The power dynamic between Jax and Clay isn't the only thing that's changed as we begin season five in Charming. This year's action-packed, fast-moving premiere introduces new players, reestablishes burgeoning rivalries and alliances, and contains one of the most brutal and disturbing scenes the show has ever seen (that is not a low bar to cross).

We can only speculate where any of this is heading, but as set-up, it worked. Mostly.

Alan Sepinwall already offered up his general impressions on the new season, but since he's devoting weekly review energies elsewhere I'll be handling the week to week for HitFix. Before we get to the episode, some background on where I'm coming from on "Sons" (I'll keep it brief, but if you don't give a damn, just skip to the next graph): I'm in the "like it, don't love it" camp. I've always considered the show a wildly uneven mix of brilliant moments and hokey moments, tremendous performances and weak performances, exciting twists and frequently gratuitous, indulgent chases and shootouts. And, as Alan very eloquently explained repeatedly last season, it's a show where the desperation to keep the wheels of the plot spinning often becomes downright maddening. But I'm still hooked. There's always been enough to bring me back and not make me feel like I'm wasting my time watching. I can take or leave the convoluted plotting of which gang is in or out of the Sons' good graces, who's retaliating for what, and what government agent is planning to take them all down now. What keeps me coming back boils down to the strong central quartet of Jax, Gemma, Clay and Tara, personal favorite supporting players Unser and Tig, and the way Kurt Sutter and Co. can take a background figure like Juice and turn him into a compelling presence in his own right. The creative team has a solid foundation in these characters, and even when they're little more than puppets for the plot, you can be sure the actors playing them will find the chance to knock you out. But back to tonight's episode...

Since Sutter's master plan has us expecting at least three more seasons of "Sons," we have to accept payoffs to most of the key conflicts will continue to be delayed. What the season premiere needed to establish is that we're not simply going to watch the same beats over and over again for three more years. So while Clay is still alive, Tara is still in Charming, Gemma is still scheming and Jax still can't let go of his club, they're all in different enough places that we can hope the show has some new tricks up its sleeve. It's too late for "Sons" to follow "The Shield's" trajectory of getting deeper, richer and better with every season, but it's never too late for the show to do justice to its cast.

And it's when Kurt Sutter's script focused in on the core characters that the premiere delivered its best moments. The starkest difference season-to-season obviously lies with Clay, who is on a rapid decline from top dog to Piney's successor as a sort of member emeritus. In case the poetic justice of "Clay is the new Piney" isn't clear enough, he's even sporting an oxygen mask (something Sutter told Sepinwall he was already planning in their season four post-mortem chat). Who knows how long Clay stays a humbled and pathetic figure (barely even able to mount his own bike), at least it's a switch to see him working angles from a position of weakness instead of dominating with brute force and authority. His scene with Gemma may or may not have been the first step in patching up their badly broken relationship (he makes it clear he'll keep her involvement in J.T.'s death a secret), but Gemma smacking Clay down for laying even a gentle hand on her was a welcome sign that even if the show forces them back together, it won't be easy.

The changes aren't as drastic for Jax and Tara. He's leading the MC, so she's the First (Old) Lady and consequently has a little more swagger in her walk. She's also no longer even pretending to care what Gemma thinks, while Jax is channeling his innermost thoughts into letters like his old man, juggling secrets and deciding what information to parse out in strategic ways. Jax and Tara seem to be doing OK right now, but it's hard to imagine the compromises they're both making will be good for the long-term health of their relationship.

Gemma isn't exactly at her best, but she's clinging on to whatever she can sink her press-on nails into. Right now that's a combination of lovesick watchdog Unser and one night stand turned possible long-term ally Nero Padilla. And how about that Jimmy Smits, folks? Was it a cheeky nod to "NYPD Blue" that Sutter introduced Smits bare-assed (and shagging a nearly comatose Gemma)? Whatever the motivation, it was an inspired introduction to the self-described "companionator" and Smits and Katey Sagal had an instant chemistry in their scenes together. Their morning after exchange -- ""I did a spic pimp." "And I did a drunken cracker MILF." -- is the "Sons" version of a rom-com meet cute. This should give Gemma (and Sagal) something fun to play around with while she's avoiding falling back into Clay's trap.

No doubt the show has lot more to reveal about Nero in the future, just as they will with Damon Pope, the other significant addition to the season. Harold Perrineau was immediately arresting as the former drug kingpin. And I suppose I can't avoid it any longer, but the episode's most startling/upsetting/WTF/"Holy crap!" twist came in Damon's eye-for-an-eye play against Tig. Tig ran over Damon's daughter with a car. So Damon lights Tig's daughter Dawn (a character played by Rachel Miner who we've seen only once before) on fire and burns her alive while Tig is chained up and helpless to do anything.

Now, maybe I'm wrong, but I assume this is exactly the kind of moment that keeps "Sons" at the top of FX's ratings heap. It's the "can you believe that!?" watercooler moment that fuels buzz. It's also executed in the manner of a cheap, tasteless plot twist that holds the show back from the level of the all-time greats. It's not the graphic nature of the violence, or the cruelty of the characters that's problematic. That's all fair game, and the sort of savagery "Sons'" most obvious inspirations ("The Sopranos," "The Shield," "Deadwood") and its current chief crime saga competitor ("Breaking Bad") could pull off in genuinely shocking and compelling style. On any of those shows, we wouldn't just be horrified by the act. We'd understand the psychological ramifications for everyone involved. We probably would've gotten to know Dawn a little better. It wouldn't feel as calculated as checking off the "shocking event" box on the week's to do list.

Because even though the brutality of the death was notably extreme; even though Tig's torment was heightened by Clay's confession that the One Niners didn't kill Piney after all, making Tig fully aware he had zero justification for killing Damon's daughter; and even though Kim Coates and Harold Perrineau played the hell out of every single moment, this gonzo sequence still felt like "Sons" being "Sons." For better and for worse.

A few odds and ends:

- I'd call Dawn's death and Tig's reaction the climactic event of the episode, but the actual cliffhanger was Unser falling victim to the string of home invasions plaguing Charming. Or, more specifically, plaguing residents of Charming tied to SAMCRO. The flash of a prosthetic leg points to Greg "the Peg" (played by actor, athlete and real life amputee Kurt Yaeger) one of the trio of new Sons recruits.



- One of the victims of those home invasions, according to Roosevelt? "Lynette Rice, one of your crow eaters." Lynette Rice also happens to be the name of Entertainment Weekly's West Coast News Editor, who frequently covers Sutter and the show. I'm pretty sure the reference was affectionate.

- What's up with Juice? First he's defending Clay's decision to skip Piney's memorial (before the club knows part of the truth of what happened), then he's unpacking Clay's boxes and offering moral support. We know Juice is a (relatively) sensitive guy, and he's still working out his guilt over killing Miles, but teaming up with Clay is bad news for this lost soul. Plus, Roosevelt is still holding the informant card over his head, since Jax doesn't yet know that it was Juice who gave up details of the cartel's meeting with the Irish.

- Given the show's track record of transforming characters into versions of other characters (Clay becomes Piney, Tara mirrors Gemma, Jax turning into J.T.), maybe Opie's fear of turning into Jax isn't so unfounded.

- There wasn't much ado about it, but Laroy Wayne is dead now too. SAMCRO's closest connection to the One Niners probably would've come after Tig, but instead became another victim of Damon's demonstration of power. Tory Kittles, the actor who played Laroy, had appeared in eleven episodes going back to the pilot.

- Just for the record, Bobby 'Elvis' is now the SAMCRO veep. And he still doesn't care much for Clay.

What did you think of the season premiere?