Bitch. Shrew. Nag. Battle-axe.
Skyler White—wife of Walter—has been called many things over the past five seasons of AMC’s can’t-believe-it-keeps-getting-better series Breaking Bad. [Insert promo for Low Winter Sun here.] But I’ve got a better descriptor, and one that I believe is appropriately all-encompassing: Wife.
Maybe it takes actually being a spouse to understand how challenging the job can be. Yes, I call it a “job.” Because I know from experience that, like a 9-to-5 occupation, the only way to be successful at marriage is to be present every day, to work in collaboration with your partner, and to put in some overtime when you’re in crisis mode. It’s not always pretty and it probably looks a lot different than what you envisioned on that picture-perfect day when, clad in white, you promised to stick it out with one person for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part.
And yeah, sometimes it means you need to be a total bitch. (That goes for both partners.)
If you examine the trajectory of Skyler’s character—from pregnant wife of a cancer-stricken high school science teacher to complicit money launderer who detachedly wonders “What’s one more?” when suggesting Walt murder his longtime partner—you’ll see that she has been forced to tackle every scenario mentioned in those marital vows (except for the whole “‘until death” thing, but there is still one episode left…).
For the record, Skyler White is not my favorite character on Breaking Bad. She wouldn’t even crack my top 10. Yet I consider that more a testament to the deft talent of series creator Vince Gilligan and his crack team of writers to create truly three-dimensional characters than I do an indictment of the role that Anna Gunn has played for so long. And I’ve never understood all the shit she gets for playing it so brilliantly.
By now you’ve probably read the op-ed that Gunn wrote for The New York Times, in which the freshly-minted Emmy winner shares what it is like to be the most hated character on one of television’s best-loved shows.
“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,” writes Gunn. “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?”
These are all insightful—albeit difficult to answer—questions, but I’d add one more query to that lineup: Do we villainize Skyler White and other female confidantes to men of power (i.e. Carmela Soprano in The Sopranos and Debra Morgan in Dexter) because they elicit weakness in the very bad men they stand behind? The same men we have come to almost idolize, despite their many ethical shortcomings?
How can we be disgusted with Skyler for cooking the books for her boss, sleeping with him, then handing over (most of) Walt’s money to help him out of a jam with the IRS which could easily point suspicion back at the Whites? Yet at the same time comfortably classify Walt’s murder of a drug dealer in the pilot episode as “self-defense”—and still be rooting for him 22 well-executed murders later?
In attempting to rectify this double standard, Gunn “finally realized that most people’s hatred of Skyler had little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives. Because Skyler didn’t conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender.”
Gender and wifely stereotypes certainly play a part in the Skyler backlash, but what does that say about Hollywood’s representations of marriage? As darker themed series like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Boardwalk Empire become the norm, do audiences still truly believe that Carol Brady is an authentic depiction of modern-day wives? Despite the fact that more than 70 percent of mothers work full-time jobs, or that the number of stay-at-home dads has doubled in the past decade, do viewers still expect that it’s the woman’s job to make sure dinner is on the table? Does a lack of Y chromosome mean the lack of a right to express one’s opinion—and express it loudly? (If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, I invite you to have dinner at my place. My husband makes a fabulous pot roast.)
But for all the accusations of misogyny that get hurled around viewers’ disdain for Skyler, the reality of why men and women—husbands and wives—hate Skyler with equal fervor might just boil down to one simple fact: we relate to Skyler much more than we do Walt. Which makes our investment in her actions more personal, and the disappointment we feel in her poor decisions more palpable. (Sort of like getting pissed when someone walks into a dark room in a horror movie.)
As fun as it is to watch Walt in action, we never expect him to do the “right thing.” Skyler is our only hope for salvation. And it pains us to see her contradictory life: a strong female character who is a prisoner to her megalomaniac husband, but at the same time his absolute equal. A wife who despises the stranger she shares a bed with, yet helps him get away with it for the sake of their family.
When Breaking Bad has concluded (sniff, sniff) and the show’s cultural impact is fully realized, its most likely claim to fame will be that it dared to turn a wholly sympathetic family man into a duplicitous criminal for whom lies, drugs, and murder are just another day at the office. And Skyler? To many, she will forever be known as the one who dared to challenge Walt’s authority, to tell him that manufacturing meth was not the ideal line of work for a husband and father, to beg him to quit for the sake for their family, and—shock of all shocks—to stand by him (for the most part) for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
What a bitch!