A review of tonight's "Sons of Anarchy" coming up just as soon as I have you around to translate the Catholic...

"You're gonna die at the gavel." -Opie

Twice before this season, an episode has built and built towards the death of a member of SAMCRO in the final scene. With Piney, it actually happened. With Juice, the branch broke and saved his life.

Which way will Opie shooting Clay go? Will the two-part finale deal with how the club tries to undo all his schemes without him around to explain them? Or will the first scene next week open with Clay coughing, followed by Jax pulling open his shirt to discover that Clay, forewarned of Opie's attack by Gemma, pulled a Doc Brown and put on a bullet proof vest? Or even something in between, where he's wounded but not fatally?

You know which way I'd like things to go, so I won't repeat that again. But because we don't know for sure yet(*), I can't really judge whether "Burnt and Purged Away" was a great bit of dramatic catharsis or one prolonged tease before Clay is back pulling all the puppet strings once again.

(*) Let me remind you, once again, in the most blatant way I can, DO NOT TALK ABOUT WHAT'S IN THE PREVIEWS FOR NEXT WEEK'S EPISODE. I gave you this warning after "Fruit for the Crows," and still a bunch of people felt the need to point out the 2-second glimpse of Juice, alive and relatively well, in the previews. Any comments that discuss the content of the previews will be deleted, regardless of what other smart things you might have to say.  

What I can judge the episode on, though, is the sensational performance throughout by Ryan Hurst, and a pretty terrific one in its own right by Kurt Sutter.

Opie appears at the beginning of the episode at Gemma's house, and then is in the final scenes at the crematorium and the clubhouse, but he's largely absent in between. Yet his presence hangs over the entire episode, not just because Gemma and Wayne and Jax keep talking about him, not just because we know what he intends to do, but because every precious second Hurst is on camera is just plain riveting. Opie is so wounded, and so angry, and feels so betrayed by all the people he trusted and the world he thought was there to protect him, and Hurst shows every raw nerve that's jutting out from Opie's giant, vengeance-fueled body.(**)

(**) It also helps that he goes without his knit cap for most of this. Opie with his hair hanging down is a much more striking figure than when he's keeping his hair held as close as his emotions.

I talked last week about how underused Hurst seems at times, and I can see why Sutter would be reluctant to unleash him for long stretches. Because of what happened with Donna at the end of the first season, and because Hurst plays Opie's righteous fury so magnetically, it becomes hard to focus on anything else when the story goes back to that place. When Opie wants justice for Donna, and now for Piney, he turns into the hero of the show, even though the show was designed around Jax as the conflicted hero. Laertes may deliver the killing blow to Hamlet, but Shakespeare at least let Hamlet be the one to kill Claudius, rather than have Laertes or someone else swoop in to take out the bad guy while Hamlet stood on the sidelines screaming, "Nooo!!!"

If Clay survives, and improbably remains in power, I will continue to worry about Opie, because we're now past the point where these two can co-exist around that table. But if Opie's on the way out, Sutter is giving him an incredibly memorable, howling final lap. And if he actually did get to be the one to put Clay down, then I can think of no character on the show more deserving of the job.

And Sutter himself continues to do great work as Otto. He's only acted on screen in this role and as Margos (a largely silent role) on "The Shield," but we're now at the point where I'd be curious to see him try to act as a hired gun, the way John Cassavetes would do the occasional mainstream movie like "The Fury" to help pay for his independent films. Sutter doesn't need the money to subsidize "Sons," which is FX's flagship show, but what he's showed in terms of screen presence makes me curious to see if it can translate when it's not a role on a show where he's either in charge or a prominent producer.

Like Hurst, he's not in much of the episode - really just the sarcastic, weary scene with Potter and then his meeting with Bobby - but he also makes every moment count. Otto is, like Opie, a victim of Clay's management style. He's suffered terribly for his loyalty to the club - so much that he's trying to move his execution date up, rather than live an extra day as a nearly-blind, isolated, miserable, betrayed widower - and even as he confronted Bobby, it wasn't with a tone of smug satisfaction, but regretful commiseration. He's punishing Bobby for the betrayal with Luann, but he can also empathize with what Bobby's about to go through as the club's new man inside.

