After a good but not great pilot in September 2008, Sons of Anarchy hit a suspense-filled creative stride later into its first season (R.I.P. Donna) that won critics and naysayers over. That stride turned into an Olympic sprint in the near-flawless sophomore season, which pit SAMCRO against a different type of foe: businessman and five-steps-ahead schemer Ethan Zobelle (Adam Arkin), a racist hell-bent on shutting down their gun-running business (they mostly sell to Black and Latino gangs).
The emotional weight was anchored by Jax and Clay's increasingly poisonous beef over Donna's death, Gemma's harrowing gang-rape at the hands of Zobelle's thugs in the premiere, and her decision to keep it to herself for the sake of the club. Each plot thread built up to the mid-season episode, "Balm," perhaps the best hour the show ever produced, especially considering it exceeded purely on character development instead of the show's eye-popping action or visceral violence.
The season's final third added more problems to the mix, namely the return of thirsty ATF agent Stahl (Ally Walker) and the arrival of IRA leader and gun-supplier Jimmy O (Titus Welliver). Impressively, Sutter stuck the landing with a finale that delivered everything the season promised, as well as one hell of a cliffhanger.