WARNING: This article contains spoilers on the show Breaking Bad.
Breaking Bad is a behemoth of a show. It has become a smash hit for its network, AMC. Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, has critics and audiences alike wrapped around his finger. The most recent episode of the show, “Ozymandias”, is no exception. In fact, it may become one of the highest rated episode in television history, currently holding an unprecedented 10.0 on IMDB.
The show is rich in complex characters. It is almost too easy to get invested in Jesse Pinkman’s electric-blue eyes, his love and protectiveness of innocence, his fragile emotions, the fact that he is played by perfect human, Aaron Paul…*sigh*.
Anyway, where was I? Right. The characters of Breaking Bad are multilayered. Many are neither good nor bad, neither black nor white but fall into a murky gray spectrum in between. Take, for example, the main character, Walter White. Many people, especially young men, hold White in high regard as a sort of monument to masculinity and so-called “badassery”. Everything he does he claims to do for his family; he is a provider. When diagnosed with cancer, he casually takes up meth cooking like others of a certain age take up golf. “His intentions are good,” people chant. However, the price for his actions has reached untenable heights. He has lied, he has endangered the ones that he sought to protect, and has even killed.
While many are quick to defend the actions of Walter White, many of the same people leap to judgement of the show’s few female characters, especially his wife Skyler White. From the beginning of the show, Walt kept secrets from Skyler; for example, he did not divulge his cancer diagnosis, nor did he tell her about his new “occupation”. His multitude of lies continued to grow, until he had built a mountain of lies alongside an empire of blood money and drugs.
It is natural for an audience to empathize with the main character of a show. Breaking Bad is unique in that the main character begins the series as a morally sound human being. This makes the case to the audience that they should support him. Eventually, he progresses into what many people agree is a horrifically evil man. In spite of this, many fans leap to his defense, recalling that he is still a good person. Was he performing these acts solely for his family though? Probably not. He grew a thirst for money and a lust for power. Those who stand in his way are obstacles that need taking care of. This even includes Skyler White. Skyler refuses to remain complacent with Walt’s activities; she is a nonsubmissive woman with a resilient backbone, unafraid to stand up to her murdering, drug-dealing husband. She does what she can in her situation, as she still fears for her family’s safety from danger brought on from both outside forces, and from Walt himself. Skyler fakes a suicide attempt to get her children out of the house and away from Walt, she threatens to turn him in several times, and in “Ozymandias”, she finally took a concrete stand. At one point, Skyler proclaims,
“Someone needs to protect this family from the man who protects this family.” And that is exactly what she aims to do.
People, particularly young males, hate Skyler White because they see her as an obstacle, an individual who doesn’t sit complacently by as Walt slashes-and-burns his way to an empire. But why is so much hate directed toward Skyler? One can find a seemingly endless supply of message boards dedicated to bashing Skyler, wanting her dead, even throwing insults at the actress portraying her, Anna Gunn. In comparison, there are fewer sites bashing Hank Schrader, Walt’s DEA brother-in-law trying to hunt down Walt’s alter ego, “Heisenberg”, or Mike Ehrmantraut, who refused to give Walt a list of names of people that needed to be disposed of in order for Walt to save his own skin. These fans think Hank is funny, brash, and determined, and Mike is a cool, calm, and collected badass.
The root of the Skyler hatred stems from sexism. People believe that Skyler is ungrateful to Walt for the money that he provides the family by killing people and drug dealing, and the most common of all, that she is an “annoying bitch” or “a henpecking shrew’”. They also enjoy pointing out that she is hypocritical for sleeping with her boss, like cheating is on par with murder. But this was a reaction by Skyler to Walt’s meth-cooking reveal; she realized that she could not stop him, reveal him to their children, nor call the police without tearing the family apart, so she did one thing that she knew would hurt Walt without hurting the kids.
Similar feelings of spite are directed toward Hank’s wife, Marie, who is also Skyler’s sister. She is similarly called a bitch, annoying, prying, and hypocritical, (she struggles with kleptomania in the early seasons of the show). Why do the viewers of this show have such a women problem? Well, why do the viewers of any of the “male anti-hero” shows have such a problem? One can see the same complaints about women in The Sopranos, or Mad Men, while the lack of criticism on male characters amongst fans is notable. In my eyes, there is no doubt that sexism is in play here, in a big way. There are also virtually no female anti-hero roles on par with these shows, which I find interesting. The critique of the main characters of these shows often goes over the heads of some viewers. The machismo, masculinity, and glamorous lifestyle that is seemingly celebrated in these shows is critiqued more often than not. Unfortunately, many members of the audience fail to realize this, and idolize these anti-heroes instead.
Imagine Walt’s position through Skyler’s eyes; he comes home late every night, he refuses to answer any kind of question. Sometimes, he is gone for days at a time. Mysterious messages from questionable strangers are left on your voicemail for your husband. Eventually, he comes clean and reveals he has been cooking meth. You know what kind of people are involved in the drug trade, you know what they are capable of. You have two children to protect and care for, and your husband claims to be providing for them. He is almost killed several times. He comes home panicked, talking about the family being in danger, or denying that they are in danger. He calls himself a danger. He still does not reveal anything about his business. You know he has probably killed people, as he pretty much revealed it; he is the danger, remember?
People expect Skyler to be compliant with all of Walt’s bullshit; they expect her to support Walt unfailingly, without question, 100% of the time. Any reservations or refusals are blasphemous in the eyes of these fans, and are met with scathing vitriol. Most, if not all of this is wholly undeserved. I think I’ll end with what Vince Gilligan has said about Skyler White and her haters:
“We’ve been at events and had all our actors up onstage, and people ask Anna Gunn, ‘Why is your character such a bitch?’ And with the risk of painting with too broad a brush, I think the people who have these issues with the wives being too bitchy on Breaking Bad are misogynists, plain and simple. I like Skyler a little less now that she’s succumbed to Walt’s machinations, but in the early days she was the voice of morality on the show. She was the one telling him, “You can’t cook crystal meth.” She’s got a tough job being married to this asshole. And this, by the way, is why I should avoid the Internet at all costs. People are griping about Skyler White being too much of a killjoy to her meth-cooking, murdering husband? She’s telling him not to be a murderer and a guy who cooks drugs for kids. How could you have a problem with that?”
Well said, Vince. Well said.
This article was written by Caitlin Vetere. Email her at cvetere1[at]ithaca.edu