In defense of Skyler White

It’s October 2016, and I just finished AMC’s Breaking Bad (shout-out to Netflix).

Consequently I’d like to apologize for the lateness and potential irrelevance of this post—but luckily, I don’t think Breaking Bad fans will ever tire of conversation about possibly the most divisive character on the show, Skyler White.

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Also, assuming I’m not the one who procrastinated fantastically in watching the show: SPOILER ALERT.

Before I learned anything about Walt or Jesse, it was Skyler’s infamous reputation that preceded her: die-hard fans generally referred to her as any and every variation of “the bitchy, annoying, naggy” wife and described her as “the worst character on the show.”

Late in the show’s run, in fact, the fan hate was so profound that Anna Gunn, the actress who plays Skyler, published an op-ed in the New York Times (I Have a Character Issue) attempting to address and analyze the vitriol toward her self-proclaimed “bitch wife” character.

So, knowing all this, I embarked on my Breaking Bad journey.

Early on, I completely felt that “annoying wife” vibe. It was kind of easy, particularly during such scenes as when Skyler shows up at Jesse’s house, upset over what she thinks was a one-time marijuana sale (lol, the naiveté). In my mind, her character in these early episodes epitomizes everything stereotypical about a nosy, controlling suburban housewife who has too much time on her hands.

Consequently, I very much sympathized with Walt and even at one point mentioned to my boyfriend something along the lines of, “It’s no wonder Walt doesn’t want to tell her about the cancer; she’d probably nag him to death all by herself.” Which is also why, when Walt finally tells her to “climb down out of [his] ass” after a particularly annoying rant over Walt smoking a joint, I damn near applauded.

Side note: If my significant other spoke to me this way, he’d be thankful we were in a hospital…because I’d give him a sick burn. #IAmLame

But as the series progressed, things began to shift, and I found myself starting to truly support Skyler.

What changed for me? As her circumstances become increasingly ridiculous (and exponentially more complicated), Skyler White began to morph into a relatable human being. Instead of errant marijuana experiences and unusual spousal behavior, she faces her husband’s terminal cancer diagnosis as well as his double life as a drug manufacturer—and all the implications/complications that follow for herself and her family (which, by the way, consists of a terminally-ill husband who cooks meth with a volatile drug user, an angsty teenage son with cerebral palsy, a newborn baby, a kleptomaniac sister who literally never stops talking, and an arrogant DEA agent brother-in-law with caveman-esque qualities).

Every time she was presented with a new obstacle, I put myself in her shoes: 1) What would I do under the same circumstances? 2) How would I handle myself? 3) How would I interact with others? When I sat down and got really honest with myself, the answers weren’t good. Specifically, they consisted of 1) scream a lot and have a mental breakdown; 2) badly; and 3) very badly.

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Pictured: the appropriate response to birthing a baby and then discovering that, while battling Stage 4 lung cancer, your husband of 20+ years has also become the most notorious meth cook in the tri-state area. Cheers and Mazel Tov.

This “putting myself in her shoes” activity resulted in a certain admiration for Skyler. Though she may have started as a stereotypical housewife, her simple life takes on more depth and complexity than she likely ever imagined—and I found her journey to be just as compelling as Walt’s. Her unprecedented circumstances become a test of her resolve, her loyalty, her patience, her intelligence in the face of these events.

Not counting everyone who’s simply caught up in the “I hate Skyler” movement, I believe many Skyler haters actually dislike her for this exact reason: because her dark, depressing journey is way less fun than Walt learning to embrace the chaos and the thrill of ‘breaking bad’ while giving in to some of his deepest desires.

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“Break bad”: A colloquialism used in the American South that means to raise hell or to challenge authority. The more you know.

As Walt establishes his empire and gains self-confidence, he starts to exhibit a new Jekyll-Hyde quality: at home, he’s still the mild-mannered family man he’d been for decades; yet with people he ultimately looks down upon (such as Jesse), he suddenly morphs into a condescending, abrasive douchebag. Initially I defended his attitude as irritation from dealing with incompetency (see: the bathtub incident from season 1), but slowly it became clear that he seems to enjoy the feeling of superiority, the condescension, the power.

