Stop Hating the Wives: In Praise of Breaking Bad's Skyler White

What Women Really Think
July 16 2012 10:34 AM

Stop Hating the Wives: In Praise of Breaking Bad's Skyler White

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Learn to love Skyler.

Photo by Ursula Coyote/AMC.

As Breaking Bad began its final season last night, the question on most people's minds is what will happen to Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher turned vicious methamphetamine kingpin. Will he live or die, and if the latter at whose hands? Would it be more fitting for Walt to be killed, or to face humiliation and judgement at the hands of his brother-in-law, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Hank? But I have to admit I'm preoccupied with the fate of another character, Walt's wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn).

Skyler began Breaking Bad ignorant of her husband's activities, only to come up with a plan to launder Walt's drug profits when she learned the truth about their hidden wealth. She is one of many TV wives who, as Stephen Silver identified in an essay last week, fans turn on rather than visiting moral judgement on the anti-hero men themselves:

When the New York Post ran a poll, during one of the periods light on whacking, about “how to fix The Sopranos,” some of the answers included “kill all the women” and “Carmella’s whining too much—whack her!”...And yes, Carmella was guilty of complicity, hypocrisy, and numerous other sins—but Tony was the one who frequently killed people, among many other crimes. That he was never judged as harshly as his wife is a sexist double standard that, to this day, persists. More recently, it’s been pretty common to see sizable fan backlashes against wives and other major female characters, whether it’s Betty Draper on Mad Men or Lori on The Walking Dead. And now we have the anti-Skyler White movement.
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Skyler White's always been a more complex case than Carmela. Walt's transformation into a hardened criminal began deep into his marriage with Skyler. Though Carmela has doubts about Tony, the The Sopranos started long after she'd effectively made the decision that Skyler struggles with in Breaking Bad, weighing whether to leave her husband and extricate herself both from his illegal activities and his newly controlling personality, or to stay and remain complicit. Skyler has experimented with the kind of power that Walt is addicted to in her dealings with Ted, with whom she had an affair while she and Walt were separated. But seeing Ted crippled as a result of her actions was a comedown for Skyler, not a rush, and it clarified her horror that Walt is both willing to do the things he does and takes a perverse kind of joy in them.

“I am relieved, Walt. And scared," she told Walt in last night's episode, which picked up immediately after the events of the last season. “Scared?" Walt wanted to know, convinced that by killing his former employer, drug lord Gus Fring, he'd removed the threat to his family. "Scared of what?” “You," Skyler told him.

It was a brave act, confronting a man who'd told her last season that "You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in: I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No! I am the one who knocks." Skyler absorbed the lesson Walt was trying to teach her, but he seems to have forgotten the one she had to impart when she told him: “Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.”

I think Skyler sees Walt as we're meant to see him: a self-deluding, pathetic man, but a dangerous one. She punctures the fantasy that there's anything admirable left about Walter White, that we should still root for the man who fought back against illness and emasculation with a pork pie hat and chemistry. But even if Skyler has a moral clarity that those of us who want to identify with Walt as a badass would like to deny, she can't easily act on it. She has an infant daughter and an ill son to protect, and her husband is a man who boasts of killing legends, who's used physical force to establish his dominance over her before. It's hard enough for women who aren't married to evil geniuses to leave abusive relationships. Skyler is attempting to negotiate a livable existence for herself in highly unusual circumstances. And her steel is hardening every day.

We all wonder who's going to be the key to Walt's downfall: Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), Walt's protege in the meth business? Mike (Jonathan Blanks), the meth trade enforcer who finds Walt endlessly irritating? Hank? But maybe we should give Sklyer a little more credit. Carmela ended The Sopranos at a diner with Tony. Betty Francis still turns to Don Draper for support, even after discovering his deception. I think it's possible, and it would be hugely exciting, to see Skyler break with the trend of anti-hero wives and end Breaking Bad serving Walt up to the Feds, telling him exactly what she thinks of his audacity in offering to forgive her for sleeping with Ted, after all he's done.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s “XX Factor” blog. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com.