Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman

[WARNING: The following story contains major spoilers from the Season 4 finale of FX's Sons of Anarchy. Read at your own risk.]

There was pretty much only one question on viewers minds heading into Sons of Anarchy's Season 4 finale: Was Clay going to die?

Sons of Anarchy's Ron Perlman: I'm not sure Clay had any choice

He certainly had done enough to deserve it. This season alone, Clay (Ron Perlman) involved SAMCRO in drug-running for the Galindo cartel, killed one of the club's founding members in Piney (William Lucking), ordered a hit on Jax's old lady Tara (Maggie Siff) and beat his own wife Gemma (Katey Sagal) to a bloody pulp. Oh, and Jax (Charlie Hunnam) finally found out that Clay conspired years ago to kill Jax's father.

Yet, as the season's final hour unspooled, Clay, who remained in the hospital after being shot by Piney's son, Opie (Ryan Hurst), was once again spared. When Jax learned that Galindo has been in cahoots with the CIA the whole time, he is forced to keep Clay alive in order to broker the arms deal between Galindo and the Irish Kings. But creator Kurt Sutter says Clay suffered a "fate worse than death": Jax has officially taken over as president of SAMCRO, stripping Clay of what mattered most to him.

In our Q&A below, Sutter defends his decision to keep both Clay and Juice (Theo Rossi) alive this season and weighs in on Gemma and Tara's battle for Jax's heart. Plus: Where will things stand between Opie and Jax in Season 5?

Exclusive: Sons of Anarchy's Theo Rossi talks Juice's [SPOILER!]

It seemed from the midpoint of the season that Clay had to die. Why did you choose to keep him alive?
Sutter:
Obviously, I love the character and I think Ron just brings a gravitas to the show and, quite honestly, I did not want that to go away yet. But I just think there's more story to play out now that Jax has this information [about Clay].  [Killing him] just seemed like a waste to me.  Why just have the information for one episode and then kill Clay? To me that sort of diffuses and takes away the potency of those secrets. I didn't want to throw that away. 

I learned that on The Shield, when Vic knew that Shane killed Lem but he couldn't do anything about it. That season was just full of that great f---ing tension with these guys who were broken and ripped apart about it, and yet they had to go out and work together. ... So, I just felt it was really fertile ground for story. There is just some great sh-- to play out with the two of them having to have this secret together.

But you did seem to point toward Clay's death so hard. What if fans feel cheated?
Sutter:
Oh, I think people are already pissed that he was not dead [after being shot by Opie]. But that's all great, man. I love the fact that people are that committed and plugged in emotionally. But I do think that when they see the struggle that Jax has — it's not like Jax suddenly forgives [Clay]. Jax would like nothing more than to keep pushing that knife into [Clay's] throat. I think people may be frustrated, but their frustration will be a shared frustration with Jax.

And Clay didn't come out of the finale completely unscathed.
Sutter:
Right. For someone like Clay to be reduced to a guy who is wounded and weakened and has his f---ing patch ripped away? It is almost like a fate worse than death for Clay. It's the humiliation of it all. It's like he has literally been f---ing neutered. ... For a guy as hard and as alpha as Clay, that it is worse than if [Jax] just f---ing slit his throat. 

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Let's talk about why Clay is still alive: The finale also revealed the Galindo cartel is working with the CIA.
Sutter:
We knew we were going to do that from the jump. And I am hoping if you go back and look at every scene that Romeo [Danny Trejo] had from the beginning, we laid clues in throughout. We didn't tell the story in a way that you could look back and go, "Wait a minute, that does not make sense."  It all sort of falls into place and makes sense. 

And even though that relationship is keeping Clay alive, it also spared SAMCRO from Potter's RICO sting.
Sutter:
I love that the thing that undermined all the law enforcement attempts this season was other law enforcement. It was Potter [Ray McKinnon], who undermined Eli [Rockmond Dunbar], and then it was ultimately the CIA that undermined Potter. I just like the fact that the complications and the political arena of the justice system is its own f---ing outlaw organization that is constantly shooting itself in the foot.  

