Faces of Breaking Bad: Skyler White

I don’t know, but even since the first season Anna Gunn’s character has been the sore taste in the mouth of Breaking Bad fans. Whether it has been the criticism that her acting is inferior, that her character is unbelievable, underdeveloped, or just plain unappealing, the criticisms have never made much sense to me. That is to say, I have understood the distaste for her, I just haven’t been able to pin that distaste on any of those sentiments. All’s I know is, America’s most famous contemporary TV villain has a partner-in-crime, and a pawn, and a nemesis, all in one character, who happens to be his wife, whose name is Skyler White. Complexity has been on her side, in more developed ways than any of her compromised-wife contemporaries–Betty Draper, Claire Underwood–and so has believability. Many of the Skyler White hate-memes repeat the look of cold shock or tearful anger that has defined the last two seasons of her situation, as if making a point about her performance. It is hard, even for the most die-hard of BB viewers, to delineate all that has transpired for her since Walt’s cancer diagnosis five seasons ago…

Actress Anna Gunn recently responded in the NY Times to the vitriol her character has received since the show’s inception, entitled “I Have a Character Issue,” and tries to pinpoint what exactly has been behind it:

When Skyler discovers what Walter has been up to, she tries to stop him, to no avail. She is outraged by the violence and destruction of the drug world, fearful for her children’s safety, disgusted by the money Walter brings in and undone by the lies and manipulation to which he subjects her.

Because Walter is the show’s protagonist, there is a natural tendency to empathize with and root for him, despite his moral failings. (That viewers can identify with this antihero is also a testament to how deftly his character is written and acted.) As the one character who consistently opposes Walter and calls him on his lies, Skyler is, in a sense, his antagonist. So from the beginning, I was aware that she might not be the show’s most popular character.

tumblr_mq9dgqW3BD1qzpxx1o1_500In short, Gunn’s harrassment–the harrassment of Skyler White–is rooted in her antagonism to the anti-hero we love to see rising to power. In a sense, she relents, the show is meant to play on this irony: especially in the first two seasons, when Skyler is blind to Walt’s meth-world, the audience is meant to fall in love with the American illusions of success he is contortedly conceiving. And then they are to see they are rooting for perversion. Skyler is an essential element (he he) to this puzzle: we are meant to find her unappealing because we are meant to see our bloodthirst for making it big. She is a crucial device in the audience feeling badly about our convictions. But Gunn also says it is more than this:

“I have never hated a TV-show character as much as I hate her,” one poster wrote. The consensus among the haters was clear: Skyler was a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an “annoying bitch wife.”

I enjoy taking on complex, difficult characters and have always striven to capture the truth of those people, whether or not it’s popular. Vince Gilligan, the creator of “Breaking Bad,” wanted Skyler to be a woman with a backbone of steel who would stand up to whatever came her way, who wouldn’t just collapse in the corner or wring her hands in despair. He and the show’s writers made Skyler multilayered and, in her own way, morally compromised. But at the end of the day, she hasn’t been judged by the same set of standards as Walter.

As an actress, I realize that viewers are entitled to have whatever feelings they want about the characters they watch. But as a human being, I’m concerned that so many people react to Skyler with such venom. Could it be that they can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or “stand by her man”? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, Walter’s equal?

It’s notable that viewers have expressed similar feelings about other complex TV wives — Carmela Soprano of “The Sopranos,” Betty Draper of “Mad Men.” Male characters don’t seem to inspire this kind of public venting and vitriol.

One can never underestimate the mythologies that television shows spawn and corroborate, and certainly the “leading male” is one of these mythologies. As Gunn says, her character hasn’t been given the same metric as Walt. I’m less convinced, though, that this is the main reason America bristles on Skyler. Complex, leading females who must reign in the whims of a passion-crazed leading male? Sounds an awful lot like Gilligan’s old show, The X-Files, with an exactingly shrewd Agent Dana Scully putting Fox Mulder back in the saddle of reason. People loved Scully.

No, instead, my guess is that Skyler’s initial, unsexy ignorance, then sneaky counterintelligence, then fearful cooperation, then compromised involvement, is too sticky, too real for us to feel comfortable watching. It starts when we can’t stand to see her trying to make sense of what she cannot see going on; it has continued into a culpability that is as severe–through compliance and survival–as her methlord husband’s. We must watch all of this, a strong leading woman, imprisoned in her own home–an equal to a villain, yet subject to his whims–waiting for a shift in the tides of fate. Maybe this is it, though: the terrible relatability we feel with her lack of life choices. That, because we are Skyler, we hate Skyler–and this is our character issue. Exhibit A: