As “Breaking Bad” comes to an end this week, the big question on fans’ minds is what will become of chemistry nerd turned drug kingpin Walter White and his family.
Though he’s the classic example of an anti-hero, Walt initially entered the ever-thrilling field of meth production in a desperate effort to provide economic security for his wife, Skyler, son, and daughter-to-be. That noble goal is lost, as he spirals into violence and his “bullshit rationales.” Despite his corrupt moral compass, viewers continue to root for Walt and there’s a latent feeling that the audience will revolt if he doesn’t survive the show’s finale. Meanwhile, among many “Breaking Bad” fans, there’s no love lost (to put it mildly) for his wife Skyler. Actress Anna Gunn even wrote an op-ed in the New York Times recently talking about the hatred of her character.
“My character, to judge from the popularity of Web sites and Facebook pages devoted to hating her, has become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women,” writes Gunn.
I love the show, but the problem with Skyler is clear. While the show revolves around Walt’s struggles along the spectrum of morality, Skyler never gets much space to be an independent character. Her story really revolves around the choices her husband makes. It’s hard to build empathy with a character whose internal conflicts are never fully explored—instead, she often seems to just be getting in the way of the story, as another obstacle for her husband. Skyler’s character does evolve significantly on the show: once Walt’s secret life as a meth cooker is out, Skyler moves from being a two-dimensional good wife to a more interesting person who becomes complicit in the chaos and takes over the money laundering side of the operation. While she starts the series showing up at Jesse’s house, whom she believes is selling her husband pot, to chew him out, by the end of season 5, she’s signing off on Jesse’s execution. Her transformation (along with Walt’s) is one of the most fascinating parts of the show, but it’s not explored deeply enough. Instead, her actions always feel more like reactions as she deals with the life that her husband has chosen.
Photo: Good point, Skyler.
“Breaking Bad” frequently and intelligently explores the questions of what it means to be a man and a father. Initially, it’s clear that Walt feels less masculine than the men around him—he’s a nerd who struggles to earn a living spending his days harassed by high schoolers who drive better cars than him—and he enjoys becoming a drug kingpin in a large part because of the power it brings. He has a desperate need to be able to provide for his family, lest his man card be taken away in the afterlife.
Meanwhile, the show hardly scratches the surface of female gender roles and expectations. Though it spans 61 hour-long episodes, “Breaking Bad” barely passes the Bechdel test. By this final season, there are now three significant female characters (Skyler, her sister Marie and drug boss Lydia). Skyler and Lydia have shared just one brief interaction with each other, while Skyler and Marie have many conversations over the span of the series. However, the vast majority of their conversations are about the men in their lives (taking pause at times to talk about how Skyler gets her mashed potatoes so smooth and their love of fat-free salad dressing). Recently “Breaking Bad” execs Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, and Gennifer Hutchison revealed some plot lines which were discussed, but never added to the show. One involved Skyler and Marie taking a trip to see their low-life artist father, as a means of explaining why Skyler was with Walt. This plot was rejected because it “veered too far astray” from the main story. “It just wasn’t the show,” said Hutchison. “It didn’t fit with the tone.”
Throughout the series, Walt has continually justified all his actions with the fact that he’s doing this dirty work for his family. Our anti-hero clearly has a warped sense of family values, which we witness as he does things such as moving back into the house without Skyler’s consent, sexually forcing himself on her after a crime-induced adrenaline rush, continually abusing and manipulating her to get his way, threatening to commit her to a mental institution, struggling with her in a knife fight and then kidnapping their baby. It’s not often discussed that their relationship is abusive, but Skyler constantly has to negotiate protecting her children as best she can without bringing the entire operation down. There’s a healthy dose of self-preservation behind her actions. “It’s hard enough for women who aren’t married to evil geniuses to leave abusive relationships,” writes says Alyssa Rosenburg at ThinkProgress. “Skyler is attempting to negotiate a livable existence for herself in highly unusual circumstances. And her steel is hardening every day.”
It isn’t often that we see strong women on television who are in abusive relationships, and this is part of what makes Skyler such a complex and interesting character. Still, some viewers see Skyler as either a nagging harpy or a hypocritical gold-digger. In the intense episode, “Ozymandias,” I could almost hear all the Skyler haters cheering on Walt as he spewed his vitriol towards her over the phone.
As Walt’s sometimes-antagonist, Skyler is hated, in part, for getting in the way of the show’s anti-hero, but I believe she’s also hated by misogynists who just can’t stand to see a woman stand up for herself and her family. But with Walt doing all these horrible things throughout his journey, why do we root for him? Do we hold out hope for him because he is selflessly providing for his family? No, we’re pulling for Walt because he’s the former beleaguered middle class nerd turned criminal mastermind who takes no shit. Perhaps some (especially male) viewers see something of themselves in the former Walter White.
But personally, I’ve never been a fan of Walt. This weekend, I hope he goes down in flames. Then, hopefully, Skyler will finally be able to pursue her own life.
Love Breaking Bad? Read film columnist Nijla Mu’min’s Dispatches from a Breaking Bad Binge.