Breaking Bad: Is Skyler The Worst?

Throughout this summer’s half-season of Breaking Bad, I’ve been tracking whether or not Skyler is the worst.

Mostly, I found her to be the worst, although she had an end-of-season rally the last couple episodes that forced me to doubt my continued dislike of the character.

Clearly, I’m not alone. Skyler is about as unpopular a character as you’re going to find in a great show. This year, the Skyler Problem hit the zeitgeist, with complaints about the character increasing exponentially, and the inevitable pro-Skyler backlash gaining traction.

To be more exact, the pro-Skyler contingent is actually more of an anti-anti-Skyler contingent. Critics argue that the hatred for Skyler is rooted in misogyny, that we should sympathetic to a character trapped in a terrible situation, and that rooting for Walter White while resenting Skyler betrays a moral hypocrisy. A select few have also praised the writing of Skyler and Anna Gunn’s acting work, but they’re outnumbered by those inclined to argue that hating Skyler is cause to turn in your NOW card.

As someone who has included a running subsection of Breaking Bad recaps called “Is Skyler Still the Worst?” I feel compelled to weigh in on an issue that’s more complicated than either side is likely willing to admit.

The following discussion will contain spoilers for anyone not up to date on the series.

Is Skyler a good or OK character who’s only disliked because of woman-hating fans? If she poorly written by a male head writer and mostly male writing staff? Is she well written but poorly played? Is she a contemptible character who feminists are rallying around because she’s a woman? Is our culture so asea when it comes to gender roles that it’s impossible to tell whether she’s a good character or not?

If you Google “Breaking Bad Skyler” and let autofill do the rest, the suggestions (and presumably the most searched-for terms) are:

  • Breaking Bad Skyler actress
  • Breaking Bad Skyler fat
  • Breaking Bad Skyler affair
  • Breaking Bad Skyler shut up
  • Breaking Bad Skyler annoying
  • Breaking Bad Skyler weight

Obviously, there are some issues here. If you attempt the same exercise with Skyler’s husband, the results don’t include any of Bryan Cranston or Walter White’s physical traits, or anything negative at all, but a bunch of plot points like “Breaking Bad Walter poisoned Brock.”

Normally, the inclusion of search terms related to an actress’s weight or appearance is a red flag that something is amiss in discussion and analysis of her character. But in this case, again, it’s more complicated. Anna Gunn showed up for the beginning of season four looking remarkably different than she had at the end of season three. She looked, in a word, plastic. If Gunn didn’t have significant plastic surgery between seasons, she seemed to go to great lengths to make it look like she did. Again, an actress’s physical appearance is her business (literally, in many cases), and not ours, but when a change that striking is on your TV in high definition every Sunday night, it’s impossible not to notice. And with Gunn and Skyler, her bizarre, plasticized look became a significant distraction from the show, bringing reality intruding on its fictionalized world.

That’s just one example of the complex dynamics at play. Yes, it’s shitty to judge a character based on the way an actress looks, but yes, Skyler looked pretty fucking weird during parts of this series. Yes, actresses face different standards for physical appearance than their male counterparts. But yes, actresses are paid to have their faces on television.

In a larger sense, both sides on The Great Skyler War of 2012 are right and both are wrong.

It’s true that a lot of people (both male and female viewers) are more prone to hate female characters in TV and movies, and often for no good reason. (Just read Bill Simmons sometime complaining about “wet blanket” girlfriends in sports movies.) And television and film writing continues to be a male-dominated field; while I don’t think it’s necessary to be a woman to write a good female character, having female perspective seems crucial — particularly in TV series with large all-male writing staffs prone to groupthink.

So while some people assuredly hate Skyler for the wrong reasons, that doesn’t preclude the existence of perfectly legitimate reasons to cringe when she’s on screen. Going back several seasons now, there has been tremendous inconsistency in the way that Skyler has been both written and portrayed.

Skyler has shifted personalities so often that it’s difficult to tell when the problem is with the performance and when the problem is with the writing, but there are definitely problems with both. We’ve had Trusting Skyler, Betrayed Skyler, Betraying Skyler, Smart Skyler, Dumb Skyler, Crimelord Skyler, Smoking in the Dark Skyler, Basketcase Skyler, and Accounting Genius Skyler.

