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Television

In Defense of 'Breaking Bad's' Skyler White

Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Given the amount of loathing the character has had to endure in Breaking Bad, few realize that Skyler is so much more than what she appears to be.

And here I thought Deborah Morgan had it bad.

In the short, complex history of television's anti-hero lexicon, I was convinced you couldn't find a female family member who has been through more shit than Dexter's kid sister. Watching boyfriends get shot. Finding out that her brother is, you know, a serial killer. Haplessly falling in love with guys who turn out to be some of the most wanted men the state of Florida has ever seen. Girl could use a year or two on paid leave. How she's managed to not lock herself in a bedroom with a bottle of vodka and a noose is an accomplishment of miraculous proportion.

Yet, as it goes with so many things in life, I was wrong. Dead wrong, actually. Because despite Deb's level of tolerance for the abnormally unfortunate, there is actually a woman out there in TV land who has had a worse make-believe narrative. Yes. Worse. As in, trapped-worse. As in, she knows what the story's beloved anti-hero is capable of-worse. As in, a simple kiss before bed can incite the grossest, most disturbing goosebumps her shoulder has ever produced, worse. As in, what the hell do I do now-worse. As in, I have no options-worse. 

As in ... I have no will to live worse.

Skyler White, Walter's completely normal-looking, affair-having, white-wine-obsessed Breaking Bad wife, has found her life turned upside-down, inside-out and run through a dryer (not filled with money) for endless spins of hellish heat. She never asked for any of this. She never thought her husband would even be capable of becoming a drug lord, let alone a successful and feared one at that. She was seemingly content with living a low-middle-class life somewhere in New Mexico, struggling to help a son with cerebral palsy navigate his way through growing up, struggling to make ends meet with a new child now brought into this cruel, cruel world. Her husband would change that, of course, when he decided to break so much more than bad -- the collateral damage he risked when opting for the dark side has unforgivingly broke his family, too. In half. For good.

It's fascinating, then, to examine precisely why Skyler has become the show's most polarizing (read: hated) figure. Fire up any Internet browser, type in the words "Skyler" and "White," and behold an unbelievable amount of vitriol aimed exclusively in her direction. All she ever wanted was her husband to put up a fight against a disease that was supposed to leave him dead by now. You can't blame her for nagging him about getting treatment in Season One -- this is her husband, remember. Sure, Walt might have wanted to have a say in how his life would play out, but as we've learned by now, that was only the first in a series of obnoxious, bratty demands that has seemingly forever been tucked underneath his unassuming presence or humble impression. 

You can't blame her for cooking Ted's books, either. She had no idea where the family stood as a unit. For all she knew, she would soon be be forced to find full-time employment as a divorcee with a brand new baby daughter for which to care. Losing that job would have been an impossible blow to her independence. As for the affair? Well, ask yourself this: If your deceptively bland husband suddenly became evasive and distant a few weeks after learning he had terminal cancer and you had five trillion different scenarios playing out in your head ... what would you do to combat the prospect of your life blowing up real quick and real hard? 

Don't lie. Maybe it's not moral, but it sure as hell isn't impossible, either. Creator Vince Gilligan loves to point out how flawed we as humans are. The situation at hand is tailor-made to shine light on that very real and very disturbing possibility that far too many people experiment with every day, anyway. It makes you cringe, yes. But so does real life. 

Thus, this needs to be said: the constant dismissal and hatred for the Skyler White character says more about a popular culture's subliminal flirtation with misogyny than it does an annoying player who is trying to stay good in a game where being bad is all anyone wants to do. Don't believe me? Check out what Louis Peitzman had to say on the blog 15 Layers of Irony:

"Here is what bothers me about the Skyler hate: it's the same misplaced hostility faced by countless TV wives in the past," Peitzman wrote. "Here's what all of Skyler's critics seem to forget -- Walt is a fucking terrible person. Whatever noble causes he once had are gone. He's a power-hungry egomaniac and a danger to those around him. I'm not saying I don't enjoy Walt as a character, but I can't fathom siding with him. [...] Hating Skyler for the way she responds to Walt is absurd: she's reacting out of fear and a desire to protect her loved ones. [...] Of all the characters, she really does strike me as the most blameless. Whether or not she's a saint, she's about the furthest thing from a villain. And it's silly for me to get so worked up, but so much of the response I've seen does tend to stem from this anti-feminist conception of a "good wife," which Skyler isn't. She's a bitch because she's difficult. I can't accept that." ("Stop Hating Skyler White", by Louis Peitzman, 15 Layers Of Irony, 31 July 2012)

