My first viewing of Breaking Bad came after the series had just finished airing and I remember being vigilant about avoiding spoilers on the Internet while I plowed through the full series. When I finished it for the first time, I was finally able to take to the Internet and start to nerd out about it with the rest of the fandom, but some of what I found was incredibly disturbing. Among other things, I discovered that a sizeable number of Breaking Bad viewers absolutely hate Skyler White.
I didn’t understand this then and, to some extent, I still don’t. The character of Skyler White seems an unlikely recipient for the kind of Internet vitriol that she (and actress Anna Gunn) has received. There are definitely some valid criticisms to be made about Skyler’s character, but I don’t think that they warrant the level of hatred that the character has received. On Facebook, there are several Skyler hate groups, the largest of which are “I Hate Skyler White” and “Fuck Skyler White.” Both of these groups, as of the time of this writing—in the year 2018, almost 5 years after the finale aired—have close to 30K members (although neither group is particularly active).
Anna Gunn herself wrote an op-ed piece called “I Have a Character Issue” for The New York Times in which she discussed the Skyler-hate phenomenon. She argued that Skyler has “become a flashpoint for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women.” When Gunn discovered the online hate communities dedicated to Skyler (and attacks on her personally), she dove in and discovered that “the consensus among the haters was clear: Skyler was a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an ‘annoying bitch wife.’” She notes that showrunner Vince Gilligan wanted the character of Skyler to be “a woman with a backbone of steel who would stand up to whatever came her way, who wouldn’t just collapse in the corner or wring her hands in despair.” I would argue that, early on, the writers failed to accomplish this goal, but I’ll get to that.
Gunn claims that there is a double standard when it comes to how viewers react to male characters versus how they react to female characters, and on this point I fully agree with her. Where my opinion diverges is when she states of viewers who hate Skyler: “Could it be that they can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or ‘stand by her man’? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, Walter’s equal?” She goes on to say that, after reading a death threat post from a Skyler hater, “I finally realized that most people’s hatred of Skyler had little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives. Because Skyler didn’t conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender.”
While I agree with her that viewers’ feelings about Skyler are inextricably tied to gender, I don’t believe that everyone who hates Skyler is inherently sexist or misogynistic (although there are many who fit that bill). It’s overly simplistic to say that anyone who hates Skyler is someone who can’t stand strong women or women who aren’t archetypically feminine wives and mothers. Where I think things go wrong between Skyler and the viewer is in Season 1, where Gunn most certainly does have a character issue, but not the one she believes she does.
I have very few criticisms of Breaking Bad, which I think is one of the most perfect shows to ever exist. I do, however, have a problem with the writing of Season 1 Skyler. Skyler, in the beginning, is presented as a moral absolutist and a killjoy. She is the nagging wife to Walt’s struggling genius. Walt is our protagonist and we are conditioned to side with him, so we accept the excuse that he is “doing it for the family.” This sets Skyler up as the antagonist—the villain to Walt’s (anti)hero. She is the ungrateful, nagging wife who is standing between Walt and his goal.
Season 1 goes wrong with Skyler in several places, and part of this is a failure via omission. We are never shown a truly loving relationship between Walt and Skyler. All marriages have their problems, and we know from the beginning that the Whites are struggling financially, which adds stress to any marriage. But the writers failed to present the White marriage as something worth fighting for. This makes it easy for Skyler haters to think she’s not worthy of all that Walt does for her and the family.
The other problem, and one that I think is far more severe, is that Skyler’s emotions are not taken seriously until much later in the series. She has very real problems and very real concerns, which she is only really allowed to vocalize once in the first season. The intervention scene in “Gray Matter” (S1E5), where she attempts to get Walt to get treatment for his cancer, is played partially for laughs. Skyler speaks openly and honestly about her feelings about Walt’s diagnosis, which is something that Walt (and the viewer) should take seriously. Instead Skyler’s very real concerns are undermined by elements of comedy: the talking pillow, Hank’s inability to express himself without using sports metaphors, Skyler and Marie’s bickering, etc.