These different personae aren’t all mutually exclusive, but I’m not holding Skyler to an unfair standard: I understand that given her extreme circumstances, some odd behavior and attitude fluctuations are important. But Skyler sometimes seems like an entirely different person from one season to the next or even one episode to the next.

Unfortunately, Skyler has been too often used as a plot point rather than a character with her own agency. When Vince Gilligan and crew needed additional complications for Walter, Skyler would get suspicious or belligerent or find some other way to muck up his plans. When Walter had other obstacles to deal with, Skyler was complicit or barely on screen at all. The writing for Marie has been much more on point and reliable; even when Skyler’s sister is supposed to be an irritant, she’s a much more enjoyable character to watch.

Meanwhile, Anna Gunn’s performance has varied from affecting to completely off the mark. In Deadwood, Gunn’s character was similarly a thorn in the side of a beloved male character’s happiness (at least at first), but Gunn’s acting showed consistency. On Breaking Bad, it’s like she can’t decide whether she wants to give a subtle, shaded performance or go for broke with femme fatale posturing and over-emoting.

Still, those who can’t stand to watch Skyler stand accused of misogyny because her character’s crimes are inconsistency and annoyance, and her husband’s are murder and drug dealing.

People who root for Walter White do so not because they condone murder but because he’s a three-dimensional, well-drawn character with charisma and a sense of purpose. He’s funny and smart and says awesome stuff like, “I am the one who knocks” and “I’m in the empire-building business.” Other than “I fucked Ted” and “…for the cancer to come back,” (admittedly, both of which were awesome) I’m not sure Skyler has had a memorable line in the series. That’s partly a function of the amount of screentime she gets compared to Walter, partly that she’s not written as a particularly clever character, and partly because when the writers come up with a good line they usually give it to Walter (unless it includes the word “bitch”).

The obvious comparison is The Sopranos, which similarly had a charismatic but evil antihero/protagonist and a conflicted wife. Both shows ask its viewers to consider why we root for the characters we do, but The Sopranos did a vastly superior job fleshing out Carmela than BB has done with Skyler.

In the end, Skyler is a lot like HBO’s Girls: there are some pretty terrible reasons to dislike her (or it), but there are some pretty damn compelling ones too.

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20 Comments

Filed under Television Has AIDS, The Dilemma

20 responses to “Breaking Bad: Is Skyler The Worst?

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  2. paul

    Walt’s motives for the things he does are clear and understandable. Skyler’s motives, not so much.

    Not everyone has the low view of Walt the show expects us to have. I don’t think Walt selling meth addicts meth (which other dealers would do, with more violence and impurities, if he didn’t do it) is worse than what Skyler does (help Ted steal 600 thousand dollars). Therefore Skyler’s indignant rage at Walt annoys the fuck out of me.

    Skyler’s inconsistancy is a big problem too. S5 skyler is like, a totally different person to S4 Sky.

    • Viewers of Breaking Bad seldom judge Walter’s behavior in the relationship. He may have grown into a heavyweight in his drug business, but he remained weak when it came to Skylar. He let her throw him out of the house (and yes finally stood up and came back) and let her send the kids to Hank and Marie’s. But he seldom stood up to her on any issues, even small ones, or ever communicated at all until he would finally blow up.

      Both Skylar and Walter show what happens in a relationship when a couple stops communicating. It takes two to keep a bad relationship going. But viewers excused Walter’s “weakness” with Skylar for the same reason they (myself included) excused his making meth since he was doing it all “for the family.” As a relationship therapist, I was constantly appalled by his passivity with Skylar. He enabled her to become more and more of a bitch, silently acting as if he deserved the bad treatment. Again, this is common in relationships, but there seems to be little understanding from viewers as to how Walter helped create Skylar’s cold, judgmental behavior. I hate Skylar too, but I know women just like her. I think she pushes a lot of buttons for both men and women. Men hope to never be with a woman like her and women hope to never become her. I believe Anna Gunn herself is hated because she plays this role too well.

