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.