The scene is also more focused on Walt’s perspective than it is on the family’s. For Walt, the whole thing is an inconvenience and an annoyance. He doesn’t really take Skyler’s concerns to heart and, thus, neither does the viewer. Walt is far more concerned with his own feelings and experience than he is with anyone else’s, which is absolutely fair considering the gravity of his situation, but for a man whose stated goal is to “provide for his family,” he is pretty indifferent to how his family actually feels.
For Breaking Bad to work, it is important that we understand and sympathize with Walt, but we should also care about Skyler’s feelings, and the intervention scene as written just doesn’t get us there. Don’t get me wrong, I love the scene exactly because of its comedic elements, but it is a missed opportunity when it comes to Skyler’s character development. In fact, the entirety of Season 1 is a missed opportunity to develop her character in any meaningful way, which is one of the reasons I think it is easy for some people to dislike her.
In Season 2, Skyler is given more of a chance to develop. In “Seven Thirty-Seven” (S2E1) she voices her frustrations to Hank quite clearly. After Skyler learns the hard way about Marie’s shoplifting problem, Hank goes to her house to try to get her to reconcile with her sister. Skyler is not ready to forgive Marie, who refuses to even acknowledge the problem or apologize. When Hank suggests that Skyler needs to support Marie, Skyler finally lets it all out:
I need support. Me! The almost-40-year-old pregnant woman with the surprise baby on the way, and the husband with lung cancer who disappears for hours on end, and I don’t know where he goes and he barely even speaks to me anymore, with the moody son who does the same thing, and the overdrawn checking account, and the lukewarm water heater that leaks rusty-looking crap and is rotting out the floor of the utility closet, and we can’t even afford to fix it. But oh, I see. Now I’m supposed to go, Hank, please, what can I possibly to do to further benefit my spoiled, kleptomaniac, bitch sister, who somehow always manages to be the center of attention, cause God knows she’s the one with the really important problems!
Hank’s response? An awkward hug and an offer to take a look at the water heater. Here, Skyler is addressing all her very real and significant problems, and the viewer should feel some sympathy for her in this moment, and yet some people still write this monologue off as whiny and continue to view her as an overly demanding, ungrateful nag. I’m not saying that Skyler doesn’t have flaws—she very much does—but this view of her as “whiny” and “nagging” is a particularly gendered and misogynistic one.
Skyler White isn’t perfect, and that’s okay. She doesn’t always make good choices or do the right thing, but who among us can say that we are without fault? Some viewers cite her moral failings and character flaws as valid reasons to hate her, while at the same time excusing most everything that Walter does. Because the show is, first and foremost, about Walter, the audience is positioned to understand Walt’s choices. With Skyler, some choose willful ignorance when it comes to the decisions she makes. But perhaps more important than the choices she makes for herself, it is important to look at all the choices that are made for her in order to understand why she does the things that she does.
Season 1 presents Skyler as a hobbyist author with no income while Walter works two jobs. Not until later do we learn that Skyler worked as a bookkeeper earlier in their marriage. Knowing what we know about Walter and his views on gender roles within a marriage (i.e. A Man Must Provide), I tend to believe that it was his idea for Skyler to stay home. When she suggests going back to work later in the series, he balks at the idea. But, again, this is something the writers chose not to make explicit and Skyler’s character suffers for it.
It’s also worth noting that Walter’s relationship with Gretchen Schwartz ended, in part, because she was financially secure on her own (in addition to being his equal in terms of intelligence). After Gretchen, Walter sought out a woman who would be more dependent on him—a much younger woman who he did not consider his equal. This was Skyler Lambert, hostess. Young Walt had big dreams of a house filled with children. While he was out making the money, Skyler would be home tending to their brood. In his mind, they would be financially secure enough for this to make economic sense. That didn’t happen, as we all know, yet Skyler remained at home. I don’t believe it was her choice to do so, though the show never explicitly explores this decision—another failure, in my opinion.
