“Breaking Bad” and the Tragedy of Skyler White
Skyler White did not deserve your hatred.
The treatment and appraisal Skyler got from “fans” of Breaking Bad illustrates, perhaps even more-so than the lampooning of emo-Peter Parker that Spider-Man 3 itself was mocking, the lost appreciation for subtlety among audiences. The reaction to her reveals the absolutist approach to protagonist empathy that blinds us from the greater moral thesis.
This essay will spoil the entire show. You’ve been forewarned.
While Breaking Bad was running, Skyler’s actress Anna Gunn wrote a clumsy New York Times op-ed attempting to make sense of the vitriol against her. Give her credit for trying there; the real problem is that she shouldn’t have felt the need to do that in the first place.
To be sure, Skyler is not a particularly good person. Liking her is not necessary to appreciate the series. She is a deeply flawed human being, and she does a lot over the course of the show that would drive crazy any person in the unfortunate position of being married to her. She cheats. She makes “facon” for breakfast, chastises her husband for using the wrong credit card, goes out of her way to catch him in an act, commits fraud and embezzlement, smokes while pregnant, and steals her husband’s money in order to shore up her employer (and extramarital lover)’s tax evasion.
But you know what Skyler doesn’t do? She does not cook crystal meth. She does not kill people. She does not conspire with drug lords, psychopaths, and hitmen. She does not make bodies disappear. And she sure as hell doesn’t poison children or bomb nursing homes.
A friend once postulated to me that characters like Skyler White (and Betty Draper) get unfairly maligned because they exhibit the irritating characteristics of at least one person that we know. And their actresses skillfully portray them that way. Very few people are ever likely to know a Walter White (or Don Draper), but we all know women like Skyler – and for some of us they’d be our worst nightmares. I think she’s correct, because Breaking Bad (and Mad Men) is, above all else, about the man at the center. As such, it behooves us to take a closer look at Walter White in order to better understand the things people hated about his wife.
The word “anti-hero” was used to describe Walter White, which at first glance seems appropriate given the fact that he inspires an abundance of empathy for his cancerous condition despite our knowledge that he’s committing not just criminal acts but morally abominable ones.
Note, however, that the basic excuses or justifications for his life and depth of crime do not apply to him. He is not an impoverished street hoodlum scraping by at the bottom of the food chain with no prospect of rising above it (Bodie Broadus). He was not born into an affluent family or enterprise with an existing criminal legacy of which he is pressured to take the reins (Michael Corleone/Tony Soprano). He was not a blue-collar city brat who fell in with the wrong crowd at the wrong age and lived a life of knowing nothing else (Henry Hill). Very little about Walt’s past (save his history with Grey Matter) explains his criminal pathology.
Walt comes from well outside the gravitational orbit of crime. We meet him at age 50 where he has a wife, a crippled son, and a girl on the way. He works two jobs, lives a relatively comfortable if imperfect middle class life and is respected in the community. Walt is even, as Jonah Goldberg put it, a hero in the small ways that good fathers and schoolteachers are. And the show is about his moral downfall, or as creator Vince Gilligan pitched it: the transformation of “Mr. Chips into Scarface.” Its progression can be likened to chemistry itself – matter interacting with matter where action ripples out and causes (sometimes violent) reactions that reshapes, restructures, and, yes, transforms the subject at the center of it.
Thus, Breaking Bad does not really feature an anti-hero. It features the villain.
The difference between the two is important. Villains may be human and sympathetic but they are villains, doing hurtful, evil things. An anti-hero may not be heroic, but they can usually be trusted to do the right thing every once in a while. If you think of him as an anti-hero, then of course Skyler is going to piss you off. But Walt is a villain, and not even one who does evil things for the genuine right reasons.
And this is where we get to the central problem. If you don’t understand the basic, undeniable fact that Walt is a villain, charting and forging a destructive path that drags innocent people to ruin wherever it suits him, you are buying into the very lie that Walt keeps telling himself.
While the show aired, fans often speculated what the critical moment was where Walt became irredeemable, which was used as a synonym for “evil” or “villain,” with the implication being that there was some kind of turning point where he stopped being an anti-hero. It’s an interesting question, but it misses the point. Walt never was an anti-hero. In the first three episodes, he dipped his toe into the meth business and the reality of it grabbed his ankle and nearly drowned him. He escaped only by miracle, and circumstances gave him a “morally clean” way out. That’s about as close as he ever got to being that.
But then he was given an opportunity that most cancer patients could only dream of. Two billionaires from Walt’s past offered to pay for his chemotherapy in full. He willingly turns them down, opting to return to the darkness. Right then and there, Walt became the villain. And he stayed the villain at every point where he didn’t take a subsequent opportunity (of which there were many) to back out.
