put them in the comments as well. (I’m curious if Tara will still be doing some gratis work at the prison now that Jax is out. That’s one way they can find out the guard’s name and perhaps get to Otto…)

I’ll leave you with this exchange:

Opie: Aren’t you gettin’ tired of this?

Jax: Lockup or being confused by your vague questions?

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