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

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

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