By Sean Czarnecki, Film Editor
Published September 6, 2013
Personally, I have no affinity for moral arbitration in stories as these. Skyler’s function in the story as an adjudicator of values simplifies morality in a complex story about the thrill and tragedy of crime, family and pride. Her proclivities for that time of unshifting morality, which now rapidly crumble, make her Walter’s natural antagonist in more ways than gender. Truly, it’s only until she reveals the darker depths of herself, when she finally breaks bad, that I was more drawn to her.
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And still, however much the need for survival has whittled down the list of good things in their world, there are two ideals they have kept: family and loyalty — and those, too, have their corruptions. Walter poisons a boy, lets Jane die, manipulates his son’s adoration, nearly gets Hank killed and more, but he never does the unthinkable yet really altogether logical: He’s Machiavellian, but he hasn't killed Hank. And who knows? He just may yet.
For the sake of argument, let’s contrast that to Skyler’s infidelity. Opposed to Walter’s utter devotion to family that first propelled him into the drug world and the pride that trapped him, Skyler’s disloyalty proves to be a big barrier for many people. I don’t want to weigh the morality of actions, to judge Skyler. I want only to understand her image and to understand why Walter is not judged as harshly. And this, as a fan, I understand well: Loyalty is paramount to our feelings of likeability.
Somewhere deep down — and this has been reinforced again and again — Walter is unable to break some bonds. Skyler is the love of his life. Junior is his big man. Holly is the innocence he wants to preserve. Hank and Marie happened to be on the wrong side. Jesse is the young man he regrets having hurt and yes, he loves him. And however unpredictable the finale will be, we know already it is too late for Walt to cherish those things as they should be cherished when his end comes. We can only hope Skyler and the children, Hank and Marie, and Jesse escape his sins.
Again, however, we come back that fundamental principle that guides all character analysis: empathy. It took both Whites to ruin their marriage. And I think we can all agree it was Walter’s reign of terror that drove Skyler to Ted for revenge — out of spite.
That said, we must still ponder further on empathy: Is it the responsibility of the storyteller to frame his characters in such a way to evoke empathy and love? Or is it the responsibility of the viewer to read beyond the frame of the story itself?
Much has been said about ideals, but nothing of superficial dislike. Skyler has my empathy, but not my love. Because she has one and not the other. Because the blogosphere has simplified the discussion to feminist and anti-feminist positions, whatever reasons I have for disliking Skyler are deemed invalid.
Gunn presents Skyler as a new way by which we can measure societal progression just as academics and critics use cultural pieces to track our values and to hold their failings accountable. The problem is that Skyler is a faulty measurement. I could very well dislike her for something as simple as her attitude.
But I can’t say that. I can’t say her melodramatic displays are repulsive, that she’s spiteful and downright obnoxious. I can’t say her steep, cutting angle of condescension was grating to my ears. All that and more would insinuate I dislike her for inhibiting not only Walter’s but every male’s “masculine” urges. We have simplified the discussion rather than opened it.
My question is why she has to likeable. Her function, how she was written into this tale, her trajectory from veggie-bacon-cooking housewife to crime affiliate and Gunn’s deft performance — that is the singular achievement that arrests my attention. It’s a fascinating study. And really, it can be just as simple as that.