I don't want to get ahead of myself here, but all of a sudden I have hope that this crazy, messy, frequently infuriating season of "Sons of Anarchy" could actually pull itself together for a decent finish. Maybe it's cockeyed optimism to keep up my enthusiasm up for the next four episodes. Maybe it's wishful thinking to believe that the amount of time spent setting up various plot threads has to mean some degree of serious thought went into planning the respective payoffs. Whatever it is, I'm taking "John 8:32" as a positive sign for the future.

Even with the dreaded 90 minute running time, this was an episode so focused and tight you could almost be fooled into thinking "Sons" is still the kind of top tier TV drama it so badly wants to be. The whole episode felt like an extension of the melancholy vibe of regret and pathos that permeated the final conversation between Jax and Tara last week. It's all right there in the opening sequence, which cleverly cuts between two quiet domestic scenes and establishes a central quartet of Jax, Tara, Gemma and Nero. The episode doesn't abandon the other characters, but we know from the start that the key players are these four and Kurt Sutter and his collaborator of the week, Kem Nunn, pay extra attention to their emotional throughlines. That choice makes the drama more intimate and the resulting conflicts more direct than usual. (Consider the lack of a typical MC shootout/chase scene this week -- there's just no room for it.)

Despite some other business to attend to, we spend most of the episode waiting to see when and how Jax will find out the truth about Tara's plan. Instead of a lot of filler leading to a foregone conclusion, the slow and steady build-up increases both the suspense and the emotional stakes. Gemma immediately fills Nero in, and his heroic attempts to play peacemaker predictably backfire. But the resulting wounds are more than just the bruises he gets from that fist fight with Jax. Nero's conversation with Tara also leads to his discovery that Gemma was involved in the murder of John Teller (which she subsequently confirms in a speech that effectively recaps the history of the pre-Jax MC, elevated from the level of pure exposition by the depth of feeling in Katey Sagal's delivery).

The fight also revives the memory of that dreaded conjugal visit/rape scene, as Nero feels Jax needs to know the truth about how far Gemma will go for her family. That bombshell leaves Jax in enough of a weakened state for Gemma to hit him up with another plea to take a closer look at what Tara's doing. And it's poor Ally Lowen who ultimately has to tell Jax the truth when he's threatening her in Unser's trailer. I'm glad Jax didn't go totally insane and literally shoot the messenger, since it allowed Ally the opportunity to give Tara a warning call. And Unser's decision to bring Ally in makes sense without being explicitly spelled out*, since Jax would have logically gone to Unser for information about Tara and Unser would have arranged the meeting in order to get Jax to promise "no one gets hurt."

* (It also provides a sweet, if far too brief, reunion for former "Deadwood" co-stars Dayton Callie and Robin Weigert, who shared some great scenes on the HBO show.)

While I still don't buy everything the show made Tara do to execute her plan, the fallout is unexpectedly fascinating. The emotional stakes of "John 8:32" have successfully revived a genuine curiosity about how this plays out. I'm even hoping there could be some curveballs ahead. We've seen Jax acknowledge his understanding and show some sympathy for Tara's emotional distance since her arrest, and we've seen Gemma start to soften a bit through her relationship with Nero. Does Jax go the Michael Corleone route and banish Tara from his life, or does his humanity win out over anger and allow him to find another way? Is it possible Tara can make it out of this situation alive and possibly even victorious? Or will her warning to Nero ("You want it to end well? I suggest you get out now before you end up dead too.") prove all too prophetic of any romantic relationship with a Teller?


Odds and ends:

- Significant subplot #1: All sorts of symbolism going on in the story of Brooke Putner (affecting guest star Hayley McFarland), the daughter of a woman killed in the same "accident" that took John Teller's life. She randomly pops up after 18 years to exercise her anger at SAMCRO. Like the father who mowed down a Byz Lat member last week, the club keeps running into "regular" people whose lives are changed for the worse by their actions. Jax feels a kinship with the girl and convinces Elliott Oswald (Patrick St. Esprit) to help Brooke's father keep his job and their house. The final conversation between Jax and Brooke in the ice cream shop plays like a true moment of grace. And, maybe most significantly of all, it's strongly hinted that the mysterious homeless woman (Olivia Burnette) who has been popping up at significant moments ever since Season 1, just might be Brooke's mother. (Jax recognizes her photo when he visits Brooke's father and the woman is seen rummaging through a trash bin as Brooke walks by in the closing montage.) If that's the case, is she actually alive? Or are we going to have an actual supernatural character on this show before it's all over?

- Significant subplot #2: Clay provided the gross out moment of the week when he went all Hannibal Lecter on the guard's nose. Apparently that's the only way he could secure the cell phone to make the necessary phone calls to SAMCRO's gun clients. As goofy as it was, it still kind of worked with the melancholy tone. Clay himself is so miserable lately, as evidenced by the resignation he had when the corrupt doctor let the guards into his room to give Clay a beating, that he seems as broken as everyone else.

- Significant subplot #3: Jax made his big play with Patterson, vowing to give her Galen O'Shay if she'll grant the club immunity on guns past and present. (Because this was prior to his fight with Nero and conversation with Lowen, he also asked Patterson to reconsider the case against Tara.) However, if Jax's deal falls through (and it seems probable it will for one reason or another), Patterson has her own vow: She'll make the club's life miserable and guarantee Tara gets locked up for years to come.