If I had to speculate about what helped make "Sons of Anarchy" such a big hit for FX, it wouldn't just be the extreme violence, the soapy twists, the provocative peek into outlaw culture or the availability on Netflix Instant. Those are all important factors, sure, but so is the strong sense of friendship and brotherhood at the core of SAMCRO. At one point or another, I think every fan of "Sons of Anarchy" has bonded with the characters because of their bonds with each other. And that's not something we've seen much of this season, at least until "Salvage."

With Jax making bad decisions left and right, the club crumbling around him and complete chaos reigning in the show's writers room (this is the first episode so far this season that doesn't prominently feature a murder!), the bonds of brotherhood have been on the backburner. That makes the surprisingly sweet nature of "Salvage" even more unexpected, especially coming right after an episode that ended with the clubhouse explosion. The most shocking thing about "Salvage" is that *nothing* shocking happens.

That's not to say it's a bore (for my money it's easily the most enjoyable episode of the season), or that the show would be better off abandoning all shock value. It would just be nice to see this kind of modulation on a more regular basis from the writers -- give the characters time to breathe, the audience time to enjoy themselves, and be more judicious about how and when to dole out the crazy stuff. Those moments could elicit an even more powerful response when they land if they didn't just feel like designated Terrible Things of the Week.

So, what did we have in place of the usual Season 6 cocktail of murder, rape and degradation? Well, a six minute (!) speech from Jax, for one. I tried to transcribe as much as I could of Jax's monologue during the meeting, but at a certain point I just gave up (and I doubt it was even halfway yet). That's not a criticism. Scenes like that are incredibly rare on series TV. There's just not time, and even if there was most showrunners probably wouldn't trust a contemporary ADD audience to stay with them. Let's give Kurt Sutter (and/or co-writer Mike Daniels) credit for that, and finally finding a reason to justify "Sons" stretching beyond its typical running time.

As much as I still dislike Jax, Charlie Hunnam nailed that speech and it was a necessary reminder of what Jax believes he's trying to achieve. He actually had a point to make ("We've had 20 members killed in the last two years, all of those deaths tied to the gun business," feels like the key soundbite) and once again appeared to be a credible leader with a (relatively) sensible vision to keep his extended biker family safe and successful. Instituting that vision will surely prove more difficult than Jax would like, and it's possible too much damage has already been done (from both the school shooting and the IRA beef) to truly salvage his club, but this is as optimistic as we've seen "Sons of Anarchy" in a very long time.

There's no better moment for Bobby Elvis to reveal what he's actually been up to since the season premiere. It turns out he wasn't recruiting nomads after all, he was recruiting new members for SAMCRO. Bobby explains to Jax he has nothing but brotherly love for both him and the club, apparently letting bygones be bygones and returning to the club just in time to extract a little mild retribution on the cops who messed with them (and nabbed Juice's bike) in Eden.

For all the old school SAMCRO fun and games, "Salvage" was still filled with ominous signs of trouble ahead. Galen is still in a power position with the IRA, and even if it looks like the rest of the council is starting to doubt him a bit (Jax keeping Connor alive was a clear hit to Galen's credibility), they're moving forward with his silly plan to bust Clay out of jail and put him in charge of guns.

Juice is showing serious signs of the total nervous breakdown he's been heading toward for awhile. Remember when he smothered the school shooter's mother to death just four episodes ago? Yeah, I nearly forgot since we've seen so little of him since.

In a more welcome development, Tyne Patterson is ready to double down on taking out the club. She's moving forward with charging Nero for Toric's crime (even though Roosevelt suspects what actually happened) and has decided to personally prosecute Tara. Just last week I was worried Sutter hired C.C.H. Pounder for nothing. The moment she pulled off that terrible wig and told herself it's "time to go hood, sista," all my fears evaporated. (It was also great to see her go toe to toe with Gemma in Roosevelt's office, if only for a moment. More of that too, please.)

Of course, Tyne insisting on keeping Nero locked up is just one more reason to worry about Jimmy Smits' future on the show. We've had enough warning signs now that I wouldn't be surprised if he's killed off next week, though I hope it's misdirection and there's something bigger planned. The worrisome thing about an episode as relaxed and tragedy-free as "Salvage" is it probably means something even more awful is right around the corner.



Odds and ends:

- Maybe I'm burying the lede by waiting this long to mention the surprise return of Walton Goggins as Venus Van Dam, but once again the show brilliantly kept his appearance a secret with no advance publicity and billing only in the end credits. It turns out Venus has a special relationship with Nero, who used to pimp out Venus' birth mother Alice (what a swell guy) and took care of young Vincent Noone after Alice went to jail. It's all rather convenient, but at least by establishing a connection between Gemma and Venus the show has an excuse to bring Goggins back at any point, no matter what happens to Nero.

- Tara is sounding more and more like a character on "The Walking Dead." As she tells Unser, "I don't know what's more frightening, the violence getting worse or my ability to simply take it in stride."

- Also, Tara officially let Unser into her inner circle and now he knows her plan to divorce Jax and ensure Wendy has custody of the boys if (or when) Tara goes to jail.

- "We gossip more than teenage girls." The wisdom of Bobby Elvis.

- Running time PSA: Next week's episode is only 75 minutes! That should fly right by.