Once Skyler’s character was more fleshed out, we are able to see that she is intelligent, adaptable, resourceful, and proactive. She whips up the gambling cover story, applying her skill as a storyteller to a real-life problem and successfully solving it. She takes over the money-laundering endeavor and insists on the car wash as a cover because, unlike Saul and Walt, she sees the bigger picture—the way that others will perceive their story and what the most believable approach would be. Skyler may know how to problem solve, but at the end of the day, the source of all of her problems is Walt and his choices—choices he makes for Skyler and not with her. Skyler is forced to constantly react to the situations Walt creates for her and try to find some level of power and control when she really has none. Skyler’s entire narrative, once her character is allowed room to grow, is a series of failed attempts to regain power and control over her life as the walls close in around her.
Much of the Skyler criticism is based on the fact that she cheated on Walt with her boss, Ted Beneke. Skyler’s choice to find some comfort outside her failing marriage is complicated, and while I don’t advocate cheating, if we are going to judge Skyler for her affair with Ted, we must do so within the appropriate context. The argument that they were separated at the time is valid, but it’s also the weakest and most simplistic explanation for Skyler’s choice to sleep with Ted. But before we look at Skyler’s affair, we should look at her sexual relationship with Walt.
Compared to other prestige TV shows like Mad Men and The Sopranos, sex is used very sparingly in Breaking Bad. When it is used, it is meant to serve a purpose. The trajectory of Skyler and Walt’s sex life is probably the most telling thing about their relationship and how their dynamic changes as Walt gets further and further into the drug world. The first time we see them engage in sexual activity is in the pilot, where Skyler gives Walt a half-assed birthday hand-job while watching her eBay auction. This presents their sex life as not particularly passionate, with Walt as a passive participant. As Walt becomes more energized by his illicit drug activity, he becomes more aggressively sexual. By the end of the very same episode, after he’s returned from the failed cook where he killed Emilio, he initiates more aggressive sex with Skyler, to the point where she asks Walt, “Is that you?”
After another instance where Walt performs an act of violence—this time blowing up Tuco Salamanca’s headquarters—he gets handsy with Skyler at a parent-teacher meeting at the high school. They end up having (enthusiastic and consensual) sex in their car in the school parking lot. But things take a nasty turn after this, as Walt starts to lose power and any advantage he may have had over Tuco. After the deal in which he and Jesse witnessed Tuco beating No-Doze to death, Walt returns home and forces himself on Skyler in the kitchen. She has to physically fight him off her, and while it is not clear whether there was penetration, it is at the very least attempted rape. This is such a massive violation of the trust within a marriage—one that already has major trust issues—yet Skyler swallows it and simply warns him that he cannot take his stress out on her in the future. It’s the ultimate under-reaction and it allows many people to argue that it wasn’t attempted rape, but it absolutely was. Yet she forgives him for this atrocious act almost immediately. And still people hate her, clinging to things like the fact that she smoked three-and-a-half cigarettes during her pregnancy as hard evidence that she’s the most hypocritical, horrible person in the world.
With Walt and Skyler, sex is about power. Initially, it was about Walt’s power (or lack thereof) out in the drug world manifesting itself within his marital relations. Later, it becomes about power within the relationship, and things are particularly disturbing in the final season when Skyler is essentially a prisoner in her own home, unable to keep Walt from sleeping with her even though she is physically repulsed by his touch.
A lot happens in between the rape at the beginning of the second season and the hostage-situation that was most of the final season. Walt’s endless lies destroy whatever is left of the trust between them even before Skyler learns the truth that Walt is a meth manufacturer. She tries and fails to get him out of the house and away from their children but he refuses to let them go. Whether he actually believes that he can keep his family safe despite his dealings in the drug world is debatable, but either way he refuses to acknowledge Skyler’s very real and legitimate fear that his work may bring trouble to their front door.
