As “Sons of Anarchy” hurtles at high speed toward its series denouement on Dec. 9 after seven adrenalized seasons, the drama and speculation around the fate of one lead character is fiercer than ever.
That would be Gemma Teller Morrow, played by Katey Sagal, the sometimes gun-toting, leather-clad and tough-talking matriarch of the motorcycle gang who has gone to extreme lengths to protect her family and in particular, her only son, Jax Teller.
Now, all of Gemma’s secrets and all of her lies are coming unraveled, the deepest and darkest of which she shares with an unlikely person in an alliance that is now drawing serious scrutiny from law enforcement, and her son.
It’s a jailhouse confession that leads to the latest shocking turn for the polarizing character of Gemma, who seems to be in almost equal measure loved and hated by fans of the FX drama.
As an actor, Gemma has been the role of a lifetime for Sagal, who previously was known primarily for her role as Peg Bundy on Fox’s “Married with Children.” But as with Bryan Cranston, who rose to stardom in another Fox comedy, “Malcolm in the Middle,” an insanely popular cable drama now better defines her.
She has another television drama role lined up, in Kurt Sutter’s upcoming FX show “The Bastard Executioner.”
Sagal recently got on the phone with television reporters — from a movie set in Rhode Island where she is working on “Bleed for This” — to discuss SAMCRO’s final ride. This is an edited version of the conversation:
Q: Not everyone gets to work side-by-side with their husband on a television series. Can you talk about how Kurt created the role for you, and what it’s been like for both of you working at FX over the past seven years?
Katey Sagal: My husband was working on an idea about an outlaw motorcycle club, and he came to me and said that he wanted me to be in it and he was writing me a part. I had no idea what it was, but I liked the idea of that world. I knew him to be a really excellent writer, so I was excited about that. And then we had to get approval and he had to write the script and the network had to sign off, so it wasn’t just a slam dunk, but that’s kind of how it happened.
FX has been incredibly creatively supportive. I know they all wear suits, but they never feel like a bunch of suits to me, and they just really stood by what they’ve always said that they’re about, which is that they stand by the creator and that they are there to support the vision of who they’re putting their trust and faith and money in; and that’s what I’ve observed them to do. They’ve really nurtured Kurt along the way, and it’s just been a very compatible relationship I would say. And then the same with us as actors, I’ve never felt anything but supported by the FX network.
Q: Can you talk about some of the challenges of playing Gemma over the course of the series?
Katey Sagal: It’s constantly challenging, which as an actor you only hope for, so I felt every season brought a new set of things that I’ve never done before and needed exploring. So it was that kind of job where week to week, episode to episode there was always a little something that I felt like, this will be great. I guess the overall challenge of it was playing somebody that was so very different from myself. Her maternal instincts are similar to mine, but her ways and means of doing things were something very foreign to me. I don’t live in an outlaw world and I don’t carry a gun and I don’t do those things.
Q: What do you think you’ll miss the most?
Katey Sagal: I’ll miss so many things. It was a great working environment. I’ll miss the people. That’s what you really connect to and I’ll miss the writing. I’ve been in television a long time and you don’t find great parts that readily, and you don’t find great writing that readily. It’s been just a great creative experience to be able to have both of those things, and it’s a colorful bunch of people to work with, so going to work was never boring. I will miss them all terribly.
Q: Gemma has shown a full range of good and bad over the years. Do you think she’s finally crossed the line and is now beyond any hope of redemption?:
Katey Sagal: I think what we’re seeing now is her own conscience finally grabbing her. I still think, though, she believes that her momentary rageful act at the end of Season 6, killing Tara, was not premeditated. She really did believe that Tara had turned the entire club in, and her son, and it was the downfall of her entire existence. At that moment it was just sort of a perfect storm, and not that she doesn’t realize the heinous nature of it, but I do believe that what’s happening now is that in times before, she was able to compartmentalize and almost rationalize. I think this one was just too much for her.
Q: There have been several scenes this year where Gemma speaks to the ghost of Tara. Why do you think it’s so important for Gemma to keep trying to communicate with Tara?
Katey Sagal: I think it’s very indicative of her unraveling. They’re super easy to do, because I felt very close to Maggie, who played Tara, and so it’s easy for me, and Gemma felt very close to Tara, ultimately. I think that they had such an intricate relationship, but also very mother/daughter, so I think that I just can put her there very easily and speak to her. As the season goes on, her remorseful moments get stronger and start to eek out and the walls start closing in, but I think that it keeps her connected.
It’s like I keep reiterating it wasn’t intentional, what happened. It really wasn’t, and so it kind of shows her just continuing to connect. To me it’s interesting, too, that it speaks to what she believes happens after we die. Clearly she thinks she’s being heard, I would think.
Q: What advice do you think Gemma would give to her younger self?
Katey Sagal: What advice would she give to her younger self? That’s so interesting. I don’t know, because I’ve always thought of Gemma as somebody who doesn’t reflect back. She is in forward motion. She doesn’t sit around and think, I don’t think she has a lot of regrets. At this point in her life, she probably does, but I don’t think that’s been her MO. I think she’s more a reactor; she just moves forward, so I’m not sure what she’d tell her younger self.
