AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published on the Cinematic Katzenjammer in April, 2017.
It is easy to hate Skyler White. And for most of Breaking Bad it was easy to love Walter White. But if the show has a flaw, even when audiences decide they no longer liked or would root for Walter, very few would reconsider their previous hatred for Skyler.
Maybe this is an audience flaw more than it is a creative one, but it can’t be the case that a work of art isn’t at least partially to credit or blame for the way vast swaths of people choose to interpret or respond to it, especially if it was foreseeable. The focus on Walt and the world building in the periphery are among Breaking Bad’s greatest strengths as a work of dramatic television, and that magic was not repeated in the admirable yet vastly inferior prequel/sequel that was Better Call Saul. That show also has a Skyler-like character in it, but it had the luxury of being able to kill him off before the halfway point.
Skyler has the kind of plot armor you take for granted in Breaking Bad, which only makes her more annoying. She makes herself easy to hate, and marrying her would be like cooking and eating your own testicles with low sodium while they’re still attached to you. She does plenty of things that would irritate and infuriate the most patient man alive.
But you know what she doesn’t do? She doesn’t manufacture a dangerous, potentially lethal narcotic. She doesn’t kill people, poison children, blow up nursing homes, or leave helpless people to choke to death on their vomit. She doesn’t contract or conspire with Aryan brotherhoods and drug lords. And she certainly doesn’t justify any of her actual misdeeds with lies or platitudes.
It’s easy to hate Skyler because everyone knows someone like her. Very few people know a Walter White, despite his well tucked button-downs, common teaching job, and general appearance as the everyman. The novelty of his sudden criminal turn and amoral bushwhacking makes him interesting and compelling enough for television. Skyler does not have this character advantage and Breaking Bad is not her show. It’s Walt’s show, and it never leaves his perspective for more than a few minutes at a time. His is not that of a merely flawed hero or anti-hero. It is that of the central villain.
This is easier to see when you watch the show a second time, knowing what Walt would eventually do to others along his path, but Breaking Bad made the point in the very first season during the brilliant, dramatically clear episode Grey Matter. After his first meth misadventure had gone horribly wrong and he had barely escaped with his life and conscience (mostly) intact after killing and dissolving two people, Walt had revealed his cancer diagnosis to his family. In Grey Matter Walt has a reunion with his old colleagues who, out of respect for him and his contribution to the success of the company they built without him, offer to pay for his cancer treatment in full with no strings attached. It is an episode that is specifically designed in nearly every way to provoke his jealousy and wounded pride, test the strength of his convictions, and reveal his ego as the true driving force behind his decisions. It was implied in the pilot that Walt wants to break bad because it’s easy, convenient money – using skills that come naturally to him to make some fast cash before he dies. But in Grey Matter, the easy, convenient pile of money is right there in front of him and entirely legal. And Walt would rather die of cancer than take it. The choice he makes to turn it down and go back to firing up the meth grill with Jesse obviously has to be made for there to be a show, but the sheer evil of it is what makes the moment stand out. Walter doesn’t want to live for his family, but for himself, and he only thing he wishes to live for is the chance to be a dangerous criminal.
Walt didn’t become “the villain” when he chose to let Jane die, when he chose to poison a child, or when he chose to dissolve another child, or when he ordered ten prison inmate deaths just to cut down on his hazard pay. It was right at the beginning, just before his first encounter with Tuco Salamanca, and everything else he did from there was just further descending into even more realms of evil than even he could ever have believed himself capable of reaching. He also doesn’t have the excuses others usually do by default. This isn’t a political allegory where some kind of universal healthcare could have stopped Walter from breaking bad. The care he was offered was free. He wasn’t born into a world of crime or dragged into it by someone else. He comes from outside of it, and his only window into it was through his DEA brother-in-law. He begins the show not merely living the life of a non-criminal, but as a genuinely good, responsible man – a hero in the small ways that good teachers, good fathers, and reliable, non-parasitic people generally are. He is respected and valued in his community, and he has a house in a nice suburban neighborhood with a backyard pool. These things are not enough for him. He must have more, and anyone who at any point gets in his way is obviously just not as brilliant as he is.
At least Jesse makes peace with himself as “the bad guy” – something Walt can never, ever fathom, unless there’s a fly buzzing about in the lab. Skyler hates herself as much as Jesse, but only Jesse is given grace by audiences for the way he willfully inflicts punishment upon himself and for his protective instincts towards young children. Walt can’t be content, even when repeatedly offered a clean way out, all while telling himself over and over again that he’s doing it all for his family. If you still hated Skyler after Grey Matter, you’re just revealing that you actually believed him.
In fact, the only person in the show who actually does bad things for even semi justifiable non-selfish, non-greedy reasons is not Walt, but Skyler. Skyler intentionally sacrifices her son’s love for her by not telling him the truth and thereby protecting his innocence. After Hank is nearly shot to death – itself a direct consequence of Walt’s life as Heisenberg – Skyler re-directs Walt’s earnings to pay for his recovery. She even goes so far as to rough up her boss just to make sure he pays his taxes. By the end of the show, Skyler has done more than enough to make herself complicit in the construction of Walt’s criminal empire. She is certainly in part to blame for it, and her desperation is most keenly felt during her monologue in Fifty-One where she explains how she has become trapped in a toxic marriage and partnership from which she will only be free when that cancer makes its return.
By the time we get to that moment, cancer is far too merciful a punishment for Walt.
Skyler is the real victim Walt pretends to be. She was what kept him tethered to his “boring” life outside of crime, and he came to view that connection as a chain around his neck. She may have been impossible to like, but she certainly didn’t deserve to be despised. If that didn’t occur to you at some point during Breaking Bad‘s awesome 62-episode run, you didn’t know what you were watching…
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