Episodes like this are why I can't give up on "Sons of Anarchy."

"Andare Pescare" (translated from Italian it's "to go fishing") is as consistent, satisfying, and simply well done an episode of "Sons" as we've seen in a long time. If the balance of tough guy action and emotional character interactions was always this finely tuned, "Sons" would be a threat to the best dramas on TV.

Most of the season's episodes have been structured around SAMCRO completing a mission, and for once the mission actually felt important. The goal of tracking down Frankie Diamonds is far more compelling than, say, getting Emma Jean to safety or calling in Venus van Damme to pose for blackmail photos. We don't know Frankie that well, but we understand exactly what's on the line for Jax, Clay, and even Roosevelt in the hunt to find him.

There's real suspense over who will find him first and what happens when they do, and director Billy Gierhart has fun with the action leading up to the main event. Both the casino brawl ("Somebody sneezes and you throw a fist? How do you get any business done?" guest star Peter Onorati's Leo amusingly wonders) and Frankie's spontaneous murder in the safe house packed a real punch.

But the high octane stuff really kicks in when Clay and Juice pull up just before Frankie can make his getaway: explosions, shootouts, Clay with a shotgun. "Sons" never skimps on the action but it's rarely this viscerally exciting. Two more twists keep the adrenaline pumping: Jax arrives just in the nick of time to save Frankie from Clay's inevitable execution, then Leo walks in and dispatches with Frankie himself. So much for Jax's best laid plans.

While the pursuit of Frankie fulfills the thrills, writers Liz Sagal and Kurt Sutter pay more attention than usual to delicate character interactions in the two key subplots: Gemma's blossoming romance with Nero and Tara's second try at getting Otto to take back his testimony in the RICO case.

How refreshing is it to see a grown-up romantic relationship developing between two characters over 50 on TV? Jimmy Smits continues to be a major boon to this season, and tonight's episode showcased his value better than ever as Gemma and Nero opened their hearts and unloaded personal baggage in a series of tender but never full-on sentimental scenes. When you have chemistry in a mausoleum, you know it's the real deal.

And the pair of scenes between Otto and Tara were arguably the best of the night, two sterling examples of the show's twisted sensibility put to its best use. Sutter long ago proved his acting chops in the role of Otto, but he outdid himself here as a man already at the end of his rope who completely unravels over the scent of his lost love. The sight of Otto sniffing Tara's wrist as his hand moves ... elsewhere ... can't match the brutality of some of the season's showcase moments, but it ranks right up there with the most memorable. Sad, creepy and perversely funny, it's like something out of a David Lynch film and considerably more moving than we usually get from the show's standard shock tactics.

In the end, Tara got what she (and SAMCRO) needed, Gemma found new resolve in her relationship with Nero, and Jax was still able to get Roosevelt to confirm that Juice is the club's rat even without delivering Frankie alive as Roosevelt had demanded.

We'll see what happens to Juice next week, but there's an equally dark cloud lingering over Gemma. Nero may be giving her strength, but her family is too important to abandon. Knowing that there's a way back into Jax's home is all she needs to go through with his indecent proposal and cozy up to Clay. So she shows up at Clay's door to give him his shots, just like old times.



Odds and ends:

- In addition to the excellent stuff between Nero/Gemma and Tara/Otto, there was another terrific two character scene between Clay and Bobby at the clubhouse. When Bobby asks him if he wants the president's seat back, Clay answers "I thought I did." Does he mean it?

- Gemma's response when Nero asks if she ever broke into a grave when she was younger: "No, I'm not Tig!"

- The episode opened with a rare dialogue scene between Jax and Abel. Have we ever seen the kid talk that much before? Maybe they're getting him ready for Wendy's inevitable return...

- Before he died, Frankie told Juice that Clay was in fact behind the home invasions. That's got to come into play when Jax confronts Juice about being the rat, right?

- I think I'm required by HitFix law to mention that, yes, that was Karina Logue of "Terriers" as the prison nurse who warned Tara: "Mr. Delaney likes to stick shit in people's ears. Be careful."