Sons of Anarchy’s final season began Tuesday night in a feature length, two-hour format, which would mean something if almost all of the episodes since season 5 weren’t already 90 minutes long. Now in its seventh season, we still can’t help but notice this was probably a four-season show that has been stretched for maximum financial gains. It’s more of a brand than anything. Knowing these are the final thirteen episodes, however, seems to have reinvigorated creator and showrunner Kurt Sutter, though many of the series’ flaws still remain.

"Black Widower"

For a show that is so adrenaline drunk, much of this two-hour episode is slow, but for the right reasons. Last season ended with Jax (Charlie Hunnam) finding that his wife, Tara (Maggie Siff), was killed. Tara was brutally murdered by Jax’s own mother Gemma (Katey Sagal), but, of course, Jax doesn’t know that part of it, and as we first meet Jax in “Black Widower,” it’s only been nine days since the incident. He missed his wife’s funeral because he’s in lock-up. He’s beating a man, carving a swastika in his stomach and ripping his teeth out. He’s doing this to make friends, or at least to make amends with some groups that the MC’s screwed over last season. Jax is focused on making good with the white power gangs, as well as the Chinese, black and Mexican ones too. Now that he doesn’t have Tara (and suddenly doesn’t want to see his kids) he’s focused on saving the club, and is far less tethered by common morality.

Hunnam has grown substantially as an actor over the years. The first few seasons, Hunnam was merely a model trying to act. Sutter used Jax as the show’s sex symbol, often making sure to feature many instances of Jax in various stages of undress. As Sutter has moved on to other naked cast members, Hunnam’s focus has made him a stronger lead. Back in season 3, when Jax saw his son being taken away by an adoptive (and normal) family, Hunnam had to act only through his eyes and face and he ended up melting the screen. He does it twice in this episode — expressive acting through his eyes — and there is nothing left in there. Jax is already, essentially, dead.

CCH Pounder’s Tyne Patterson returns this episode, and I hope it’s for the duration of the series. Pounder lends credence and integrity to whatever role she takes on, including this one — even if she is given a bizarre oompa loompa haircut. She empathizes with Jax, seeing how badly he wants vengeance, and tries to straighten him out. Jax doesn’t listen (we still have plenty of episodes to fill).

Also returning is Wendy (Drea de Matteo), and I really have to give the writers kudos on their use of her character. While she hasn’t been a constant in the series, if you track her progress from the pilot until now, I never would have believed I’d actually care about the character. When your first appearance is as a 9-month pregnant junkie who overdoses on heroin, there’s not a good chance an audience is going to find you tolerable. But here were are, and Wendy, somehow, is one of the few people you can consider reasonable and decent. There’s still, of course, former-chief Wayne Unser (Dayton Callie), but given his penchant for new physical infirmities every season, I doubt poor Unser will be lasting more than four episodes.

Beside him is Sagal. As Gemma, Sagal has found a Pacino-like operatic creation; it’s apparent that she loves playing the character as much as the writers love writing her. So much of the series, in hindsight, has been about establishing Gemma as the true villain of the series — a power hungry, vicious woman who hides behind a guise of motherly duty and tragic history. For years we thought Clay (Ron Perlman) — structured clearly as Claudius — was the chief manipulator and evil ruler because that’s what Sutter needed of him: to look the part. Of course, Clay certainly was a smart, dangerous and lousy guy, but it was always Gemma that pulled the strings, dropping strategically placed bombs and lies when she needed things to explode.

The problem is that we have all known for quite a long time that Gemma was the real bad guy. It wasn’t when the series abandoned the Hamlet structure, but as early as the first season when she clearly worried about the truth of John Teller’s murder coming to light. In the end, Clay stuck around too long and the reveal of Gemma being capable of such aggravated, hate-filled violence ended up being a “well, duh” moment. Tara’s death, in turn, came about through a series of forced developments and a wanton disregard for Tara’s character. It was to show that no one could out-Gemma Gemma. But we knew that already.

Gemma doesn’t seem to be struggling that much with her guilt, and has no problem blaming Tara’s death on someone else. The only problem is that she apparently also doesn’t care that this will likely cause war with the Chinese gang — a war that the MC probably can’t win. Again, we’re forced to go along with this because there are twelve more episodes left and there needs to be some padding in between now and when Jax finally learns the truth about Mother.

While this development is shoehorned, there is a good payoff. Jax and SAMCRO gather in the kitchen where Tara was killed, and they torture the Chinese gang member they believe was responsible for Tara’s murder. The situation and the actions more than recall the death of Guardo Lima in The Shield’s sixth season premiere “On the Jones,” which Kurt Sutter also wrote. The death of this gangster wasn’t the first time this episode Jax killed an (somewhat) innocent man in cold blood, though this time he took great joy on carefully inflicting death. It’s here that we see the slightest Shakespearean return. Vengeance is a poison, after all.

The previews have teased enough to keep me invested — Annabeth Gish’s sheriff, the return of Peter Weller and Walton Goggins, and the final showdown between mother and son with Jax and Gemma. SOA has made it to the final leg of the race; it’s been a slog but at least we’re here.