It might have been about the John Teller of it all if I speculated about that. Maybe she would speak to herself a little bit more about forgiveness. She’s been on sort of this underlying spiritual quest all these seven years actually, so maybe some of that would have come to her in her younger years.
Q: Gemma seems to justify a lot of her actions by telling herself that she’s doing these things for her family, but this season, it seems like most of her actions have been very self-serving. The cover-up of Tara’s murder has been exclusively about self-preservation. Do you think she’s still able to convince herself that she’s serving the greater good?
Katey Sagal: If you remember in the first episode of this season, she explains to Juice that they need to have this secret about who killed Tara because if Gemma goes to jail, the boys will never know a strong woman. So her motivation is absolutely to protect herself, so that the boys have her, so that Jax has her. Sure, is she selfishly motivated? I believe so, but I think most of her motivation comes from what will happen to them if she’s in jail. It will do no good. It won’t do any good, so because she also believes that this was not done premeditatively or even maliciously – it was a blind rage, she had no intention to do it – afterwards she doesn’t see the benefit in turning herself in or telling what happened, because then ultimately everybody is left without her. I think that’s one of the reasons that she starts to rely more and more on Wendy, because I think she realizes more and more that she may need Wendy to also be helping her with those kids, because who knows what’s going to happen with her as things start to unravel.
Q: Can you talk about the dynamic between Gemma and Wendy this season? It seems to swing from combative to supportive and back again.
Katey Sagal: I think that she has allied with Wendy. Gemma is smart, she needed to have someone to help her out with those boys. Wendy has proven herself, she did leave rehab early, but she allied with her on the whole Juice of it all and Wendy didn’t throw her under the bus. She kept the secret. She tested her all season and I think Wendy loves the boys in a similar way to Gemma does. Abel is her real child. I think the journey for Wendy is so not what she’d expected, and all of a sudden she’s in the boys’ lives; she’s accepted by Jax. I think Wendy has sort of a grateful thing about her, and I think Gemma is aligned with Wendy at this point.
Q: As the season has gone on, it seems like Gemma is struggling more and more with what she’s done, and the consequences. Do you think she’s finally starting to come to grips with the gravity of everything she’s done?
Katey Sagal: I think it’s that and I think it’s all of the war that she has seen now come about. Bobby was killed. The lie has snowballed. No good has come from it, and I think that even Gemma, who’s able to rationalize and compartmentalize things, I think even she cannot avoid the fact that her action has caused all this. If her and Juice hadn’t told the story about the Chinese, none of this would have gone down, and it’s gone down big, so there’s remorse on so many levels.
Q: There seem to be some fans that are disappointed with the darker direction that Jax has gone this season. How do you think that affects Gemma?
Katey Sagal: He didn’t know what Gemma had done. His darkness is in response to losing his wife. His darkness is born out of just the worst of the worst that could have happened, and his guilt about that. He brought her back into this world and Tara was always struggling with getting out, so I think that’s where the darkness of Jax began and then it just continues. The lie has caught him up, too, as the war keeps getting bigger and the behavior gets worse and worse, but you know at the core of it, it all began with the lie Gemma told and with the killing of Tara.
Q: There’s a large contingent of the fans that definitely want to see Gemma be punished, and some people want her to pay for her crimes with her life. But there seems to be another subset of fans that think it would be a more fitting punishment if she’s forced to live with the fallout from everything that she had done. What do you think would be the more fitting punishment for Gemma?
Katey Sagal: I’d say that is a tough call. That’s a really tough call, because I don’t know, given where she’s at now. This is what’s interesting about denial. You know how you read in the news and you’ll see something, like that one guy they arrested in Santa Monica. He was a mob guy and had been hiding for 40 years. He killed a bunch of people, and there he is living in Santa Monica and he’s fine, and then they arrested him. So you wonder what the psychology is of somebody that’s really done heinous things – how far can we hide that from ourselves and would Gemma actually be able to?
I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s gone so far. To me it seems like either way is horrible, so you will see the way it all pans out, but it’s a tough call. It’s a tough call, but people do heinous things and continue to have lives. Yes, they do.
Q: Do you think fans will ultimately be satisfied with the ending?
Katey Sagal: You’ll be really satisfied with the ending. I think Kurt has even spoken about this, but he was trying to approach it like another episode, like the story keeps going. But I think it’s very satisfying, and it was very satisfying filming it, and I will say that for Charlie and myself. You’ll have to talk to Charlie, but he liked it, too. It was satisfying for all involved; that’s what I’ll say.
Q: Now that production has wrapped, have you mentally moved on, or is there still a bit of a mourning period?
Katey Sagal: We’ve all sort of known the end was coming, but I don’t think any of us really acknowledged it till the last couple of weeks. We’d have moments on set where people would tear up and we’d say good-bye to one director, but the work really requires you to be pretty much where you are. It’s complicated to keep everything in place in your brain and your character and where you are, so that pulled focused.
I think Kurt and I are just … part of us are in denial and we have lots of other stuff in life, so it takes the onus off it. I’m sure at some point we’ll probably crash from it all and we’ll recognize it, but I think overwhelmingly we’re both so grateful that it’s seven years and it’s been such a great experience, so I don’t know that you get too sad, really. Things happen. I think it’s ending at the perfect time, I really do.
(“Sons of Anarchy” airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.)