As sprawling and convoluted and ludicrously overlong as this season of "Sons of Anarchy" has been, it basically boils down to two major storylines: Jax's attempt to extract SAMCRO from the business of gun running and longstanding connections with the IRA and Tara's attempt to extract her boys from the dangerous world Jax is trying to make safer.

Both Jax and Tara made significant advancements in tonight's penultimate episode, but the vast divide in how compelling these two storylines have been illustrates what a sloppy, frustrating, mess this show has become.

Does anyone actually care about anything that's happened with the Irish all season long? Was there any reason we had to spend so much time watching it all shake down (besides a convenient excuse to pad out the season's new standard 90-minute running time)? The turf wars, crazy Galen O'Shay, ambitious August Marks, the last minute introduction of the Chinese ... all this trumped up conflict kinda sorta found a resonant climax in Clay's death last week, but that could've been achieved in any number of ways, for any number of reasons.

I suppose SAMCRO's Irish troubles illustrated how much worse things needed to get for Jax and the club before they could possibly get better. There was a whole lot of blood spilled in the name of Jax's supposedly noble cause of taking the club legit. And even though Jax thinks he's successfully achieved his goal -- the top Chinese players went down in a hail of bullets, the Irish are willing to work with Marks, SAMCRO can step aside -- there are hints this cowboy solution isn't as open-and-shut as Jax imagines. As one of Marks' underlings retorts when Jax claims they're out of the game, "Come on Teller, who you kidding?"

The Byz Lats are ticked off about the power vacuum SAMCRO is leaving behind, and while the Irish may be temporarily willing to work with Marks, a larger war appears to be brewing in the absence of Jax's peacemaking. These complicated power plays have never been the show's strong suit -- at best, they give Jax an excuse to show off and look like the smartest little criminal in California. But the business side of SAMCRO this season has been an unequivocal bore, populated by dull characters and even less interesting conflicts.

I'm with Connor, who left Jax with these wise words: "It's been an interesting road, Jackson, one I'm really looking forward to getting off of." Although "interesting" isn't the word I'd use.

At least the banality of the season's Irish arc has had a rather stark contrast in the genuinely gripping, edge-of-your-seat Tara arc. Her storyline has rarely made a lick of sense but it's been the most compelling drama "Sons" has offered up this year, and the strange unpredictability it continues to provide deserves some credit for keeping this sinking show afloat.

That said, Tara's inscrutable actions may have reached both an apex and a nadir tonight, as she ultimately decided to take her boys and run -- abandoning Jax but also turning her back on Patterson's offer of witness protection. It feels like the worst of both worlds -- Patterson understandably predicted the MC will hunt Tara down and kill her if she chose this route -- and it's impossible to know what the hell Tara is thinking ... or what exactly Jax will do next, although killing the mother of his children certainly isn't an option with an entire season left to play out.

There's no reason to have sympathy for Jax in this situation, but it's hard to have any sympathy for Tara either since the writers keep forcing her to behave like such an idiot. Heading into the finale I have absolutely no emotional investment in how this turns out, but I'm still curious to see what nutty resolution or insane cliffhanger the writers have in store. I guess that's something?

Odds and ends:

- Finally, the fall out from Jax ordering Juice to kill the school shooter's mother arrives. Having just run over a sheriff, Juice is a stressed out mess and he's popping Oxy like they're breath mints. Poor dude collapses at Diosa and winds up confessing everything to Nero ... who is none too pleased to discover the truth.

- That sets up the ambiguous moment at the episode's end, as Nero stands over Jax in support like the father figure Jax so desperately needs but clearly feels conflicted about everything he's become since SAMCRO entered his life. Besides Dayton Callie, I'd say Jimmy Smits is the only actor consistently knocking it out of the park this season, and even if the material is far below what he had last year, I imagine he'll be invaluable in the final season.

- Hey, remember Clay died last week? There were a few token mentions (Bobby and Juice had a little talk, Connor was still upset with Jax, and Lyla gave Gemma her condolences) but not a tremendous amount of attention or fallout in the wake of such a major character departing the show. (Ron Perlman still got a credit though, at least in the screener copy I saw.)

- "Clay deserved the mayhem for what he did. I never had any doubt about that, but the first time just wasn't best for the club, it was no good for Jax. This time, it made sense." Sure, Bobby, if you say so.

- Let's not blame Drea de Matteo for that awkward moment when Wendy screamed at Abel that she's his biological mother as Tara was taking him away.

- In case you forgot, Tig is still a creep. But now August Marks has officially released his debt. Damon Pope spins in his grave.