Fine Day Sunday

in my opinion, best day of the week

Skyler White is not a bitch.

Posted by finedaysunday on September 29, 2013

Skyler 1

Preface: I wrote this with only one episode left of Breaking Bad before the show leaves us forever this Sunday night. So unless you’re caught up on, you know, everything, I’d recommend you skip over this entry and come back after you’re all caught up. I’m serious. I’d hate to think I spoiled any part of this show for anyone.

I suppose you could consider this a companion piece to my thoughts on Walter White a few months ago, but I’d like to use it more as a vehicle to talk about something bigger than Breaking Bad. Spend any amount of time at all discussing this show, particularly online, and you are going to encounter an alarmingly disproportionate amount of disdain for Skyler White, Walt’s conflicted and emotionally troubled wife. Sadly, this was always going to happen. In a drama series centered around a morally gray anti-hero protagonist, the wife is usually the one who faces so much bile from the more misogynistic members of its fanbase. “She’s trying to spoil his fun! What a bitch!”

Yeah, it’s going to be one of those entries this week.

I think you can trace this sort of thing back to The Sopranos, and it lives on today in series like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. When a story like this tries to tackle very real family-centric dilemmas without diluting its characters to easily digestible “good guys versus bad guys”, the protagonist still has certain traits that flatter the sensibilities of certain male members of its audience. Walt is a calculating genius who thrives on playing the puppet master, Don Draper looks so damn cool drinking and smoking in his office while wearing a suit, and so on. Conversely, the wife is often perceived by that same slice of the audience as the nag who’s always trying to bring them down. It’s unsettling.

Let’s talk about Skyler’s character specifically for a moment. Her introduction into any sort of criminal conduct does not come from Walt, but from her affable boss Ted. When she discovers that he’s been committing tax fraud and calls him on it, he goes into an impassioned plea about how desperate he is to save the business he inherited from his father, as well as the jobs of dozens of employees going through the same economic hardships as the rest of the population. He begs her not to turn him in, and just like that Skyler is introduced to the idea that sometimes well-meaning people do bad things for noble reasons. She not only reluctantly agrees to spare Ted but, and this is the important part, volunteers her own accounting expertise to help him better cover his tracks. And just like that, she’s reached another level of complicity.

Skyler 2

Before long, however, Skyler gets wise to what her husband has really been up to, although on reflection it’s a wonder she didn’t discover his secret life as a meth cook sooner. As I discussed in my previous piece, Walt likes to see himself as this master manipulator, this suave and gentlemanly sort of criminal who puts on a public persona that’s impossible to see through. It’s exactly why he admires Gus so much upon first meeting him, and he tries to adopt such a strategy for himself. But Walt is no Gustavo Fring. He’s just finding his feet in this business, and can no better deceive his wife than he can anyone else. Skyler is always the first to suspect Walt is full of crap, because she knows him best. It’s as much a testament to Walt’s shortcomings as it is to Skyler’s perceptiveness.

Here’s where things get interesting, and we see just how loyal and cunning Skyler White can really be. She agrees not to hand her husband over to the authorities and, despite Walt’s insistence that she not get involved, eventually volunteers to launder his money to preserve his secret. It’s exactly what she did for Ted, but on a much bigger and more dangerous scale. Her motivation is simple: Their son must never find out the truth, lest their family be torn apart. It’s a solid foundation from our perspective as the audience, because Walter Jr is the only innocent character in this universe, and I’ve always considered him the easiest to root for. Keeping their son in the dark is of the utmost importance to Skyler, her one and only attainable goal to strive for during this ordeal Walt has put her through, this awful lie in which she is willingly complicit.

As the stakes get higher, one of the most surprising and entertaining developments turns out to be that Skyler may very well be a more skilled criminal than Walt. She possesses meticulous attention to detail, she’s better at coming up with a cover story and sticking to it, and she’s better at putting on an act without setting off warning sirens to everyone around her. She may not have a very strong poker face at the show’s outset, but when her son’s innocence is on the line, we see the vast depths of her dedication and resourcefulness. It’s an admirable thing to see in a parent.

