A review of tonight's "Sons of Anarchy" coming up just as soon as I blame disgruntled Armenian mechanics...

"I thought I knew what we were getting into. We're in over our head." -Jax

I'm of two minds on "Family Recipe."

On the one hand, the episode significantly ups the danger level for the club by dropping off those decapitated heads, scaring Tara off to Oregon and, most importantly, with Clay murdering Piney - the first death of a character played by a core character since Half-Sack.(*) For all these threats, external and internal, to feel real, sooner or later the show had to bump off someone who mattered rather than a minor player like Armando. And before Piney died, and before Tara skipped town, both characters were part of tremendous scenes involving Jax.

(*) And given that Sutter says Half-Sack was only killed because the actor wanted to leave the show, this makes the first time the show has bumped off a regular character for pure story purposes. 

On the other hand, the puppet strings feel particularly visible this week.

Obviously, we start with Juice's survival. I didn't feel lied to, given that I heard the tree branch breaking at the end of last week's episode and figured out right away what that meant, but it does seem cheap - like the show wanted to exploit the pathos of Juice hanging himself over what started out as a racial conflict, but didn't actually want to kill him off. If Juice dies, it's a powerful moment, but it also stops the Potter story in its tracks, because Potter doesn't have a source inside the club he can manipulate - and that the show in turn can use to contrive tension within the group. Given how good Theo Rossi has been these last few weeks, I'm glad he'll get more of an opportunity to strut his stuff, but the self-lynching scene seems particular manipulative in light of the character's continued existence.

Then there's the way the rival cartel conveniently arrives just as the club is in the middle of voting on Bobby's leadership challenge. We don't know exactly how the vote would have gone down - Clay, Tig and Jax were obviously on one side, Bobby, Opie and Piney on the other, and the remaining four up for grabs enough that it could have easily been a tie - but having the truck filled with severed heads ride in at that exact moment feels much like the tree limb happening to break under Juice's weight: a way to get out from under a significant confrontation the show didn't want to deal with yet. Clay being in power - and doing everything possible to maintain that power - has, like Potter/Roosevelt blackmailing Juice, been a good generator of conflict this season, so Clay gets to stay in power at least long enough for Piney to invite Clay to murder him.

Seriously, good as William Lucking was throughout this episode - particularly in the Piney/Opie reconciliation, and then when Piney talked to Jax - he may as well have carried a "I will be dying in xx minutes" countdown clock from the second Piney told Clay that A)He was going to go hang out in his conveniently isolated cabin for the rest of the day, and B)If Clay didn't get out of a deal within 24 hours that Clay wasn't going going to get out of, Piney would reveal truths about Clay that could get him kicked out of the big seat, if not far worse. At that point, was there any way Clay wouldn't kill Piney? Throughout the entire Jax/Piney scene, my notes read roughly like, "Piney tells Jax how much he reminds him of his father, BUT FAILS TO TELL HIM ABOUT THE LETTERS, EVEN THOUGH HE'LL BE DEAD IN 20 MINUTES... Jax doesn't want to hear about old history, AND PINEY STUPIDLY DOESN'T TELL HIM ABOUT THE LETTERS, AND WON'T HAVE A CHANCE AFTER THIS EPISODE..."

Killing Piney is on one level a huge event in the series, and in another a way to maintain the status quo. He's the least active member of SAMCRO, turning up mainly to complain about Clay, and his death leaves Clay clearly in charge for now, having now been responsible for the murder of both Opie's wife and father. At the time that Opie found out about Donna, and then postponed his vengeance in order to save Chibs and heal the club, it seemed like a plausible way to get out of a story that arguably should have ended with at least one of Opie, Tig and Clay dead on the clubhouse floor. But the show hasn't done anything interesting with that since then; Opie has just let it slide, and only references Donna in the context of missing her as his wife, not as a reason to mistrust (if not hate) Clay and Tig. And I fear that when the truth about Piney comes out - and it will at some point, even if the club somehow falls for Clay's ruse involving the rival cartel(**) - there will be another contrivance used to keep everybody in play.

(**) One apparent mistake Clay made: Piney's death wasn't nearly brutal enough, given the LS behavior so far towards members of the Mayans and Sons. Scrawling their initials in blood on the frame shouldn't, in theory, fool smart people for very long. Then again, not a lot of Sherlock Holmes types in SAMCRO.

Great as Ron Perlman is, I do wonder if the show hasn't passed the point where Clay should be alive - or, at least, in such power. Clay's greed, ego and self-preservation instinct drives a lot of story and gets the club into a lot of trouble, but it's beginning to seem less and less plausible - or, at least, turning him from an interestingly grey character into an outright supervillain. I'd like to see the season head down a road where Clay is either out of the picture or marginalized, and Jax and Opie are finally in charge, ready to reform the club - and discover that it's a hell of a lot harder than they imagined, even without Clay on the throne. But even if more people die this season - and I still don't expect Juice to survive, though now he has the chance to go out in more of a blaze of glory - based on the way the show has worked to this point, I have a feeling Clay will still be in charge, Jax and Opie will still be following his lead for one reason or another, and the strings will be more visible all the time.

"Sons of Anarchy" is most interesting when the conflict flows naturally out of what the characters would do, and runs into trouble when everything is driven by outside forces, both within the show and without. Last year dealt with both at once, as the Irish villains were as problematic as the writing choices that made this the overarching story. This year, the club tensions are mainly internal (the various cartels are only creating reasons for the club members to mistrust each other), but it still feels like a lot of the action is coming not because this is what the characters would do, but because this is the easiest way to keep the story on a predetermined course.

And that can be even more frustrating in an episode like this one that has so many great individual moments than one that's not as strong overall.

Some other thoughts:

• But let's go back to the good for a minute: Jax, Tara, and one uncomfortable but necessary conversation featuring fine work from Charlie Hunnam and Maggie Siff. She needs to get the hell out, and take the boys with her, and my only concern for her is that Oregon isn't nearly far enough.

• I was also amused by the "family recipe" that provided the show with its title. It wasn't especially necessary, but fit the whole Kurt Sutter "it's so wrong" aesthetic.

• How sincere do you think Piney's apology was, anyway? Wholly, or at least some percentage a canny way to get his son's vote? Seen in the light of Piney's later "Please kill me" statement to Clay, that scene was part of an extended curtain call for the character, but it was a good moment.

• And how much do you think Chibs realized in the moment he saw the chain? Just that Juice tried to kill himself? Or, given their earlier conversation about the rule against blacks, and the various close-ups of Chibs eyeing Juice suspiciously, all of it? At the very least, Juice has found the most sympathetic man in SAMCRO to figure this out, given what a similar position Chibs found himself in back in season 2.

• The garage Gemma told Roosevelt about shares a name with the Armenian hitman Sutter played on "The Shield."

• Liked the little glimpse of Happy eyeing Luis' briefcase of torture implements with something resembling professional curiosity.

What did everybody else think?