It starts to become clear that he’s much more at home being a Mr. Hyde than a Dr. Jekyll; perhaps the family man act was always just a mask that’s finally beginning to crack. Time and time again, he proves that, despite the appearances he’d maintained for most of his life, he’s always been more than capable of a little moral depravity. In fact, he thrives in it.

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Coincidentally, this is exactly what I say before consuming habanero-flavored foods or entire pizzas.

On the other hand, Skyler can never fully ignore the moral red flags she sees in Walt’s behavior (and she doesn’t even know the full story).

As viewers, we have the luxury of judging from afar and asserting that we could better handle the situation; but the reality is that, even if Skyler had taken care to be less whiny, less miserable, less naggy, Walt would probably still have been the cause of his own undoing. You could even argue that some of Skyler’s actions prolonged his inevitable life implosion (e.g. the car wash and subsequent money laundering scheme, the gambling lie, etc).

Walt even admits the true reason behind all his actions in the final episode:

“All the things that I did, you need to understand…I did it for me. liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… I was alive.”

In the end, I was stumped. As the camera lazily, dreamily panned upwards from Walt’s face in the final scene of the show, I remember racking my brain, trying to compile a list of grievances against Skyler that make her “the worst,” reasons why she is THE most hated character in Breaking Bad (seriously, none of the ACTUAL villains of the show get even a fraction of the hate). It just doesn’t add up for me.

So one of the most fascinating aspects of the show for me is the fact that, despite all of Walt’s obvious flaws and personal shortcomings, the majority of viewers consistently and vehemently root for him while a similar majority simply can’t find any redeemable qualities in Skyler White.

In an interesting Esquire article, writer Jen Chaney suggests that perhaps the major double standard between Walt and Skyler stems from the differences in our deeply-ingrained expectations of men versus women:

“…part of what irks [people] about Skyler is that we expect her to be the moral compass. If her husband is the one who knocks, then she’s supposed to be the one who knows better, the one who figures out how to extricate herself from the marriage and accepts the consequences of being a so-called accessory instead of digging herself even deeper into an aiding-and-abetting hole… By extension, as a culture, we also tend to be less forgiving of women who do wrong and more understanding of men who cheat, or over-tweet, or do a whole host of much worse things. Why? Because men, supposedly, have a harder time resisting temptation. They deserve some slack and we should all just climb down out of their asses, for God’s sake.

None of this is fair, mind you. These preconceived but deeply ingrained notions are insulting to both men and women. But they’re there, felt unconsciously even if not spoken out loud. We want Skyler to do the clear-cut, black-and-white right thing because that’s what women are supposed to do.”

This explanation makes a lot of sense: people seem so much more understanding of Walt’s poor decision-making and capability for cruelty while crucifying Skyler for exhibiting similar (albeit varying) flaws.

Sure, you could argue that from Walt’s perspective, she makes life a little more irritating and complicated at every turn. However, when compared to some of the most hated characters in other popular TV shows (I won’t name any specifics because, ugh, spoilers): she doesn’t make any life-altering mistakes (even I.F.T., albeit an ill-conceived move that angers Walt, ultimately results in a loss of just $615,000—a mere fraction of Walt’s approximate $80 million total profit). She doesn’t kill anyone. She doesn’t get anyone killed. She isn’t exceptionally cruel, she isn’t a psychopath. She is very human. To me, that may be the reason behind the hate: she brings the show back down to Earth. She is a constant reminder that even the formidable Walt in the later seasons of the show must deal with very real, very difficult consequences of his actions.

Through Skyler White, viewers must come to grips with the fact that even a world like Breaking Bad consists of more than just guns, money, drugs and stylized violence; there’s also an equal or greater amount of heartbreak, betrayal, anxiety, and despair.

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