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World Wide Angle | October 2013
Character Issue

As a compulsive Breaking Bad fan — anxiously waiting to see, as I write this, who lives and who dies in the final episodes — I was drawn to a recent 'opinion piece' in The New York Times (August 23) composed by the beleaguered Skyler White herself: the actress Anna Gunn, whom we have seen suffer and cope with so much during the past five seasons and six years. (Although, in the fiction's world, it has only been one, action-packed year!)
Under the title "I Have a Character Issue", Gunn addresses the fact that her fictive self — and also, alarmingly, her real self — have been the target of vast, on-line 'hate campaigns'. Bu what's to hate about Skyler? Her husband Walter (Bryan Cranston) is more obviously the grand villain — or, as we critics like to say, the anti-hero — of Breaking Bad. It is he who has lied, killed, betrayed and manipulated almost everyone in sight — for his own, richly ambiguous reasons, perhaps not all of them available to his conscious mind.
This is exactly Gunn's powerful, feminist point: Walter is excused, indulged, explored, sympathised with by millions of fans because he is a man; while Skyler is damned as an "annoying bitch wife". Her conclusion: "At the end of the day, she hasn't been judged by the same set of standards as Walter".
No argument there; this kind of iniquitous gender crime happens every day. But I am mightily intrigued by Gunn's description of Skyler's character, her actions, and her place in the overall moral (or amoral!) scheme of the epic drama of Breaking Bad.
For the actress, Skyler is "the one character who consistently opposes Walter and calls him on his lies". She "tries to stop" Walter, is "outraged by the violence and destruction" and "disgusted by the money". Where Walter is the protagonist, she plays the antagonist.
This does not entirely tally with my own memories of Skyler. She has indeed enjoyed some delicious moments of revenge against Walter - especially in the immortal I.F.T. episode in Season 3, whose title stands for her proud declaration of rebellious infidelity: "I fucked Ted". And Gunn is right in so far as Skyler hardly ever "just collapses in the corner or wrings her hands in despair".
But: Skyler did live in psychic denial, in willful blindness for a long time, not wanting to face the worst thoughts concerning who her husband really was and what he was really doing; she wanted to believe his lies. And, at a later stage, she felt enough despair to try drowning herself in the backyard swimming pool.
Then she recovered, and stopped feeling like a victim. And this is where Skyler came into her own as Walter's equal and collaborator: hiding and processing the drug money, keeping up a public façade to keep the law away, joining in the campaign of lies and deceit for the benefit of everyone else in the family.
The whole of Breaking Bad hinges on the great question of ethics: what course of action — no matter how objectively evil — can become thinkable, bearable, even 'no big deal' to you? Walter has a lingering problem accepting that he might have kill his closest partner-in-crime (and ex-student), Jesse (Aaron Paul). But Skyler convinces herself of the necessity of this move before Walter does.
Gunn is a little misguided when she wonders: "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?" The actress rather sheepishly admits that Skyler is "in her own way, morally compromised". But it's the moral compromise — not the fantasy of righteousness — that makes her, in a real way, "Walter's equal", and a fascinating, compelling character. Nicholas Ray knew the score better: he once told his students that "the hero has to be just as screwed up as you or me so that I can identify with him". Or, for that matter, her.

Adrian Martin



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