One of the key distinctions that separates Skyler from Walt, however, is that she ultimately gets cold feet. She is faced with an unwinnable situation: overcome with guilt and yet unable to back out. She is afraid of the same power that Walt craves. She is helpless to wash her hands clean of the entire mess, and yet is forced to continue holding back the dam as its foundations mercilessly crumble. She is horrified and disgusted by her actions, the most alarming of which is the realization that Ted is so intimidated by her that she can’t resist reinforcing his fear because it’s convenient. She is mortified at her own willingness to wield that sort of power, and is possibly even afraid that she might enjoy it too. Her conscience began setting off alarms much earlier than Walt’s ever did, culminating in a venomous verbal shouting match over the fate of their family that ultimately tears the once-happy couple in two. The man has been so manipulative and emotionally abusive for so long that it’s a wonder she hasn’t punched him in the throat.

Skyler 3

And so, that’s Skyler White, put into a hopeless situation from the moment her husband decided to break bad. To hear it from a certain portion of the audience, however, all of that apparently reduces her to the needless and thoughtless title of “bitch”. Skyler is no angel, but there’s a very visible line between “she’s just as guilty and manipulative as her husband” and “she needs to be grateful and learn her place.” It’s not okay that anyone should have to have that spelled out for them, and yet one of this show’s hottest talking points revolves around the disproportionate loathing heaped upon this one character by inarticulate troglodytes. As a huge fan of this show, this sort of vile, misogynistic sniping is far too common among certain types of fans that I often go out of my way to disassociate myself from.

But of course, any time a man speaks out against sexism, you can guess what happens next. A certain breed of stupid begins to seep out from between the cracks of the internet to accuse him of “white knighting” or “just trying to get in good with women.” You can set your watch by it. I’ve come to refer to this fine collection of folks as the Gallery of the Terminally Unimpressive. Their banally predictable accusations are heinous and sleazy on two levels. First is the implication that the only reason a straight man would have a problem with sexism is because he has some ulterior motive, thereby painting the accused rather than the accuser as the sneaky one. Second is the fact that it stifles all potential discussion we could be having on the subject instead. This is not at all limited to Breaking Bad or drama series like it, but it does happen to be the most relevant example of the moment, and it’s been bothering me for so long that I couldn’t let it slide without saying something.

Leave it to me to wait until the eve of the final episode to talk about it.

“Are you invulnerable while break dancing?”
“I’m dead while break dancing.”


2 Responses to “Skyler White is not a bitch.”

  1. My feelings toward Skylar are very mixed. I used to hate her so much. I thought she was annoying and rude and honestly a little crazy for some the things she did (try to drown herself in the pool with everyone around). I gotta say that throughout the last few episodes of season 5 I started to feel differently because it seemed like she was actually on Walt’s side and rooting for him. Well that is until Hank died and everyone turned against him.

    I just wrote a post about the show on my blog too. It’s honestly one of my favorite shows I’ve ever watched. I love the characters. They’re so troubled with their inner demons. I love it! Check out my post! What do you think is going to happen tonight??

  2. craftfix said

    I’m not sure if you forgot to mention this, or left it out intentionally…but what about Skyler sleeping with Ted to get back at Walter? Walter has always looked out for the good of his family, and everything he does is for them and to protect them. Skyler makes irrational decsions that serve no purpose but to hurt Walt.

    Also, I disagree a little with your bit about men standing up against sexism for women. Simply because I don’t think one sex has the right to announce to the world what the other sex should feel is offensive or sexist. However this goes for people of the same sex as well. For example; we as girls should feel offended that women in video games are portrayed with large breasts and a voloptuous ass. Wether it’s a man or a woman, why are they telling me what I should feel offends me?
    Great article though! There’s been times I have sat back watching the show and been like “wow Skyler is a huge bitch”, but at the same time…as a woman and mother I can completely agree with the decisions she makes.

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