Certain parts of "Sons of Anarchy" inevitably feel like a little boy's fantasy of what it means to be a grown-up man: a tough, cool guy who wins every fight, scores with any woman he wants and outsmarts every rival. But to the show's credit, "Sons" has always been equally interested in its female characters, routinely giving them the same level of badass cred as the guys. There's plenty of reasons to quibble with the way certain characters are (or aren't) developed, but when it comes to storytelling "Sons" rarely discriminates based on gender. Maybe that's one reason the character of Venus van Dam works so well.

Or maybe it's just the talent and commitment FX's undisputed Most Valuable Performer, Walton Goggins, brings to the role. In just a single guest spot last season he elevated what could've been a goofy bit of one-off stunt casting into a fascinating, complex character. "Sons" fans immediately wanted to see more of Venus. Goggins and Kurt Sutter hinted we would. And now here we are with a Venus-centric episode that surpasses just about everything else in the season so far.

Pretty much everything that works in "Sweet and Vaded" involves fleshing out (no pun intended) Venus and giving Goggins room to shine in the role. He nails it, of course, demonstrating exceptional command of both strength and vulnerability as Venus reveals the deep scars of a painful past, joins in on the action (she's handy with a shotgun!) and faces down her twisted mama Alice (Adrienne Barbeau, in a truly thankless role as a vile child pornographer). The entire storyline and Goggins' work in particular functions as a reminder that -- sick as it often is -- "Sons" maintains a great big beating heart.

Allowing Venus a showcase instantly provided greater emotional stakes and rooting interest than the typical excuse for a car chase/shootout of the week, while also delivering great moments for several regulars. Tig's infatuation with Venus continues unabated, and although it's written as light comedy, their attraction works on a deeper level because Goggins and Kim Coates play it completely real. There's genuine chemistry between these two (who knew?) and I hope, for Tig's sake, we'll see more of Venus throughout the rest of the "Sons" run. She could be a good influence on a man who seems like a hopeless case.

Then there's the unexpected dramatic impact the storyline has on Jax, who snaps and shoots Alice in the head after she touches a nerve during her rant about family secrets and lies. Jax presumably took her words as a reflection on both the relationship he had with his father and has (or thinks he has) with his sons, and it's obvious Jax still has a considerable amount of baggage to work through in that department. (Making Alice's murder so easy to justify was not the high point of the episode, but yet another example of the show's disinterest in painting villains in shades of grey hardly matters at this point.)

Perhaps most importantly, the bond Gemma formed with Venus last week had a chance to fully blossom. As Nero's girlfriend, Gemma steps right up in the role of Venus' surrogate mother and her own maternal instincts make for a sharp contrast with Alice's monstrosity.

Of course, there's an additional reason to emphasize Gemma's maternal side this week: It makes the blunt force of Tara's play sting even harder. Gemma is by no means a fit guardian -- she's proven herself equal parts careless and vicious in the past -- but Tara's self-proclaimed "desperate measure" to get Gemma away from her grandkids was nasty to an extreme. Gemma knows from experience how formidable an opponent Tara can be, but there's no way she could have expected Tara to fake a pregnancy just so she could blame a fake miscarriage* on Gemma's "abuse" so that Jax turns against his mother. Who would?

*(It's unclear if Gemma has figured out that the pregnancy and miscarriage were faked. Gemma knows she was set up, and that Wendy was involved, and that Tara clearly has no limits at this point, but are we supposed to think Gemma believes Tara would put her baby's life at risk? For that matter, why would Jax believe Gemma -- crazy as she is -- would literally kick a pregnant Tara in the stomach? It's absurd.)

With Gemma sitting in holding for assault and Jax signing the documents barring her from custody of the boys, Tara has scored a decisive victory. The downside: It felt an awful lot like her own version of SAMCRO retaliating against an enemy, and those situations usually get a whole lot worse before they can get any better.

One persuasive conversation between Jax and Gemma could flip the whole situation again, but even if the writers don't go that route, they have wild cards in Wendy and Unser. Both already show signs of wavering in their commitment to Tara's cause, and I understand the feeling. There's something unbalanced about Tara at this point -- she's acting every bit as conniving and dangerous as Gemma at her worst. I'll reserve judgment until we see how this all shakes out, but now that we've seen how low Tara is willing to go it's hard to say anyone has the moral high ground in this massively screwed up scenario.



Odds and ends:

- With SAMCRO running dangerously low in members lately, Ratboy officially gets upped from prospect status. And three of Bobby Elvis' recruits -- Quinn (Rusty Coones), Montez (Jacob Vargas) and West (Douglas Bennett) -- are sworn in. Bobby mentioned in last week's episode that the fourth, Harper (Steve Howey), was scared off by the recent violence, but maybe the real culprit was Howey's commitment to Showtime's "Shameless"?

- D.A. Patterson continues putting pressure on Nero, but she knows she needs to play every angle. Now she's expanding her quest for justice to Barosky, threatening to make his thug life miserable if he doesn't play nice. Meanwhile, Colette (who doesn't actually appear this week) is apparently waffling on her franchise plans.

- We finally check in with Mayor Jacob Hale Jr. (Jeff Kober) for the first time this season, only to learn that his term is running out in three months and, thanks to the Charming Heights debacle, he has no expectations of getting re-elected. But he does help the MC set up in a Main Street soda shop, and supposedly they're still getting those Charming Heights maintenance contracts.

- Random connections: Jacob Vargas, who plays the aforementioned Montez, and Jenny Gago, who popped up in the role of Nero's new lawyer, played Jimmy Smits' parents (in two different time periods) in the 1995 indie drama "Mi Familia."

- Can you believe Goggins only has one Emmy nomination to his credit (for Season 2 of "Justified")? "Sons" has never been very popular with Emmy voters (for reasons that are either understandable or mystifying depending on which category and which season we're talking about) but a Guest Actor nomination for Goggins next year would be well deserved.