  3. Mila

    It’s the acting. The permanent frown, the attitude in the eyes. I think it’s frozen botox face or something that just makes her so unlikable. I think the weight gain is the least of the worries – her body probably went through trauma (she says cortisone, but who knows, maybe she got sidelined from obsessive exercise and dieting as the actresses have to do, and actually recovered from some sort of eating disorder or something, briefly, since she looks like she has one now) and I can dismiss the woman’s weight. But her face? There’s so very little expression at all times that it’s hard to read anything but “bitch”. I’m sure she’s a lovely woman in person. But her acting really has no dimension.

  4. Those LIPS……ugh. What’s up with these actresses that mutilate themselves and think it looks good? The worst is Mary Tyler Moore followed by Melanie Griffith, Lindsay Lohan and Meg Ryan (who knocked herself right off the big screen until it deflated). I totally agree with Nelson that the change for Skyler came minutes apart and was very bizarre. Instead of botox she should have gotten that enormous mole on her right arm removed.

  5. I CANNOT STAND ANNA GUNN AND THE CHARACTER SHE PLAYS. HER LIPS ARE COMPLETELY DISGUSTING AND EVERYTHING ABOUT HER EXUDES GROSS. I’D RATHER HAVE SEEN HER KILLED OFF THE FIRST SEASON THAN HAVE HER STICK AROUND FOR THE WHOLE REST OF THE SERIES. FUCK YOU, ANNA. PLEASE DON’T PURSUE ACTING IN THE FUTURE— STICK TO YOUR DAYJOB— CARWASH.

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  7. Nelson K. Nelson

    Just watched the whole series on Netflix (and the last few episodes on Amazon). So, for me, the change of seasons between Size 10 Anna and Size 18 Anna happened a few minutes apart. Interestingly, on the show timeline, similarly, only a few minutes (hours at most) had supposedly elapsed — she was supposed to be in the same scene! So, when I saw her, it was FRIGHTENING. More importantly, it was highly damaging to the believability of series. We know Skyler didn’t just pop around the corner to a doughnut shop to gain 50+ pounds, and stop off in the bathroom after returning to quickly snip off 10-inches of her hair. It was clearly a massive weight-gain: she’s tall, and it takes a LOT of weight to put on 8 sizes to an already heavy-in-the-hip frame. And the neck-length cut is what every woman gets on the (bad) advice of her white-trash hairdresser in the wake of massive weight-gain, since “that will make you look thinner”. It was a terrible disconnect that did the series no favors. Both the weight and the hair were distracting. Anna Gunn is supposedly a PROFESSIONAL, and should have known that it was her WELL-PAID JOB to stay in exactly the same shape, and have exactly the same length hair when a series resumes with her just a few minutes later than where it left off the prior season. Acting requires SELF-CONTROL, and Anna Gunn has NONE. I don’t ever see her finding work in a series again. I would NEVER CAST HER for anything that took longer than a few weeks to film in total. Not even sure I’d trust her for that. GET IT TOGETHER, Anna.

  8. Anonymous

    I would fuck her soooooooooooooooo bad!

  9. “Oh Walter I’am so sick with the lies about the other cellphone why do you have to keep doing this?!” Like a million dollar drug kingpin is going to reveal who he his because of a dumb blonde/whiny bitch who has bipolar problems. Personally I believe Walter is already piled up in shit with stage 3 cancer, keeping the buisness low key, a son with cerebral palsy, a unmotivated junky partner and Skyler to add it all up. Maybe while Walt is out cooking he will recieve a text from a drug lord with his wife’s dead body so that way her shitty acting can get out of this epic show.

  10. Ugh

    Sincerely. She is disgustingly awful to look at. Her “acting” is only showing her disgusting worm lips semi open after saying one line. Get rid of her!!

