How Gemma Teller Is Actually The Walter White Of ‘Sons Of Anarchy’


Earlier this year, I wrote a piece suggesting that everything the Internet used to say about Breaking Bad’s Skyler White was absolutely true of Gemma Teller. But that missed the mark. Gemma Teller wasn’t Skyler White. She was Walter White.

It may be hard to remember back this far, to a time before she was Gemma Teller-Morrow, but in 2008, Katey Sagal worked the same trick on our minds that Bryan Cranston had the same year in Breaking Bad, going from Hal in Malcolm in the Middle to Walter White. Like Cranston, Morrow had transformed from an actress we knew primarily from sitcom television — 8 Simple Rules and the iconic Married … with Children role — into a formidable dramatic actress playing a character who couldn’t have been further from the roles that characterized her earlier career.

It was hard to know what to make of Gemma Teller at first. We learned fairly early on that she had a nasty, protective streak — she was downright hostile toward Jax’s ex-wife, Wendy, cold toward Tara, and aggressive toward the groupies that flocked to Jax. We also had a fairly strong sense early on that Gemma was behind the death of J.T., and though Clay was running SAMCRO, Gemma was pulling all the strings.

The apogee for both Gemma Teller and Katey Sagal’s performance was in season two, where Gemma was raped by members of an white supremacist group in retaliation for SAMCRO dealings with minorities. Sagal was flat-out incredible that year, converting her physical and emotional trauma into a steely resolve. She kept her sexual assault quiet so as to not disrupt the club’s plans, and like the Machiavellian Queen she is, Gemma Teller only brought out that trump card when she could use it to manipulate. In this case, she used her rape to emotionally coerce her son into staying in SAMCRO. If you want to look back at the undoing of SAMCRO, you could go back to J.T.’s death, or you could go back to the moment that Gemma used the worst moment of her life to compel Jax Teller to patch back into SAMCRO.

Whatever you want to say about Gemma Teller for the rest of the series, Katey Sagal deserved at least an Emmy nomination for her second-season performance.

In season three, Gemma once again controlled the main plotline: The Irish season centered on Abel’s abduction. Abel was taken to Ireland, where eventually Jax actually agreed to let Abel remain with Father Ashby because it was in the best interests of Abel. Gemma — who is more devoted to SAMCRO than anyone — once again emotionally manipulated Jax into bringing the baby back by revealing to Jax that Tara is pregnant with Thomas. Like Walter White, it wasn’t just that she wanted the best for her family; she wanted to make sure that she was the one who provided it.

Season four is when Clay began to push back against Gemma’s schemes. Gemma let it get as far as Clay killing Piney (which she agreed to keep secret), but when Clay took a hit out on Tara against the specific wishes of Gemma, it’s then that she knew she had to use her own son to remove Clay from the equation. Jax didn’t kill Clay for two more seasons, but thanks largely to Gemma, Clay’s power was neutered. Gemma began using Jax to serve her own ends, just as Walter had begun to use Skyler to serve his once she’d become aware of his meth manufacturing business.

The next two seasons of Sons of Anarchy were characterized by Gemma’s power struggle with Tara over behind-the-scenes control of Jax and SAMCRO, a struggle that eventually pushed Gemma to kill Tara to protect Jax (or at least she thought she was protecting Jax). Tara’s death, and the lie that Gemma told to cover it up, of course, lead to over 80 deaths in the final season, including Gemma’s own.

By that point, Gemma — like Walter White in the final season of Breaking Bad — was irredeemable. We no longer felt any ambiguity toward her character: Like White, she’d transformed from an anti-hero working to protect her family to an outright villain whose actions had actually harmed her family instead of helped it. But just as Walter White had, Gemma extracted that last, tiny bit of sympathy for her character out of her death: Yes, she was evil. Yes, she deserved to die. But the root of all her actions was to protect Jax and her grandchildren, and so it was not with satisfaction that we saw Gemma die, but with a kind of quiet sadness at the inevitability of it all.

Her character had run its course. The lies were too insurmountable, but true to her character, Gemma managed to manipulate even her own death. She said her goodbyes. She chose the spot. She even compelled her son to pull the trigger. “It’s just who we are,” she said. But that’s not entirely true. It’s who she was, and to the extent that Jax was anything like Gemma, it was only because Gemma molded and manipulated him into being that way, just as Walter White had molded Skyler into a criminal.

Gemma won’t be around the finale, but if and when Jax dies, his death will be on Gemma’s hands. Some great Mom she turned out to be.