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