Lynette Rice
September 03, 2010 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The finest work of Katey Sagal’s career began with a daring pitch from Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter in early 2009: For the start of season 2, white supremacists would brutally gang-rape her character, Gemma, the wife of outlaw biker Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman). That’s tough news for an exec producer to deliver to an actress. It’s even tougher when the actress happens to be your wife. (Sutter and Sagal met through friends and have been married since 2004.) But the 56-year-old actress took the bombshell from her hubby in stride. ”Nothing was really gratuitous,” recalls Sagal. ”He explained to me what he wanted to do with it and why it was important to have it be such a violent act. It didn’t scare me.”

The result: a powerful performance that proved the woman best known as big-haired comedic caricature Peg Bundy on Married…With Children could deliver real emotion as easily as laughs. Sagal’s nuanced portrayal of a woman torn between seeking retribution against her attackers and protecting the family of hog-riding rebels she loves not only set the table for the dramatic third season of Sons (premiering Sept. 7 on FX), but it also generated a huge amount of Emmy buzz for Sagal. So when the nominations were announced in July and she was overlooked, her husband got downright angry. ”I was more mad at myself for getting sucked into it,” says Sutter, who knows a thing or two about Emmy snubs, having written for all seven seasons of FX’s The Shield. ”If there wasn’t all that buzz beforehand, I think the level of disappointment would have been a lot less.”

The actress herself was much more accepting. ”I was on a show that was never acknowledged [in the major categories] by the Emmys,” says Sagal of her 10 years on Married. (She also did underrated stints as John Ritter’s wife on ABC’s 8 Simple Rules and as Locke’s true love Helen on Lost, and she’s just completed her sixth season voicing cyclops Turanga Leela for Comedy Central’s Futurama.) ”To get an Emmy would be great, but I like the good ratings Sons is getting, too.” Indeed, Sons, which averaged 4.5 million viewers last season, routinely snagged the top spot on cable in its Tuesday time slot among total viewers and all key demographics. Of course, Sutter always knew his wife would ”kill” as Gemma, which is why he suggested her to FX in the first place. ”I don’t think it’s an opportunity she would’ve been given by anyone else, just because it’s been hard for her to shake those shackles of Peg Bundy,” he says. ”I felt pretty confident that we were going to be able to do something cool. She was my secret weapon.”

Protecting family will remain the central theme in season 3, which begins with Gemma on the lam after being framed for murder in the December finale. More than ever, Gemma’s one-tough-mother style will play a refreshing (and ultimately shocking) role over the next 13 episodes, as she continues to navigate the misogynistic world of biker gangs. Says Sagal with a smile, ”There’s something awesome about playing a very strong, kick-ass woman who is not afraid to say what’s on her mind.” Even to her boss.

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