Clay isn't the only character to cheat death this season. Did you ever consider having Juice's suicide attempt be successful?
Sutter:
I did weigh both options.  The truth is, I felt like if we did that to Juice, ultimately the Piney scene would just have less weight. And that was the death to me that I had planned out since the beginning of the series. I felt like, "If I do both of those guys, I am going to be doing both of them a disservice. ... But that stuff doesn't go away.  Juice is still living with the guilt of what he did.  That information is still out there and will always be out there for us to use, if it makes sense. 

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Piney's death brought Opie back to the fore, especially his issues with Jax. What should we make of Opie's absence at the table in the final scene?
Sutter:
It just felt too convenient for everything to fall in place with Jax.  And I just like the idea that when you hear that door open, you assume it is Opie, but it's Tara. I knew I was going to sort of leave Opie out there undecided.  It doesn't mean he has written Jax off or he is going away, but it just means he's not ready to go in and sit at that table. We will be able to play that out next season.

As you said, Tara shows up for Jax at the end. In that moment, has she finally beaten Gemma in the battle for Jax?
Sutter:
I think it is definitely a statement. ... Tara is the one now at the head of that table with Jax. Gemma did not see that coming.  She just assumed that she would be able to manipulate and keep everybody in line and that she would be the one behind her son.  And yet suddenly there is the threat of a new queen. So, we get to play out a little bit more of that battle of the matriarchs next season.  It's almost like Gemma sort of created her own Frankenstein. 

And Tara still has some intel on Gemma that Jax is unaware of.
Sutter:
I definitely think it is leverage that Tara has, which allows her to have that defiance. Gemma was smart enough to destroy the evidence, but Tara has some leverage over Gemma and Gemma has to navigate around that. I think it will be a more interesting way to go for Season 5.  It's not so much about Gemma saying, "All right, how am I going to get rid of Tara?" It has to be more about, "How do I bring Tara closer? How do I win her back?" That is a more difficult skill for Gemma than just f---ing hitting someone in the head with a skateboard. 

With Gemma and Clay both being pushed out of the inner circle a bit, do you think they will reconnect in exile?
Sutter:
I don't know.  There is a part of me that thinks as f---ed up as it is... ultimately these people are just meant to be together no matter what the damage is.  And in an odd way a lot of times those relationships are rectified.  And yet I think, "Are we doing the story a disservice by doing that?" I think they are intrinsically tied to each other because of the secrets, so I do think there will always be an ongoing relationship with them.  I'm just not quite sure what that's going to look like. 

Is there room for Unser (Dayton Calllie) to finally be a real player in that weird triangle?
Sutter:
It was a lot fun to do to sort of put him in the middle of the whole Clay and Gemma thing and to play out some of the history and dynamic between him and Gemma. I don't necessarily think he and Gemma are going to hook up, but I do think that relationship will continue and play out.  So he'll definitely be around and we always end up finding something fun for that character. 

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Tig looked a little angry about losing his seat as Sergeant at Arms. Will he fight Jax?
Sutter:
Tig has always has been Clay's guy. I didn't want to leave everybody in absolute conflict with Clay.  I felt like he needed an ally. And even though Tig may be misinformed, Clay does have at least one guy who loves him.

And, of course, Tig seems to have started a pretty nasty beef with the Niners.
Sutter:
I wanted to set up something in terms of tension for when Jax takes over at the head of this club. We'll begin with some sense of immediacy and some kind of threat.  And I don't exactly know what that will be yet, but I did want to lay some track so we can hit the ground running with something next season.

Earlier this season, you told me this finale felt similar to a series finale. Do you think that will allow you to reinvent the show next season?
Sutter:
It's a reinvention in terms of people's responsibilities and roles within the club.  But for me, it's sort of the end of an act. I realized towards the end of the season that we were coming to a ... more reflective end. And I don't know this for sure, but I almost get a sense that perhaps this next act of Sons might have some of that dynamic. Not that it's not going to have action and be what the show is, but I'm okay if the show has a different energy. We have so much emotionality that we've revealed between these characters. Those scenes and that dynamic can't happen as quickly.  They almost have to happen slower because there's so much more to digest. 

So, what do you see as the focus of the next act?
Sutter:
I want to [focus on] what type of leader Jax will be.  ... Which father will Jax emulate at the head of that table?  Can he be the guy and fulfill his father's vision, which is to turn the club around and make it legitimate? Or will he ultimately just become Clay.  For me, it really is: Can Jax replace Clay without becoming Clay?

What did you think of the finale?