by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
August 07, 2012 – 16:01
One part of Breaking Bad‘s new season 5 that I’m finding most impressive is Skyler’s development. This is by no means a consensus opinion, as Skyler has long been the target of many Breaking Bad fans’ ire. TV critic Alyssa Rosenberg has pushed back against this hatred of antihero wives, and highlighted how Walter White is an abuser, both to his wife and surrogate son. Some of the most virulent Skyler hating runs through the misogynist hotbed of internet comment threads, but I know a number of thoughtful, feminist viewers who also hate Skyler. The latest episode, “51,” is a Skyler showcase, as Anna Gunn delivers a jaw-dropping performance as the abused spouse of our sociopathic protagonist who finally dares to speak her mind – and at least for TV blogger/critic/friend Noel Kirkpatrick, it made him reconsider his lack of empathy for her.
I must admit I don’t really understand the anti-Skyler vitriol, as I’ve always found her to be an interesting character who both provides a compelling dramatic foil for protagonist Walt and has developed her own intriguing arc of moral boundary-pushing. One thing that remains unclear to me is how much people dislike Skyler White the fictional person (finding her annoying, unsympathetic, or otherwise doing things that stand in the way of characters we like more) versus Skyler White the character (finding her unrealistic, poorly acted, or out-of-place in the storytelling) – do any articulate Skyler-haters want to clarify in the comments? (And I talk some about this distinction between character and person in Complex TV.)
[Spoilers through the fourth episode of season 5 below the fold.]
Amidst the general ongoing Skyler-hating, I’ve seen some specific pushback to how Skyler has reacted to Walt this season, as she responded to Walt’s victory over Gus and subsequent ego boost through paralyzing fear. The thrust of this complaint is questioning why should Skyler freak out so much when clearly Walt killed a horrible criminal who was going after the White family? After all, Walt assures her that the threat is dead, and now they’re all safe. But this points to one of the challenges of interpreting characters in a serialized narrative, as it is difficult to keep track of and differentiate between what we know as viewers, and what particular characters know about the story events. On one hand, this might make Skyler’s reaction seem even more unwarranted – after all, Skyler has no idea of many worse things that Walt has done and how much he has lied to her!
But if we think about what she knows and how her perception of Walt has shifted over the series, we can see a very different vision of her character and relationships. Thinking through this, I started remembering how Skyler has experienced Walt’s transformation, and imagining the story from her perspective. I thought about trying to edit down the series to only Skyler’s scenes to help map her experiences, but I lack the time to fully work through the video archives. Instead, I’ll try to recap how the series has portrayed Skyler’s story, what she knows and how she’s reacted to Walt, ending with my thoughts on season 5′s shifts and one theory about Skyler-hating.
Skyler started the series in a content and comfortable place, if not living the life she had dreamed when she married the older Walter White, an ambitious and successful scientist who was a bit too risky in wanting to spend beyond his means. But Walt’s professional failings and the challenges of having a disabled son shifted their life into a more struggling but stable existence: she gave up trying to be a writer to work as a part-time bookkeeper, he became a chemistry teacher who had to moonlight at a car wash. A surprise pregnancy changes things, but more abruptly Walt starts acting highly erratically around his 50th birthday. Walt’s behavior soon is explained when he reveals that he has terminal lung cancer, and is resigned to die rather than getting treatment. In an effort to keep her family together, she convinces Walt to undergo treatment and extend his life.
But Walt’s behavior remains bizarre, including a fugue state, connection with a druggie former student, numerous unexplained disappearances, strange parenting decisions (what was up with Junior and the tequilia?), and possibilities of a second cell phone that points toward his deception. Despite being 8 months pregnant, she goes back to work to help pay for their medical bills, even though her boss’s affections creep her out. And on top of everything, Walt misses their baby being born with a shoddy excuse. When Walt undergoes cancer surgery, he confirms his second cell phone, leading to Skyler investigating some of his cover stories, revealing a web of deception worse than she imagined – and thus she leaves him as soon as he has recovered from surgery.
