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How Will We Remember 'Breaking Bad's Skyler White?

Women and Hollywood By Alyssa Rosenberg | Women and Hollywood October 4, 2013 at 2:00PM

In the lead-up to the final half-season of Breaking Bad, much of the discussion of the show centered on how creator Vince Gilligan and his writing staff had treated Skyler White, and how audiences had responded to her.
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Anna Gunn

In the lead-up to the final half-season of Breaking Bad, AMC's much-admired show about an Albuquerque chemistry teacher who began cooking and selling methamphetamine when he received a cancer diagnosis which ended its run on Sunday, much of the discussion of the show centered on how creator Vince Gilligan and his writing staff had treated Skyler White, and how audiences had responded to her. Anna Gunn, the actress who's given a remarkable performance as Skyler, for which she won an Emmy, even wrote a piece for the New York Times about the remarkable vitriol directed at the character and how it had affected her personally.

It's hard to think of a female character, even in the notoriously male-dominated New Golden Age of Television, who has been more relentlessly and irrationally despised. The fans who hated Skyler followed a strange trajectory. When Walt (Bryan Cranston) first began cooking methamphetamine in secret, some of them saw it as a rebellion against Skyler's stifling rule of their collective household. Later, when Skyler found out the truth about her husband's illegal activities, she was a nag for objecting to them, and for banishing Walt to a rental condo to separate him from their teenaged son and infant daughter. After Walt forced his way home and Skyler began laundering his money, these fans treated Skyler as if her complicity somehow made her more despicable than Walt, who cooked and sold drugs that ruined people's lives, and killed people himself. And when Skyler staged a suicide attempt so her sister Marie and brother-in-law Hank would take their children until Walt wound down his involvement in the drug trade, she was excoriated as hysterical nightmare.

But as the season and the series wound to a close, the conversation shifted away from Skyler and to the question of what sort of comeuppance Walt deserved, and whether or not he would receive it. After murdering drug dealers, watching an addict choke to death on her own vomit, inducing a drug lord to become a suicide bomber, organizing a prison massacre, luring his brother-in-law to his death and giving his former partner in the drug business up to be tortured and enslaved, what punishment would be fitting for Walt? Gilligan decided that it would be death by ricocheting bullet after Walt gunned down a Neo-Nazi gang that threatened his family, and punctuated his judgment by scoring Walt's death to Badfinger's "Baby Blue," which has as its opening line "Guess I got what I deserved." The discussion about whether it was enough started immediately, and has continued ferociously throughout this week.

Walt's the main character of Breaking Bad, so the focus on his fate in online discussions and glossy print ads with the slogan "Remember My Name" makes sense. But even as the debate over Skyler's been obscured by Walt's dramatic exit, I can't stop myself from thinking about her, how she came to the place she ended up, what she deserves, and what lessons Skyler White has to offer us. If Walter White's trajectory was that of a man who indulged a dark part of himself, found that he liked it, and came to recognize he couldn't control the consequences of what he'd set in motion, Skyler's story is more familiar, and somewhat more frightening for it. If Walt's descent into criminality is fantastical, it's not so uncommon for a woman to isolate herself within her family, and then to be left without outside means of support when that family became poisonous. We may not have to ward off meth kingpins in our midst. But Skyler has a great deal to teach us about the social isolation and financial independence of women, an issue that's never really come to the fore in the voluminous discussion of the show.

Skyler and Walt's relationship was never a marriage of intellectual equals--they met at the diner where she was a hostess while he worked as a scientist at Gray Matter Industries near Los Alamos. But for a time, they were happy. A flashback earlier this season showed them chatting companionably on the phone as Walt took a break from cooking meth, Skyler telling her husband of her small eBay business, "I just sold your favorite piece, the hideous, crying clown. And I got $9 more than I paid for it." Their concerns were small, then, as far as Skyler knew, a name for their daughter, who was due to be born soon, the question of whether Walt could squeeze time out in between his two jobs to take his family for a ride. If Skyler's main relationship outside her family was with her sister and brother-in-law, who were childless, it didn't particularly matter: she didn't need much in the way of support in the early days of the show.

But as Walt's lies destabilized their family, and as his growing criminal empire exposed them to increasing danger from his business partners, rivals, and from law enforcement, it became clear how vulnerable Skyler's isolation had left her. Her relationship with Marie was already strained by Marie's minor criminality--Marie gave Skyler a stolen piece of jewelry as a baby shower present for her daughter Holly. Going to Hank would have shattered Skyler's family, because Hank, who works for the Drug Enforcement Agency, would have been obligated to arrest Walt immediately. The only people outside the family who the Whites have a real connection to are Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz, Walt's former business partners. But that relationship flows through Walt, rather than Skyler, and has been irrevocably damaged by Walt's long-ago falling out with the Schwartzes and his departure from Gray Matter. When Walt turns down their offer to pay for his cancer treatment, he severs the relationship, and there's nothing Skyler can do to reverse his decision, or to get non-monetary support from the Schwartzes.

The closest thing Skyler has to a friend outside the family is Ted Beneke, the owner of a small business where Skyler worked as an accountant. She left the job when Ted made romantic advances towards her, and returned during her separation from Walt, and had a brief affair with him before quitting again. But even then, Ted made Skyler's life difficult, embroiling her in his fraud and asking her to stand up for him during an audit. That this fraught, tenuous connection is the only real external relationship Skyler has speaks to the intensity of her isolation. Breaking Bad is a very tightly-focused show: one of the jokes about it has actually been that it makes Albuquerque, where the story is set, look like it's been completely depopulated. But even by the standards of the show, where Hank has his DEA partner Steve Gomez, Marie has a job and coworkers, and Walt has the network of his meth associates, Skyler is unusually alone.

And the fact that she has no real income makes Skyler particularly vulnerable. The things she sells on eBay and the short stories she occasionally sells are hobbies rather than a viable occupation, pursued as an outlet because Walt prefers that she not work full-time, even though her income would be helpful to their household. When Skyler tries to support her family, Ted is her most viable hope for a white-collar job that brings a reasonable income with it. Skyler may not crave the fancy car Walt buys for himself, or any of the luxuries his drug money could have bought her, but she is clearly financially dependent on him. One of the most quietly tragic moments on the show is the sight of Skyler doing a brisk job of running the car wash she and Walt eventually buy to launder the proceeds from the meth trade. It's a brief but highly compromised vision of what Skyler might have been able to do with her life had she been encouraged to pursue a real career. Instead, when Walt goes on the run, the government seizes the family's ill-gotten assets, and Skyler ends up living with her children in a dismal apartment and working as a part-time taxi dispatcher. Even if Skyler has the courage and emotional resources to make something of her life now, her accomplishments will forever be in the shadow of her husband's acts.

In so far as Breaking Bad has been discussed as a show about gender, the conversation is about toxic masculinity, about Walt's pathological need for control and recognition, about the fact that he sexually harasses a vice principal at the school where he used to work as a chemistry teacher, or his sexual assault of Skyler--the latter two events that members of Team Walt have a tendency to skip over when explaining why they hate Skyler so much. But I hope we can remember Skyler White's story as an independent lesson.

Skyler, in a powerful confrontation with Walt about the consequences of his actions for the wife and children he claimed to love, once told him that "Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family." Whether she's getting her children out of the house to hide them from Walt's associates, trying to throw the IRS off Ted's trail--and hers--or even physically putting herself in between an enraged Walt and his children, Skyler's resistance to Walt has been remarkable and courageous. But seeing her for the last time in Breaking Bad's finale, I couldn't help but think how much easier it might have been for her if she had money and friends of her own.

This article is related to: Television, Breaking Bad, Anna Gunn