This is not to say that Walt’s character change ended there. Indeed, even the Walt of late Season 2, who coldly watches a helpless, overdosing girl choke on her own vomit and doesn’t even turn her over, knowing full well how horrified and devastated Jesse will be the moment he wakes up and sees her, wouldn’t dare dream of the things that Season 4 Walt does. The point is that Walt’s arc consists of willful moral choices, and those choices are packed with dual intentions. He can rationalize his way out of anything, but his idea of what constitutes “self-defense” grows as fast as his cash flow.
As such, Walt does things to Skyler, his children, and his extended family that could fill up the entire Lifetime network’s worth of material. While Skyler is pregnant and most in need of his steady helping hand, Walt lies to her, disappears often, and keeps her up at night worried about where he might be. He even misses the birth of their daughter. However morally culpable she is for cheating on him with Ted Beneke (and she is), he was there for her when her husband was rushing off to make the biggest drug delivery in his career thus far.
When Skyler put the pieces together and added up the sum of Walt’s lies, can we really blame her for kicking him out of the house, or for asking (and then attempting to blackmail) him for a divorce as a result of learning the truth? To find out that a loved one is involved in such an ugly (the charitable word) business should sicken and shock the conscience of anyone, no matter how much we love them, or attempt to empathize with their situation.
Not only is there a good reason for Skyler to want Walt away from the children, but she makes incredible sacrifices as a result of it. Junior doesn’t know the truth of his father’s crimes, so he can only think his mom a “bitch” for it. And even later on, when Walt can show off his wealth a bit more (because of his ownership of the carwash), to Junior, Skyler is still getting in the way of all the fun because of her stinginess.
From Season 3 onwards, Skyler does everything possible to escape Walt’s clutches only to find herself dragged further into them and eventually complicit in covering up his crimes as they continue getting worse. She finds herself as in over her head as she knows he is, and she doesn’t know what to do about it. Is she a drama queen about it? Without a doubt, yes, but that then brings up the final point.
Why do we fault Skyler for acting out or for her self-loathing when we readily forgive Jesse Pinkman for doing the same?
The question isn’t as rhetorical or gender-loaded as it probably sounds. Skyler is always at least one step removed from the worst deeds executed by the villains of Breaking Bad. We might forgive her more if she herself ever felt required to pull the trigger on a person. There’s also the fact that Jesse has long been involved in the meth business, to the point where every step he takes to try and escape it, do right by his people, or just do the right thing at all is seen as an improvement. Jesse, for all the evil he commits, is more appreciably sensitive to its moral implications. We get that in the substantial amount of time we spent with him – time we don’t get as much of with Skyler, whose morality is merely assumed.
That, I think, explains the audience problem that I alluded to in the beginning. The time spent with Walt and Jesse, the experience of seeing their humanity, seeing what makes them compelling and occasionally worth rooting for, blurred for many of us the difference between protagonist and hero. The answer was not, as Anna Gunn suggested, the fact that she’s a woman. It was the fact that in being there to witness firsthand each step of Walter White’s journey into the life of crime and then crime lordship, people couldn’t believe that what he was doing was all that bad.
Skyler White, not Walter, is the only character in the show who actually does bad things for her family. Remember the pilot sex, the hand dryer punch, and the finale confession? Walt did it for himself. Cooking meth, making illegal money, and killing his way to infamy made him feel alive and fulfilled. It realized the worth of his manhood and made him feel like he had a purpose. And admittedly it was fun to watch him do it. What wasn’t fun to see, however, was Skyler’s attempt to stop him from doing more damage to the family and to others. Yet that was every bit as essential to the moral thesis of Breaking Bad as everything else. Skyler is what kept Walt tethered to the life outside of crime and amorality that he comes from, and Walt increasingly came to view that connection as a constricting chain around his neck. As such, she is the victim, perhaps the most tragic one aside from the kids, yet fans were happy to brush that aside no matter how much the series ached and bent to demonstrate the extent of his wrath upon her.
This is why we ask ourselves at what point he became “the villain,” as though he wasn’t already one by the end of the first season. This is why we all lionized his “I am the one who knocks” bloviating as the pinnacle of badassery, even though it merely constituted a man’s posturing to his wife by lying to her face. It isn’t easy to have that much empathy for a human being and still castigate them as evil or wrong. We pretend that we’re sophisticated by flaunting some hifalutin theory of moral relativity and the unintended result of that is to view evil in more superficial terms than we realize. And as an audience for great stories, this is increasingly our great failing.
Skyler White may be impossible to like, but she did not deserve your hate. If that didn’t dawn on you at some point during the 64 episodes of television’s greatest, most perfect poetic novel, you didn’t know what you were watching.