"Sons of Anarchy" returned tonight. I posted my broad review of the season's early episodes yesterday, and an interview with creator Kurt Sutter last week. Now it's time to get into the nitty-gritty of the premiere, with spoilers coming up just as soon as I sell you some magazines...

"Every time I think maybe I'm heading in the right direction, I end up in a place I never even knew could feel this bad. What did I do, man?" -Jax

In my review, I expressed some concern over the idea that the kidnapping of Abel is such a big, primal crime that it would basically take over the show. And though "So" sets up several ongoing storylines - Gemma's fugitive run and her father, the Charming mayoral election, whoever it was who attacked SAMCRO after Half-Sack's wake - the episode as a whole does pretty much get swallowed up by the search for Abel, and by Jax's grief over the (hopefully not permanent) loss of his son. Unlike Gemma's rape last season, this is a crime that's both known to everyone and where there's still a goal beyond getting revenge on the perpetrator. Abel is still out there, still needs to be found, and it's hard for both Jax and the show to focus on anything else.

But damn... if Charlie Hunnam is going to be this good at showing Jax feeling this bad, I can live with him and that story dominating the series for a while.

If you were reading me back on the old blog, I wasn't entirely sold on Hunnam when the series began. Maybe it was the accent (which has either gotten better, or I've just gotten used to how he sounds doing it), maybe it was the difficulty Sutter had in the early stages of making a conflicted character with a peacenik agenda interesting in this world, or maybe it was the symbiosis of actor and role that sometimes doesn't happen right out of the gate. But he's owned Jax for a long time now, and he's so savagely great in this episode: so hurt and lost for so much of the hour(*), and then so righteously angry when he bashes the shooter's head into the pavement after the drive-by.

(*) I don't know if it was makeup, or method acting, or a combination of the two, but Hunnam looked perfectly exhausted and empty for most of the hour.

Clay spends all episode prodding Jax into finding his anger and using it, but I doubt even he expected something quite as brutal and uncontrollable as what Jax released there. It's interesting, though, to note how often Clay calls Jax "son" in this episode - something, which if he did earlier in the series, was so rare that I don't recall it. Clay is trying to be there for his stepson at his moment of greatest despair, but knowing what we do about their conflict of the past two seasons, and their conflicting visions of the club, it's hard to look at his behavior as 100% altruistic. He wants Abel back as much as everyone, and he does feel for Jax, but he's also taking advantage of the circumstances to turn Jax into the man Jax has been so reluctant to be - to be the kind of ruthless killer who can keep SAMCRO respected and feared whenever the arthritis keeps Clay from riding anymore.

But whatever Clay's exact motives, you can see that everyone - other than Gemma, who doesn't know, and Stahl, who's too much of a narcissist to really empathize - has been deeply affected by the boy's abduction. (And to a lesser extent by the murder of Half-Sack.) Jax's grief radiates in waves, to the point where he's able to defuse the stand-off between the Sons and the other gang with only a few words. You look at that face, you hear that voice and what it's saying, and you can't help but feel for him, too.

And Tara, who's become more a mother to Abel than his real mother, is wrecked by both his abduction and Jax's attempt to push her away before she gets hurt by the family business. This is Hunnam's episode, but Maggie Siff is damn good during both of Tara's freak-outs, in the nursery and then in surgery. (And also when Tara approaches Half-Sack's coffin and she has to flash back to how he died protecting her and Abel.) She may insist to Jax that her life is better with him in it, but seeing what she's been through before, and what she goes through here, I'm not so sure - even though I wouldn't want to see this show without Siff in it.

The fugitive storyline necessitates that Gemma be out of town, and out of the loop, while everyone else is worried for Abel, but lest anyone fear Katey Sagal was going to fade into the background once the rape/Aryan storyline ended, not to worry. Gemma is gone from Charming but not forgotten by the show, and Sagal's work with the great Hal Holbrook - just look at the way this hardened 50-something woman turns back into her daddy's little girl when she's in his presence - and the earlier scene where she stabs the guy whose truck she was stealing are clear signs that Sutter continues to know what kind of material his wife can so beautifully play. I particularly like Gemma's response to Tig's question about whether she's out of her mind - "Maybe a little" - as both a good laugh and an honest admission of vulnerability from this tough woman at a time when so much of her life is up in the air.

But for this episode, at least, Gemma's trip to see the reverend is a definite sidelight to what's happening down in Charming, climaxing in that intense, unexpected violence after the wake that leaves poor Hale dead(**), a little boy shot, others wounded, and Jax Teller showing everyone in the Sons of Anarchy, and in the town of Charming, that you do not want to mess with him right now.

(**) Unser's never gonna get to retire, is he? They'll be doing the 30th season of this show and Dayton Callie will be getting around inside a motorized iron lung, and there will still be some excuse for Wayne to stick around as sheriff.

Hell of an ending to the episode. Hell of a start to season three.

Some other thoughts:

• David Hale may be dead, but his brother Jacob should continue to be a thorn in SAMCRO's side as he runs for mayor against Oswald, the Sons' rich buddy who owns the lumber mill and put up their bail money after the gun charge from Zoebell's trap last season.

• How lame, by the way, are the Charming PD? I get that they're shocked by the sudden violence and apparent death of their soon-to-be boss, but how do these guys let Jax do so much damage to the bad guy without intervening?

• Since I first watched this episode a month ago, I've been struggling to figure out what might have prompted a newspaper story about Gemma's dad (which was clearly just a fakeout to make us think she knew about Abel). Any suggestions on what a newspaper would be writing about an ex-reverend struggling with dementia?

• The songs this week include Graham Gouldman's Joshua James and the Forest Rangers' cover of Herman's Hermits "No Milk Today" (the opening montage), The Sadies' "Sunset to Dawn," The Chimpz's "Home Invasion" (the car chase) and Richard Thompson's "Dad's Gonna Kill Me" (the final montage).

• Ah, Ally Walker: so completely willing to be hateable as Stahl. I love that she seems like she almost believes the story she invented about Gemma by this point.

• We still don't know what the beef is between Tig and Kozik (Kenny Johnson from "The Shield," reprising his cameo from the end of last season), but it looks like we're going to find out now that Kozik is petitioning to relocate to Charming. Interesting that the Charming charter would no longer be the biggest one, but it makes sense from a backstage standpoint. The charter needs to be relatively small so we can have scenes around the clubhouse table where there aren't a bunch of non-speaking extras who are there to add numbers without contributing to the discussion. As it is, Sutter has a tough enough time as it is finding material for the likes of Juice and Bobby Elvis without having to come up with more characters, though it sounds like Happy is going to join the charter full-time (though I expect the Sutter to keep using that character mainly to be scary in group scenes).

• Similarly, at Comic-Con, Sutter explained that he struggled in the first two seasons to come up with material for Half-Sack, given how marginalized an actual prospect would be. So this year the plan is to treat the three new prospects - Opie names them as Filthy Phil, Shepherd and Miles - as ancillary characters, who'll only appear in scenes that genuinely need/justify a prospect's presence. I am interested to see that process from the beginning, since Half-Sack had already been prospecting for a while when the series began.

• Our brief glimpse of Cameron and Abel in Belfast at the episode's end introduces us to our latest "Sons"/"Deadwood" acting crossover (see also Callie and Titus Welliver) in Paula Malcomson. I keep holding out hope for the eventual Ian McShane appearance, folks.

What did everybody else think?