Kurt Sutter, you clever bastard.

Right when the networks are in the midst of launching and returning their big guns, "Sons of Anarchy" unleashes an episode designed to dominate TV chatter. Whether you loved, hated or were simply heartbroken by "Laying Pipe," it's not an episode you're going to forget. Or stop talking about for weeks to come.

If the amount of times someone says "Did you see 'Sons of Anarchy' last night?! Holy crap!" is one valid way to judge a showrunner's success, Sutter should be feeling pretty damn accomplished tomorrow.

Sutter has taken his knocks for not letting us properly feel the life and death stakes of SAMCRO's criminal activity. We've had a few casualties here and there (last season's murder of Piney the most significant), but for the most part the club has always managed to keep on ticking even when their rivals on both sides of the law aren't so lucky. Last season felt like a 14-episode arc inevitably building to the death of Clay Morrow until that deus ex CIA in the finale saved his skin.

Tonight, SAMCRO wasn't so lucky.

If you went into the episode blissfully unaware of the Twitter declarations that something seriously majorly crazy big was gonna go down, I don't know how you ever would've seen it coming. Even when Damon Pope told Jax that one of the Sons needed to die as payback for the dead cop and One-Niner, anyone familiar with how "Sons" works would probably expect Jax to find some clever way out of the situation. Sure, Pope had the solitary guard on his side (and what a marvelously sleazy portrayal of soulless corruption character actor Jack Conley brought to that role), but there had to be another twist coming. Right?

By having the courage to actually make good on Pope's power play, there were two ways for the writers to go. (For the record, the script was credited to Kem Nunn, Liz Sagal and Sutter). They understandably take Tig off the table, even though he clearly would've sacrificed himself for the club and Jax clearly wouldn't have minded if he did. That would've made the death too easy. Not painful enough. And obviously Jax isn't going to put himself up to appease Pope. That wouldn't fly. So it came down to Opie or Chibs.

The safe choice was good old expendable Chibs. It would still be shocking to see "Sons" kill off a core cast member, and personally I'd miss the role I expect he'll play in the follow-up to last season's lingering subplot about Juice's African-American father. But the show could knock off Chibs and just keep rolling along. I'd guess most viewers would've pegged him as the sacrificial lamb, if there had to be one.

The ballsy choice was Opie. Jax's best friend and in some ways the soul of the show. The man who willingly went to jail to protect SAMCRO, forgave Clay and Tig for the murder of his wife, and ultimately reached his breaking point when Clay killed his father. Opie is a key player in the show's central drama, about as important as you can be without being named Jax, Clay, Gemma or Tara.

Sutter picked the ballsy choice. And I'm sure some fans are going to be really pissed off.

Opie's death scene itself was a brutal, captivatingly staged highlight for episode director Adam Arkin. From Ryan Hurst's delivery of the morbid "I got this" as false reassurance to the reactions of Charlie Hunnam and Tommy Flanagan as they watched (and Kim Coates' back as he couldn't bring himself to watch) to that artful, sickening gush of blood after the death blow, Arkin milked the sequence for maximum impact.

My own feelings about Opie made watching it even more uneasy. I borderline hated the character for awhile after his wife, Donna, died, because I held him partially responsible for letting his devotion to the club take precedence over her demands for a better life. Donna wasn't a very complex character and was frequently written as a shrew, but I still considered her death one of the most emotionally affecting moments of the first season. Opie later forgiving Tig and Clay, staying with the club and striking up a romance with irritating porn star Lyla did nothing to endear the character to me. But last season, as the show began to resurrect Opie's grief and inability to completely move on after Donna's death, and then really brought down the hammer with his discovery that Clay killed his father, Opie suddenly became a vital, compelling character to me again. So yes, his death hurts. As it should.

But it's possible the show also wrote him into a corner. After the deaths of both Donna and Piney, there's just no way Opie could credibly function in the club. Even his friendship with Jax was looking more and more untenable with the number of secrets Jax was keeping, and his refusal to let Opie avenge Piney's death. Jax came totally clean to Opie shortly before he died -- spilling everything from the truth about JT's death to Romeo's role with CIA -- but some wounds are too deep.

Just how burnt out Opie had become was spelled out in one of the episode's early scenes: "Aren't you getting tired of this?" he asked Jax in the prison courtyard. "It just ain't fun anymore. Chasing cash we don't need, and spending every dime trying to stay alive." The writers have enough of a challenge trying to explain why Jax isn't tired, but now they don't have to worry about Opie.

There's also real dramatic justification for this death beyond avoiding coming up with creative ways to keep Opie and Clay apart, and proving the writers have the guts to kill someone the audience wouldn't expect. Opie's sudden act of self-sacrifice should be another important turning point on Jax's journey. When Jax tried to explain his reasoning for protecting Clay, he told Opie: "I had to make a choice. Kill Clay or save the club." I have a feeling Opie's answer -- "You made the wrong choice." -- is going to resonate in Jax for the rest of his life.

We know Jax will hunt down and probably destroy that solitary guard. And we know that Jax has already marked Clay for death as soon as possible. But is there anything left for him to cling to now in the club? Has he finally realized there's no way to cut the cancer out of the club, the club itself is a cancer?

"There's a new plan," Jax told Pope after Opie's death. "I just watched my best friend get beaten to death for you. Now I'm gonna get the club to sign off on your cash, but I need Trager outside. Him knowing I saved his life gives me an internal advantage I'm gonna need. When I'm done you can send him out the same way you did his kid, cause I really don't give a shit." Is he really just talking about Tig? Or do those feelings extend to SAMCRO?

Odds and ends:

- While the episode was primarily focused on the prison story, there was also a significant chunk of time devoted to a new war brewing between Gemma, Tara and Jax's ex Wendy (Drea de Matteo). We knew this was coming when Wendy popped back up at the tail end of last season. It won't be pretty.

- I'll be looking forward to Conley's return as the solitary guard when Jax takes his inevitable revenge. Any bets Jax throws the taunt "This is my hell, bitch. I make the rules," back in his face?

- In one of the evening's lighter moments, Nero's "whore Friday" Carla (Wanda de Jesus) grabs Juice and heads for a room. Carla teases Nero: "You think you're the only one who gets to play with white trash?" Juice yells out: "Actually I'm Puerto Rican!"

- Is that really all we're going to see of "High School Musical" graduate Ashley Tisdale as Nero's Southern import? It seems she's a bit too big of a name to sign on for just one catfight with Gemma.

- Just as Jax comes out of jail, Gemma goes in. She was caught up in the raid on Nero's place. We'll see what that stirs up next week.