  11. Skeeter

    I don’t know what you people are thinking!! Anna Gunn is a marvelous actor and she plays her roles according to the scene and whats going on. Living in LA for 20 years in that business, most trained professionals can recognize her talent immediately!!!
    The Dilenma-PopCulture/Breaking Bad “Skyler White”

  12. Anonymous

    She is the worst thing on TV kill her off and her sister

  13. Anonymous

    honestly, i didnt even notice the weight gain, but i dont even care about that, i just wanted to make sure im not the only one who thinks she is soooo annoying. With the 1st and 2nd seasons i tought “okay, she’s annoying but move on”, and by season 4 i started to like her, prly because of her cooperation with walter. But season 5, i mean come on! All about whining and stuff, pretty annoying

  14. laurenjackson500@yahoo.com

    I think she is a great actress as all are on this show. Yes she has gained weight, but so what? Haven’t we all????

  15. Cali

    The only reason I read your article was that I did a search on Skylar White and weight gain. It’s true. her weight gain by season 3 or 4 is distracting, even for me, a female. She looked better when she was “pregnant” on the show and they might have at least wrote in a compulsive eating habit to deal with stress. But yes, she goes from looking gorgeous to distractingly plump and plumper and it looks like someone did something to her lips – like filled them in with Botox. I really think people don’t like her because as an actress she got fat for some reason. I mean they are paid to be on screen. What is going on that she had to gain all that weight? I’m tired of looking at this beautiful woman get fat and weird looking due to plastic surgery to bad hair cuts, and lackluster performance from what I am seeing by now. The whole show is getting lackluster. I can barely pay attention. I am on Season 4, Episode 5 on Netflix. On the character of Skylar White, I find her unlikable because I am not sure why she still keeps Walter out of his house – a man potentially dying of lung cancer. Cut him some slack, though he is not that likeable either. He reminds me of a narcissist – only what’s good for himself and his little world. They are both reprehensible to me – and their son gets on my nerves too, though he gets more likeable eventually.

  16. Stups

    I get the feeling that she knows how epic of a show she is on and is struggling to keep her head above water with the other outstanding performances so she tends to over act/emote quite a bit. It’s almost starting to make me not want to watch anymore because of how annoying she will be to out do her last annoying performance, almost. I could never stop watching at this point but I do pray that her character falls down an elevator shaft or some Deus ex machina ending. Don’t give her any kind of honorable death or anything. Lightning, Semi-truck, Cow stampede..Anything please.

  17. Anonymous

    Hey thanks for going in depth on this cause it is a complicated and intersting topic. I think that one reason to hate her are the reactions to wrongdoing and no acknowledgement of sacrifice, even if it is morally wrong
    .
    For instance:
    1) On the one hand you have:Walter White who does all kinds of wrong getting involved in his drug business. But his original intentions were to sacrifice himself for his family. Later I know his intentions become clouded. Anyways upon first discovery she treats him like he is James Eagen Holmes (The Colorado Shooter) . I think it starts season 4 right? Maybe it’s earlier. She makes it known that he basically has to walk on eggshells from then on. However, he more or less accepts this.

    2) While Skyler seems to have earned the right to do some wrong, having an affair as a married woman is pretty heavy also in my opinion. Maybe it’s not like being Pablo Escobar and killing people. But if I had to choose between her selling drugs behind my back to help support our family or her banging her former boss, I think I would hope she was selling drugs. Because at least she still loves us and is willing to sacrifice herself for us. Banging Ted means she dgaf me or respect me. But Walt still loved his family and would do anything for them. Skyler didn’t respect or love Walt the same way he respected and loved her. So when she cheats, it’s okay and Walt doesn’t even say anything except until close to the end of the final season to Marie, only because he can’t explain her crazy behavior of walking into the pool, sending the kids away,etc.

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  19. One of the first questions a friend of mine asked me when she found out I was watching Breaking Bad was whether I liked Skyler. Honestly, I’m just not sure. I think she just doesn’t *do* anything for me. I love Jesse, Hank, and even Marie sometimes, hate Walter, but am just indifferent to Skyler. I think if I had a better opinion of Walter, I would form an opinion about Skyler, which suggests that maybe I don’t view her as a character in her own right. I liked when she played the ditzy accountant for Ted and when she confronted Walter about all the money in the storage unit, but disliked her at other times.

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