As part of Complex Pop Culture's best-of-2013 coverage, staffers and contributing writers will pen short pieces on their favorite TV episodes of the year. The week-long series continues with associate editor Frazier Tharpe.

The first three episodes of Sons of Anarchy’s sixth season kind of suck.

After a solid fifth season that ended with a thrilling finale, FX’s Shakespearean biker drama roared into 2013 with one of its worst episodes. Season six’s premiere, “Straw,” ends with that controversial school shooting, and while the merits of that storyline are up for debate, it’s about the only interesting thing that happens during the bloated running time. Most of the hour-plus is spent piling on heap after heap of misery and graphic violence, as if the show felt a need to reassert its rep in the wake of the hiatus.

I’m no stranger to creator Kurt Sutter’s penchant for gratuitous, shocking violence, being a day-one fan of both this series and its earlier companion, The Shield, on which Sutter wrote some remarkably disturbing plots. But moments like Gemma’s (Katey Sagal) savage gang rape in season two, which fucked me up for like a week, have real weight and emotional/narrative resonance to them. Unhinged ex-marshal Lee Toric (Donal Logue) ordering his C.O. “buddies” to rape Otto on the daily, Lyla (Winter Ave Zoli) getting tricked into torture porn, Tig (Kim Coates) drowning a guy in a vat of piss—those moments reeked of “last year we burned a girl alive, how do we top that?!” pointlessness, which in turn left me feeling disengaged.

What’s worse, over the next two episodes Toric established himself to be a carbon copy of past SAMCRO nemesis June Stahl in his murderous, duplicitous quest to bring the MC down, a conflict that only grew more and more contrived (Otto killed his sister in an isolated incident, giving Toric a vengeance hard-on for the entire club? What?). Almost a third of the way through, the season’s beats seemed predictable; the prospects, no good.

Enter “Wolfsangel.” I watched it the night after it aired, half-interested, expecting more of the same. It begins with yet another redundant burst of violence, this time on de facto SAMCRO butler Unser (Dayton Callie). Then, out of nowhere, the Sons' brewing conflict with the IRA bubbles over when they kill two SOA members in cold blood (R.I.P. Filthy Phil, the gentle biker giant). A beef with real stakes was on, and suddenly I was sitting upright on my couch. And that wasn’t even the best surprise of the hour.

I’ve always found the phrase “Big Bad” kind of corny, even though it’s one of TV’s best tried and true tropes: the seasonal villain there to cause trauma and turmoil only to be dispensed by the time the finale’s credits roll. It’s a formula Sons thrives on, if only to make the MC antiheroes seem less heinous by pitting them against truly "evil" people, i.e. Ethan Zobelle, Damon Pope, and so forth. Lee Toric started promisingly, mostly because Donal Logue is awesome, but my faith in the season plummeted once he revealed himself to be a boring brand of batshit crazy. It seemed certain that he was going to hover around just to order rapes and stage blatant frame-ups. Then Toric brought Clay to Otto as a cautionary tale to cooperate. Upon seeing the unbridled misery that doing six seasons worth of prison favors for the club reaped upon his now blinded, tongue-less, unspeakably violated brother, Clay slips him a shiv.

At this point you’re thinking, is Sutter (who pulls double-duty playing Otto) finally done working out his sado-masochistic issues and ready to let this sad shell of a character off himself? Nope, even better. Alone in the infirmary, Otto lures Toric near (with a written kiss-off line that’s vintage twisted Sutter) and SHANKS the living hell out of him, delaying the fatal blow until corrections officers file in and shoot him down. The season’s Big Bad, dead a third of the way through in a thrilling move with a clear message: Fuck your expectations.

Sutter later admitted to Vulture that scheduling conflicts necessitated Donal’s quick exit, but who cares about the why. Like the steam Jax and company were letting off after the Irish incident by way of gunning down the Aryans who attacked Unser, Otto’s unexpected murder-suicide was a violent catharsis for a season in desperate need of one. Was it dark? Sure, but it wasn’t ugly and miserable, like watching Juice let Chibbs (Tommy Flanagan) beat the crap out of him.

The following week, the Irish took their retaliation a step further and blew up the club house. The week after that surprisingly stripped down the darkness (relatively, at least) and delivered what felt like a vintage season one episode with cool antihero rogue road antics and a brotherhood actually behaving like brothers for once. But it all comes back to the last half of “Wolfsangel.” Watching a stone-faced Jax order Phil and the prospect-whose-name-is-irrelevant buried before grimly disappearing into the night, the shimmering Reaper logo stitched on the back of his kutte fading seamlessly into the weekly end-of-episode inter-title while a thumping cover of “Sitting on Top of the World” played, I was pumped.

And just like that, SoA was back on track again. Sutter somehow left me feeling like I'd let him down, instead of the other way around, for doubting. To echo Lee Toric’s meta last words, “Wow, I didn’t even see that coming.”

Written by Frazier Tharpe (@The_SummerMan)

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