Soon after their separation, Walt tells Skyler his secret: that he has been cooking meth. He assures her that it’s a safe job, with no violence or threat of danger, but she’s outraged at how this risks everything for their family and demands a divorce. Walt refuses, calling her bluff and moving back in despite her threats to go to the police. So she lashes out in the only way that she can think of: having an affair with her boss, who has his own corrupt business practices that she finds herself wrapped up in. Eventually Walt does agree to a divorce, but Skyler decides to remain married for the legal protection. When Hank is shot and left paralyzed due to circumstances seemingly related to Walt’s crimes, Skyler agrees to pay for Hank’s medical costs, devising a cover story for Walt’s riches involving compulsive gambling and card-counting, drawing her deeper into Walt’s criminal interests. As Skyler learns more about Walt’s business, she puts her bookkeeping skills to work to help launder money and purchase a car wash as a front, rationalizing her decision that helping Walt is better for the family than breaking the law for Ted.
Although their relationship is far from solid, Skyler and Walt reach a balanced arrangement of mutual benefit, until she learns that one of his drug associates was killed in cold blood. After expressing concern for their safety, Walt lashes out with an anger she has never seen before, claiming to be “the danger” in a threatening moment. She comes close to taking baby Holly and fleeing, but decides she must remain to “protect this family from the man who protects the family” – how much she honestly fears Walt versus seeing him as a blowhard out of his depths is uncertain, but clearly she feels like she can still manage him. Trouble with Ted returns in the form of an IRS investigation, which she helps skirt by paying him off – and enlisting Saul’s help to convince him to step aside. And then a threat to Hank’s life prompts the family to go into protection, which ends when Gus Fring is killed in a nursing home explosion.
That takes us to season 5, which opens (after the flash-forward teaser) with Skyler’s conversation with Walt, when she realizes he was responsible for the bomb. Remember, this is the first indication she has gotten Walt is capable of murder – while we witnessed his procession of increasingly amoral killings (that I’ve discussed more here), to Skyler, this means Walt has suddenly gone from a criminal chemist who seems in over his head, to a scheming murderer willing to blow-up a nursing home to take out an enemy. Just imagine what might go through your mind if you discovered such news about your spouse, and what else you might imagine he has done that you’ve yet to discover. Suddenly she’s not only aiding a drug criminal, she’s an accessory to murder – and soon learns that her efforts with Ted have led to his near demise and resulting terrorized paralysis. Skyler is simultaneously repulsed by the murderer who moves back in & assures her “life is good,” and horrified that she too has made moral compromises in the name of protecting her family, taking her down the road that Walt has already traveled. But unlike Walt, she experiences remorse and horror at her own actions, changing course toward a state of passive paralysis to plan how to protect her children from “the danger.”
I find this contrast to be one of the brilliant resonances of this season thus far, reminding us that Walt’s slide into monstrosity was due to a series of active choices & moral failings, not the reactive “shit happens” that Skyler calls out as part of his perpetual series of rationalizations. And now his path has taken him to another fork in the road: see himself as the man that his wife sees to try to save his marriage (and perhaps his humanity), or puff himself up to bully or manipulate her into accepting Heisenberg, just as he did with Jesse. And he has clearly chosen to double-down as Heisenberg, continuing his color palette redesign with the matching black hat and macho car. The argument in their bedroom was one of the most violent scenes the show has ever done – despite the lack of physical contact, it is clear that Skyler is now a battered spouse, desperately seeking any way to protect her kids and self while she waits for Walt’s cancer to overtake his body.
So why do so many people hate Skyler, despite her clear position as victim? Aside from the knee-jerk misogyny that Rosenberg discusses, I think a large part has to do with the power of first impressions: the first season of Breaking Bad did a pretty mediocre job developing any character beyond Walt and Jesse, and of those undeveloped characters, Skyler was the most central in the story. Thus we didn’t see that much of Hank before he became more nuanced in the second season, but we’d seen enough of Skyler to cement a sense that she was unappealing. Plus in those early days, we were rooting for Walt to break out of his boring life into the more exciting world of crime, and Skyler’s primary function was to ground him in mundanity. But just as Walt has transformed as a character into a hateful and repulsive man, Skyler became more fully-realized and complex, far more nuanced than her first impressions. But seemingly, many viewers cannot get beyond those initial impressions to see and appreciate Skyler’s transformations, both as character and person. (Again, if any Skyler-haters want to offer other explanations, I’m eager to read them!)
At the end of the fourth season, my main investment was in seeing Jesse survive the series, hopefully rising above Walt’s toxic influence. But 1/4 through the final season, my allegiances are just as strongly with Skyler, the only character who sees Walt truly for what he is. We know she won’t be there for his 52nd birthday, but I truly hope she’s found her escape from Walt’s oppressive bullying to a safe place.
And with that, I end with this brilliant triptych image that circulated on Twitter yesterday – Walter White’s character “development” over three birthdays: