Skyler White as the Silent Wife: Why Breaking Bad’s Most Hated Character Deserves to be Heard

Skyle White
Skyler White, Walter’s viewer-vilified wife.

Of Breaking Bad ‘s seemingly endless list of achievements, its most impressive is undoubtedly Walter himself. His evolution from desperate family man to meth overlord is a work of subtle genius: there’s almost a game in attempting to find the point at which the change in his personality becomes a tangible construct. The fact that a character with this degree of moral dubiety consistently remains the focal point of audience empathy is a verification of the spectacular writing. Somehow, though, this tendency to wave high the banner for “Team Walt” has resulted in some of the most appalling vitriol on the internet: towards Skyler White, Walter’s wife. A quick Twitter search reveals the continuing hatred towards Skyler whose crime, if we remind ourselves, was failing to stay silent and support her husband in the creation of his drug empire. This, I would argue, is entirely understandable. And while Skyler is not perfect by anyone’s standards, she is absolutely undeserving of the venom which has been unremittingly thrown her way.

In viewing any television show, we enter into a quasi-contract whereupon we willingly suspend disbelief to a certain degree. In Breaking Bad, this is evident in the way that audiences can find excuses for Walt’s many transgressions without really needing to cast around too much: every scenario in which Walt instigates his criminal activity, even the poisoning of a child, can be explained away with little difficulty and only a twinge of moral concern. However, the extent of this becomes somewhat worrying when considered alongside the maliciousness of Skyler’s detractors. As actress Anna Gunn comments in her perceptive “I Have A Character Issue” article for the New York Times, Skyler is simply not judged by the same standards as her husband. Walt involves himself in drugs, kills many, and facilitates the deaths of many more: Skyler is a mother, primarily concerned for the welfare of those whom she loves most, and yet she is targeted as a “ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew”.

Until the very end, Walt’s argument is that everything he does is for his family. Assuming for a moment that he really believes this – the degree of truth in his argument is debatable – then his actions slot fairly neatly into a traditional patriarchal role. As the husband he is the breadwinner, the head of the family, the decision-maker. At no point is Skyler consulted on the subject of whether or not making methamphetamine is a wise career change for her husband and soon-to-be father of two. Instead, she is expected by Walt and by the audience simply to lie down and be grateful for the money she has received at the expense of both the man she fell in love with and the safety of her family. In a marriage, the partners should be equals: shouldering the burden together, particularly with regard to parenting, is part of the bargain. However, Walt initially hopes to solve the financial issue alone to avoid causing a pregnant Skyler to worry. Ignore the fact that Skyler’s discovery of his activities makes this plan a failure anyway, and what is left is a husband attempting to remove his wife’s control over a number of vital areas of her life – however positive his intentions.

Naturally, we sympathise with our protagonist. Walt is the classic underdog, using his overlooked brilliance to save his family. The problem is that he makes this decision alone. Why, then, should Skyler be appreciative of an illegal endeavour which has not only put her entire family in danger, but which she never condoned in the first place? Conscious or not, rather than treating his wife as his equal, Walt attempts to leave her with neither voice nor agency. That Skyler fights back, ensuring that her anger, bewilderment and sense of betrayal are articulated, to me indicates a strong woman unwilling to be sidelined. Plenty of Skyler’s actions can be legitimately criticised, but her desire to be heard is not one of them.

Even when it seems that Skyler has the option of leaving Walter behind, she cannot. She is constantly, painfully loyal to her children, and cannot bear to leave them without their father; whether through his physical absence or through their discovery of his activities. Furthermore, she would be implicated in his criminal business by virtue of having unwittingly spent his methamphetamine profit. Again, Skyler is ensnared by an impossible situation. It is therefore hardly surprising that her support for the man who led her into it is waning. Add to that the undeniable truth that Walter does indeed place his family in critical danger – who can forget the chilling moment in Series Four when Gus Fring states with cold-blooded intent “I will kill your infant daughter”? – and it seems, once again, that audiences are condemning Skyler for daring to shout about a situation in which her husband should have been the last person to put her.

Only marginally less crucial to Skyler’s resentment of her husband is the fact that he is no longer the mild-mannered Chemistry teacher whom she married, but a man who is ruthless and egotistical. As in so many real-life couples, people change and compatibility fades. Skyler loves Walter White: she does not love Heisenberg. And, as she cannot love the man who endangers her children and builds a drug empire under the blanket excuse that it is “all for this family”, she refuses to allow him to continue unchallenged. It is innately worrying that there appears to be so little sympathy for Skyler’s motives here; that so many viewers seem to want her silenced as a background feature, embodying a superannuated form of meek wifely devotion.

None of this is to detract from Breaking Bad itself in any way. In terms of both writing and acting, the programme is, by all accounts, outstanding. Nor can Skyler be absolved of traits such as hypocrisy and malice, and as a character she is not even necessarily likeable. However, a vocal minority have made her a pariah: a character in a desperate situation who commits the heinous atrocity of refusing to keep quiet. Those of us who disagree – who recognise the need to eliminate this archaic desire to quieten articulate female characters – need to vocalise our opinions just as loudly. Skyler White would not be silenced, and neither will we.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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27 Comments

  1. Skyler hate started because she was not a very well written character for the shows first 1.5 – 2 seasons. She was beyond aloof in the pilot, and reacted to Walt’s “fugue state” the way a spoiled teenager would. Granted, it was dramatic irony run amok, but at the end of the day she came off as someone who was brow-beating a man who had just found out he was diagnosed with cancer.

    I actually liked her more when she found out what Walt was up to and started making decisions that were reasonable for a person in her position. The problem is I had a couple years worth of dislike for her stored up already, so I’m quicker to be annoyed by her when she does something annoying, than I would be with other characters.

    Although I think it’s important to point out the general misogyny that’s present towards women in TV, it’s unfortunate that – thanks to Anna Gunn’s piece in the NYT – this term will now be haphazardly thrown around whenever female characters are evaluated negatively.

    • Kathryn Talbot

      While I agree that terms like sexism and misogyny can be used unnecessarily, the reason that they have become so widely used is because both issues are prevalent in television, not because they are cliche.

  2. I feel like Skyler gets all this hate, because she is supposed to. I love her role, but I hate her character. Since this is a TV show and I am emotionally invested the most in Walt,I am going to hate anything that impedes him along the journey. On top of that there are just certain personality characteristics that are going to make me hate someone. Hell, I hated Gale and he was a great guy and I loved Mike and he was a horrible person.

    The Skyler hate isn’t a bonafide “God get this character off the show!” The Skyler hate is because she has a certain kind of power that only a wife can have over Walt, and this gets him to make decisions that I don’t want him to make. This is necessary as it creates conflict and makes the show interesting. So thank god for Skyler, but at the same time, I hope that beeyotch DIES! lol

    One last thing, the most interesting thing about Skyler’s character is that she isn’t actually a villain at all, but she often times serves the same role as one to me as a viewer.

  3. Cristina
    0

    Your article is spot on and intelligent. But it will do nothing to sway the unintelligent. To like Skyler requires the ability to empathize.

  4. Eula Hansen
    0

    I don’t like Skylar because all her character does is whine and moan. It may be great acting, it may be realistic but I want to enjoy a show, and I don’t enjoy listening to someone endlessly moan about stuff. I like it when people kill each other in shows, I liked Walt threatening his brother in law, because it’s a show. If they felt her presence was integral to the show, they should just feature less or her and more enjoyable sections of the show. I was sad when Gus died, he was awesome!

    • Fiona Farnsworth

      I’m afraid I have to disagree. I felt that the moments when Skyler and Walt played off each other were frequently some of the most dramatic character scenes in the show. Plus, of course, Skyler initially gave Walt something to fight for, even if he did do so alone. I agree that Gus was an incredible piece of characterisation, but I think in many ways Skyler is just as complex.

  5. Voila Ramos
    0

    Her priorities and the character itself isn’t bad, it’s just the way it’s executed. She contradicts herself plenty of times throughout the show and makes wildly illogical decisions. I can’t stand her when she’s on screen.

  6. Jose Phelps
    0

    I can’t stand Skyler because she hurt the SHOW. Breaking Bad was originally a story of power corruption, an interesting examination of one man’s slow descent into darkness… or at least it was heading that way. But when Skyler found out and (with no proof he ever did anything bad other than cooking meth to pay for his own medical bills so he could LIVE) took away Walt’s family, home, and reason for living, Walt was left with no other option than to get back into the Meth business because he had nothing left (remember in season 3 he was out and turned down Gus until Skylar took everything away from him).
    The show was far more interesting when it was Walt’s choice whether to continue to pursue the meth business after his cancer went away. It was a second shot at life, and his transformation would have been FAR more convincing if he had taken the temptations of the meth business by his own choice rather than as a desperate need to fulfill the human need to find a place to belong and be respected by your peers.

    • Like her or hate her, Skyler is very much a necessary character.

      She’s nagging in the beginning to advance the idea that Walter is a geeky pushover (as are Bogdan and Hank, and to mysterious extent, Gretchen and Elliot).

      She’s annoying and nosy once Walt is a meth cook in order to give Walt someone to maneuver around.

      She’s bitchy once she finds out about Walt being a meth cook in order to threaten the primary reason Walt became a meth cook.

      Later on, she’s conniving in order to advance the notion that no matter what Walt as done, she still loves him.

      The entire time she’s just scared out of her mind that either Walt or the kids will get hurt or Walt will get caught.

      If the writers made Skyler either completely oblivious or completely accepting of Walt’s actions, the show would be the lesser for it.

    • Fiona Farnsworth

      You make an interesting point, but Skyler’s lack of proof of any other criminal activities is yet more evidence of my argument regarding Walt’s refusal to involve her in his decisions. The fact remains that her husband involves himself in the drug business – not just to pay his medical bills, as you say, but as savings for his family after his death – without her knowledge or consent. To me, that’s an affront to the concept of a marriage of equals. I also still believe that Walt did engage with the temptations of the meth business out of choice: one of the most poignant moments of the entire show was in the final episode when he finally acknowledged that in the end, it was all for himself.

  7. Off topic… but… that moment when Ted Benecke tripped and got crippled was soooo funny.. had to replay that a few times!

  8. THANK YOU for writing this! Skyler is such a fantastically complex female character, completely unique and exactly what we need more of on TV; cisgender heterosexual white men seem to be able to play any role and remain likeable, but the second a woman is anything but passive, sexualised and/or safe for male consumption, there’s absolute uproar. The scenes in which she stood up to Walt were some of the most powerful and moving of the entire show. The misogyny surrounding her reception is absolutely appalling, as is the defence of that misogyny – I thought perhaps the audience of this article would be an exception to that reception, but reading the previous comments on this article… Many of them are incredibly lacking in even a basic understanding of the issues of representation of women and are subsequently infuriating to read.

    Gunn’s article is a brilliant read, as is yours. Thank you again for speaking out. I hope Skyler’s character and responses like yours start garnering serious change very soon.

    • Fiona Farnsworth

      Thank you so much! It’s lovely to hear from others who sympathise with the character, especially amongst so much misogyny. I also completely agree with your point about the way that so many complex female characters are received: whilst Skyler isn’t necessarily a likeable person, I can’t help but consider that a male character with similar personality traits might have been received quite differently.

  9. Jessica Eve Kennedy

    I’ve not watched Breaking Bad (yet, anyway), but nevertheless found this a really interesting read. And I find myself entirely in agreement with you from the little I do know about the show.

  10. Rabbit SnAke
    0

    Carmela Soprano continues to be the best portrayal of a TV wife of an anti-hero…She’s not hated and she did sort of serve as the function of the, “Stop the madness…” but the great thing about her, she took no shit in the best possible way.

    I do think it’s hard being a TV wife for anti-hero but I think it’s all about the actress/writers. I think a lot of males struggle with writing a female because they just come off as naggy instead of three dimensional. David Chase never had that issue, but I see it elsewhere.

    I guess it’s about who the anti-heroes wife becomes. Look at Sons of Anarchy. The two women in that two are pure badass, and Carmela, like I said was pretty badass herself, despite being a Jersey mom, you knew not to eff with her.

  11. casey cruz
    0

    Thank you, Skylar needed a good defence piece like this. I never hated Skylar. I thought she was very annoying in the first two and half seasons, but by the time she started to accept that Walt was a meth cook, I started to see how valuable she was to the show as something more than an obstacle. I never understood her continued, and actually building, hatred by fans after that point. I think people just have a hard time letting go, and they’re really are a lot of misogynists in this world, though tons of women I know hate Skylar, but I think thats because anti-hero TV makes women want to distance themselves with their role in relationships to badly behaved men.

  12. Jennifer Carr

    Personally, I’ve never been on the Skyler-hate bandwagon – in seasons 1 and 2, I tolerated her without much thought, started to like her more by Season 3 and was rooting for her during Season 4 and onwards. She’s not perfect by any means, but that’s what I love so much about this show – everybody loses their innocence one way or another and their darker sides become more prominent.
    Which leads me to think that it’s not so much misogyny that’s the root of all the hate (although it’s hard to argue that when Marie and Lydia get just as much vitriol), but a lack of empathy. For example, there’s plenty of fans out there that call Jesse a pussy for daring to be a man who wears his heart on his sleeve and for reacting the way a human being genuinely would in such horrible situations and, at the end of the day, wanting to do what’s right and make sure justice is done. But to them, he should just suck it up instead of cry, which would be much less realistic and I’ll always take realism over idealism any day of the week.
    Following the same idea, these fans can’t empathize with the idea that being married to an abusive, megalomaniac drug kingpin and living in fear of him and retribution from the drug world is not as much fun as it’s cracked up to be.
    I asked my cousin who’s a Skyler-hater what it was exactly that made him not like her and he said it was because she was flip-flopping all over the place, that she willingly offered to launder money and then moaned about it, that she did bad things too but still made herself out to be better than Walt. He said if she’d just picked a side and stuck with it till the bitter end, he’d have enjoyed her character much more.
    Or it could be that Anna Gunn was right. Any character that plays the “stop-having-fun-guys” role, whether that fun is good or bad (or even if said character is male or female), is automatically going to be hated because they stand in the way of all the cool stuff. They serve as the physical manifestation of that little niggling part of the viewer’s mind that reminds us this is not morally-sound behaviour but, damn it, we’re here for escapism and wish that voice would just shut up and let us drift in blue-meth paradise.
    I’ve been as jawstruck as any other Breaking Bad fan by all the awesome, criminal-world stuff, but when it comes down to it, I always ended up coming back for the character drama, of which Skyler is a crucial part.
    So, that’s my take on all this. Thanks for writing this article. It’s article, persuasive and makes a very strong argument that I hope resonates.

  13. Robert Humphrey

    I never fully understood those that hate Skyler. Sometimes the Skyler haters have some valid points, but for the most part it’s, “she’s punishing her husband for him trying to financially provide for his family.” That is quite possible the WORST argument I’ve ever heard in my life. Really, by the time we’re in the second season (but definitely the third season and beyond), Walt is clearly in the game for the power, the control. It has nothing to do with his family anymore. He stopped caring about the well-being of his family when he put them in danger and failed to fully realize it or take the necessary precautions to protect them. Skyler isn’t the hateful wife that everyone portrays her to be; she’s the emotionally conflicted wife trying to protect her kids while trying to figure out what to do. While Breaking Bad is clearly about Walt’s descent into darkness, I’d argue that it’s also about Skyler’s descent into darkness. She loathed her husband for the situation she had put the family in, and rightfully so. (I’m sure if someone’s spouse came home and said, “I’m cooking and selling meth to make money,” that person would probably do what Skyler did and more.) However, once Skyler realized she was in deep too, she became more of a partner with Walt. She could’ve easily escaped punishment by giving Walt up, but instead, when Hank questioned her, she stood by Walt.

    I’ve never understood why people say they hate Skyler for trying to hinder Walt. Wouldn’t you try to get you and your kids away from a meth dealer? And ultimately, she became part of Walt’s operation. Really, if it weren’t for her, Walt likely would have been caught sooner than he was. Toward the end of the series, Skyler showed more clarity of mind for how to run the operation than Walt. I think if we’re going to hate Skyler, we should hate her for allowing herself to be dragged in to Walt’s operation, not for being a realistic wife and trying to get her kids away from her drug dealing husband.

  14. Dale Barham

    I thought this was a fantastic article, and agree with every point you make. I’ve never understand the reasons for all of the Skylar hate and you hit the nail on the head here – one of the smartest articles I’ve read on here … but maybe that’s because I’m a massive Breaking Bad fan! Good job!

  15. Jon Lisi

    Great article. The audience reception to Skyler sadly says more about the audience than it does about Sykler.

    It also bothers me that certain feminist critics attack the character as being too one-dimensional, because there’s clearly a lot more going on with her, as you show so convincingly.

  16. Anna Gunn is a terrible actress. Some of the hate was directed at the character, but she was by far the weak link on the show. While the rest of the actors on the show are seeing plenty of new work, Gunn’s roles are few. Vince Gilligan is a genius, but I’m sure he in retrospect would have went for another actress.

  17. Thank you for saying everything I’ve always thought about one of the most important characters on my favorite show!

  18. I didn’t like Skylar because she was established as a terrible person in the first few episodes already. Walter gave up everything for her, and yet on his birthday all he gets is a half-assed birthday party and a handjob under the covers while she doesn’t even look up from the screen, all the while pushing him around. Now, of course Walter White was a pushover at first but that doesn’t change the fact that Skylar was a horrible character, who often was just there as a thing for the writers to use and infuse some conflicts in the show.
    She doesn’t communicate with Walt nor does she really even seem to realize Walter has feelings untill he gets the ‘talking pillow’ at the very end of that ridiculous intervention. Remember that intervention? Where she got angry at her sister for even daring to suggest that Walter’s choices were his own to make?
    I’m sure that if the roles were reversed for Walter and Skylar, Walter would’ve been crowned a manipulative selfish asshole.

    Basically Skylar is, from my perspective, almost the perfect example of a stereotypically self-centered woman. This makes her a very easy character to hate.

  19. This is what I’ve always wanted to hear about Skyler. While she is not my favorite character in the show, I never thought she deserved the hate. She does bad things, just like every other character on the show, and not near the scale as they do. She cheats on her husband. Walt does the same thing. She scolds Walt for having a weed dealer. Maybe that would be overreacting if they weren’t related to someone in the DEA, which would be a pretty stupid move considering what Walt is ACTUALLY doing. She doesn’t report Walt to the police. Yeah, that’s what it means to be in that kind of relationship. Also if something goes wrong it could get them or someone in their family killed.
    Also can we appreciate that she figured out Walt’s secret on her own, and not through some coincidence like most twists of this scale?

  20. Rimmer Himmler
    0

    I don’t really like Walter but i downright hate Skyler.I also hate the walking dead’s lead Rick.So that kinda debunks any feministic view about my hatred thank you very much.

    And with hating them i mean the characters obviously.Couldn’t care less for the actors.

    Btw love that you think Skyler is a complicated character.We need more Literature students thinking like this so our future Literature teachers can teach our kids how seriously layered the Twilight series and Fifty Shades of Crap truly are 😉

  21. minylee

    “Skylar White as the Silent Wife” is one of those critical analyses that forces me to confront my own biases and prejudices. Truth be told, at worst I am apathetic, and at best empathic of Skylar. Through verisimilitude, while viewers are seduced by Walter’s “blanket-excuse” crusade to provide for his family, we (the audience and Walt) drift ever slowly away from reality-anchored social mores. Therein lies Skylar as the moral center that we gauge how far we’ve wafted afar from social norms, or even reality. While what attracts us to Walter is indeed he is “the classic underdog, using his overlooked brilliance,” Skylar is relegated with the unsung role of the straight-laced adult in the room. As well articulated in the article, Skylar is left with the ungrateful job of calculating everything that could go wrong when your husband decides a career switch as a fulltime criminal mastermind. Sitting next to Walt’s outlandish illicit escapade, her seemingly uppity attitude pales in comparison, grounding the frenetic roller coaster that Walt and Jesse takes us on. Aptly framed is the idea that she “loves Walter White,” but not Heisenberg. It’s surely not the money that attracted Skylar to Walter, when she mentions that at most he annually earned $48,000 as a high school chemistry teacher. In fact, even when she was complicit in endless money laundering, she never felt comfortable about the wealth. The early flashback scene when their realtor introduces Walt and a pregnant Skylar to their soon-to-be Albuquerque home is contrastingly instructive. Preparing literally and figuratively to settle as a family, the pair emits an untainted glowing bliss between a wife and husband who clearly loves each other.

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