And speaking of which, the apocalyptic tone of this season continues with those final scenes. Bobby is now tied to a bunch of crimes courtesy of Otto. Juice is in the next cell, having given up the location and time of the meeting between the cartel and the Irish Kings and not in any kind of position to stop it (or even ensure that close friends like Jax and Chibs stay away from it). And where the club could hustle Stahl because she was acting largely alone, Potter is working in concert with lots and lots of people on the local and federal level. Clay's murder of Piney is out in the open, and either he's dead or the club is going to have a messy dispute to figure out. And Jax is planning to leave town forever the day after tomorrow.

If this were the final season, this would feel about right. But it's not. We know Jax isn't going to Oregon, that the club's not going to disband, and that there will need to be enough bodies to sit around that table come the start of season 5.

Can Sutter and company satisfyingly resolve all of this season's story arcs in a way in which the series going forward seems plausible? I don't know. Season 3 had all kinds of problems and then concluded brilliantly, where season 2 was brilliant but wobbled a fair amount in its last two episodes.

Quality-wise, this season has felt somewhere in the middle of the previous two. Throughout this year, the emotional material involving Jax and Tara and Juice and Opie and Otto and several others has been outstanding, but the plot machinations needed to bring us to those moments have veered between compelling and frustrating. So much of the action has been driven by these magical, mysterious letters, which the show has failed to convince me are so powerful that they would consistently lead Gemma to make so many stupid decisions. (She keeps saying that telling Jax the truth about various things would break his heart, and in the process of covering events up, sets in motion various actions that will almost certainly hurt him far, far more than learning that Clay murdered his old man, or whatever else is contained in those papers.) The show failed to adequately sell Juice's motivation for betraying the club, but his remorse about doing so has been so well-handled by the writers and Theo Rossi.

I'd like to believe that the two-part finale will be every bit the equal of "NS," and that if it doesn't make me forget the various points in this season that made me roll my eyes at various characters losing IQ points in service of the plot, it'll at least let me ignore it and focus on how well things ended. But these next two hours could contort the characters and the world even further just to ensure that SAMCRO is largely unchanged heading into the series' second half.

We'll see. 

A few other thoughts:

* Getting back to Gemma for a moment, it's one thing to have a character whose actions are driven by a character flaw or blind spot, and another when so, so much of a season's action is being driven by that flaw. But do you think she was actually trying to reconcile with Clay by warning him about Opie, or just trying to keep him alive long enough to secure her money and make sure Clay died the way she wanted him to? The problem is that Gemma keeps everything so close to the vest, constantly telling Wayne, Jax, etc. to trust her without giving a scrap of an idea of her plan.

* Sutter doesn't believe in doing flashback scenes, but he can't keep his viewers from occasionally having them, as I did when Jax lost his cool at discovering the local counterpart of the baby factory where Abel was held in Belfast. Though it unfortunately made me think back on the weaker parts of season 3, I will say that it was still more effective than most of the material built around JT's letters, because it's a character reacting to a bit of history we experienced, rather than one we keep being told about.

* Loved the black comic choice of having Jax use the borrowed hearse to chase after Opie, whose actions painted him as a man who doesn't necessarily expect to be alive much longer. I wonder what, if any, legal implications will come of this, as Jax left the scene of an accident and stole a man's motorcycle, all while wearing his cut.

* Also got a chuckle out of Tig running down the whereabouts of the various club members for Clay, summing up the season so far with, "And Miles and Kozik are dead."

Keeping in mind, once again, that ANY COMMENT DISCUSSING THE PREVIEWS FOR NEXT WEEK IS FORBIDDEN AND WILL BE DELETED, What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com