So she cheats on her husband—or rather, the man who used to be her husband but who is now almost unrecognizable to her. Sleeping with Ted is less about the sexual satisfaction of the act or any emotional attachment she may have to him; the affair is a way for her to reclaim her bodily autonomy after she was violated by her husband. It is also the only thing she can do that she knows will hurt Walt, and almost as soon as it’s happened, she weaponizes it against him by coolly and calmly telling him, “I fucked Ted,” as he prepares dinner for the family he’s trying to keep together. She can’t change the fact that he’s making meth. She can’t change the fact that he won’t leave. He has all the power in their relationship so the only thing she can do is to weaponize her sexuality and emasculate him with it.
It eventually backfires, of course, as all of Skyler’s plans tend to do. She soon realizes that she has no choice but to accept the situation and try to make the best of it. She embraces her role as Walt’s accomplice, but she wants to do it on her terms so she comes up with the gambling story as a cover for them buying the car wash to launder the drug money. She volunteers to work there because she knows how to cook the books. She tells herself that, if she can have some semblance of control over that aspect of things, she can keep her family safe. Some Skyler haters argue that she gets greedy when she realizes exactly how much money Walt is making and embraces her role as accomplice so she can control said money, but I think that’s a misinterpretation. It’s not really about the money; it’s about taking control of a situation over which she has no power and very little influence.
As the series goes on and the body count rises, Skyler realizes exactly what Walt is capable of—that he is, in fact, the danger—and she is no longer able to convince herself that everything will be ok if she just keeps calm and carries on. During the final season, Skyler spirals into a depressive episode as she becomes a prisoner in her own home. She is able to manipulate the situation enough to get her children out of the house and into the care of Hank and Marie, but she has no long-term plan except waiting for Walt’s cancer to come back and kill him before things can get any worse.
But just when she thinks that things are looking up, when Walt agrees to get out for good, Hank stumbles upon the truth. For the first time in a long time, Skyler has a choice. Hank is willing to help her out if she gives him the evidence she needs against Walt, and I think we can all agree that this is the choice she should have made. But she’s so desperate to keep Walter Junior from knowing the truth that when she learns from Hank that Walt’s cancer is back, she chooses to stick with her husband and ride it out.
Skyler does not always make the right choices, and this is one of her worst decisions, but there is such a huge divide between the way her poor choices are received and the way that Walt’s are received. Walt literally kills people and doesn’t get as much hate as Skyler does for cheating on him. But she can’t win either way, because when she chooses to stand by him against Hank, she is criticized by haters for being weak and immoral. Skyler can’t win no matter what she does, which is a central theme throughout her narrative, yet there is very little sympathy for her among some viewers.
As we approach the series’ conclusion, the fugitive Walt physically attacks her in front of Junior and kidnaps their baby daughter. He does her a kindness when he calls and gives her an out by playing the role of the abuser on the phone knowing the police are listening, but what he considers to be a lie—the emotional abuse he inflicted on her that kept her silent and afraid—is actually fairly close to the reality of the situation. The fact that it’s a kindness for Walt to verbally abuse Skyler on the telephone really says all that needs to be said about their relationship by the end. The only true kindness he ever does her is to finally admit to her that everything he did, he did for himself. The admission that he destroyed their entire family for selfish reasons is the closure that Skyler, and the viewer, needs in the series’ final episode.
And yet, even Walt’s own admission of selfishness is not enough for some viewers to reevaluate their feelings about Skyler. I think what it comes down to for some is an unwillingness to put themselves in Skyler’s position and really think about why she makes the choices she makes. She doesn’t always make the good choice or the moral choice, but neither does Walt, or Jesse, or even Hank. Yet these other characters don’t receive the same hate that Skyler does, and I believe, as Anna Gunn does, that this comes down to gender expectations. Skyler is not the perfect wife and mother. She’s not the Bonnie to Walt’s Clyde, but I think anyone who continues to hate her after experiencing the entirety of her story should ask themselves why, given everything that’s happened, they expect her to be either of those things.