Indeed, the history of anti-heroes' wives on television has been marred in the same, "she just needs to shut up" approach. Mad Men's Betty Draper (Francis) will forever be chastised for actually standing up for herself when it came to all of Don's misgivings, lies, and manipulations. While I've admittedly never seen a second of The Sporanos, a quick Google search suggests that Tony's wife Carmela suffered through the same blowback from viewers. I've even seen tiny pockets of absurdly biting words for The Wire's resident female attorney Rhonda Pearlman, who wasn't even one of the main focuses of the show. It's as though any time a strong woman wants to become a major player in a narrative dominated by flawed, despicable men, she is criticized with arguments rooted in the following disturbingly ignorant mantra: "Well, she's just a woman being a woman, and she needs to know her role." 

God, even typing that made me cringe.

(Side: Maybe the most interesting use of this dynamic comes in the form of CBS's The Good Wife. Chalked full of empowered women, the series' plot takes those preconceived notions and forces viewers to dismiss them right away because of its main character, who, from the jump, establishes herself as a victim. But that's another column for another day.)

If nothing else, the hatred and discontent thrown on Skyler is an indictment on a society that finds this perception acceptable, not on a character whose place in the story is rooted in pure intentions. It's easy to think that we would respond differently, were we placed in the same scenarios as Walter's wife, but the reality is that you never truly know. Gilligan, in all his brilliance, does all he can to paint this picture with uncomfortably realistic colors, though, forcing his lead woman to consider the repercussions of whatever her next move might be. 

Go to the police? Her family, already fractured and weathered, would dissolve. Flee from the scene? Walt Jr. (or, as he stubbornly sometimes insists, Flynn) would never forgive her and who knows what might happen to Holly as she grows older and begins to ask questions. Kill Walt? Well, despite Anna Gunn's speculation that as much might just happen during the upcoming final eight episodes, it seems a bit too unrealistic to think that she might be able to pull it off successfully. And because we know how obsessed the show's writers are with realism, the approach seems unlikely, if only for how hard Skyler works to keep her gray heart from turning completely black. 

So, what does she do? Presumably much like a similar outlandish plot would unfold in real life, you have to make it up as you go, feeling around in the dark for a light you aren't even sure you'd want to turn on. Throughout the duration of Breaking Bad, Skyler White has been forced to constantly reinvent ways to keep her head above water, whether that be by laundering money or detaching herself from reality (there simply aren't enough wine bottles in the world for her to consume during most of Season Five). Labeling her a nuisance isn't just insulting to a fictional television character; it's insulting to the evolution of all womankind. 

"It's interesting that people still continue to feel like, 'Oh poor guy, he's doing the best he can, why doesn't she stop giving him a hard time?'" Gunn, herself, told Salon's Willa Paskin last August. "It's funny to us because we've been scratching our heads and saying, 'You do know that he's cooking crystal meth, and you do know that he's been killing people, and you do know that he's endangering his whole family, right?' ... It was really clever on the part of Vince and the writers to keep her as the one who was in Walt's way. She wasn't going to say, 'OK, well, that sounds great. You're going to go and do this thing. Enjoy! See you later!' She was the one who was always taking him to task and calling him on things, and there wasn't really another character doing that. She is a very tough, strong woman, not someone to say, 'Oh dear, oh dear, this is terrible.' That would have made a very different show." ("Breaking Bad's Anna Gunn: Skyler Might Kill Walt", by Willa Paskin, Salon, 26 August 2012)

Bingo. Part of what makes the Breaking Bad universe spin on its demented axis is the role its bit players have within the arch of the story. Skyler White was designed to test the patience of the type of men who more than likely will never admit to themselves how sexist they might just be, somewhere deep inside their subconscious. From the blatant (why does she have to be the one responsible for breakfast all the time?) to the subliminal (why did Ted have to reduce her to a Marilyn Monroe sideshow during his birthday celebration?), this woman was dealt a shit hand from the beginning. 

Yeah, and I thought Debra Morgan had it bad. At least she gets to shoot some dudes every now and then.

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