Note: Spoilers ahead. This article was written before Episode 13 of Season 5 “To’hajiilee” was aired.
In the center of today’s culture war is a woman, a TV character whose divisiveness has come to define the unanswered problem of gender in show business. Her name is Skyler White.
When the talented actress who portrays Skyler, Anna Gunn came to the defense of that very “Breaking Bad” character in an op-ed for the New York Times, she asserted that the unequal ire Skyler endures from the show’s fans is due to her strength and, most importantly, to her gender. This is the gross generalization I wish to re-examine, but this I write with great unease.
Among my concerns, which include being presumptuous or prejudiced, my gravest still is the possibility I might strip this issue of the gendered elements that are very real.
The vitriol aimed at Skyler — and now Gunn — is some of the ugliest stuff Generation Troll has managed yet. It’s blind to say there resides no misogyny in those sentiments. But Gunn’s op-ed and other similarly written pieces preclude the possibility that there are other reasons besides sexism underlying the bitter disdain Skyler attracts. And so we have sanctified Skyler. We have sanctified her and established her as a feminist figure walled off from any legitimate criticism.
I’m not here to bully or to diminish the feminist debate, but to complicate it. I want only to test Gunn’s argument and to re-imagine Skyler as an object for analysis.
Many legions of fans would in fact refute Gunn’s claim that Skyler is a woman of steely resolve or any type of feminist hero at all. They’d say she’s helpless, hypocritical and passive aggressive. (Who else cringes when she gives her husband, Walter, the “silent treatment?”) She shares her bed with her oppressor and cooks his dinner. For five seasons now, she has done nothing to turn in Walter.
I believe they loathe her for her helplessness because they have no empathy. They’re unable to identify with victims and they blame Skyler for her problems. In this way, she is more Fanny Price than Elizabeth Bennet, more desperate than efficacious, more crazed than delightful (and rightfully so).
It’s now her lot in life to overcome her victimization. She’s trapped in an abusive marriage — in her own home — with no way out. So how are we to expect her to climb out of the dangerous world Walter has imposed on his family? Lack of empathy is the beginning of all prejudice, but here helplessness (some would say willful helplessness) is the key factor and much of that has to do with how the story was told.
The characters with which the viewer empathizes rely on the craft of storytelling, on what function to which the character is relegated, what the storyteller wishes to show us of him or her. In short, I won’t empathize with a character unless the storyteller gives me good reason.
We naturally identify more with Walter as the protagonist, who used to be the one suffering silently, not Skyler. Somehow, they both let the other down: They never realize just how much they need each other. It makes you wish that, after all this time, Walter’s first “confession” in the pilot, before he ever had Heisenberg delusions, will find its way back to his family. That would be the way they remember him. Just as sympathy for Walter endures for once being a powerless high-school teacher, fans’ hatred of Skyler endures because of the way she was initially framed.
Walter is a monster. He endangers all his friends, his family, all he loves. He never wanted to hurt anyone, but his tragic flaw — his hubris — compels him to continue down this road. And therein lies the difference on which everything depends: Walter is our tragic hero. Not Skyler.
William Brennan of Slate calls Skyler the “moral grounding” of the story; I call her a moral irritant. 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.
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.