As Breaking Bad turns 10, television is finally standing up for Skyler White

As Breaking Bad turns 10, television is finally standing up for Skyler White

Television might finally be ready to appreciate Anna Gunn's now-classic tragic heroine.

This week marks 10 years since Breaking Bad hit the screens and suddenly turned science cool by somehow associating with the methamphetamine trade in New Mexico. For all you millennials who just lost complete track of time, you read that right - it has indeed been an entire decade since AMC’s Breaking Bad thrilled audiences around the world. But among all the ‘Science Bitch’ T-shirts and sudden popularity of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, what remains forgotten is how much the character of Skyler White, the wife of protagonist Walter White, was hated on the internet.

Image Source: Twitter

As Breaking Bad rose in popularity to become one of the most influential television shows of the millennium, and even as actress Anna Gunn took home two Emmy awards for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama, the sheer number of people who hated Skyler only increased. Initially arising through multiple “I Hate Skyler White” online groups, sexist discourse dismissed Skyler White, the character, as the controlling bitch-wife who wouldn’t adhere to her murderous, drug-dealing husband. It got so bad that in 2013, Anna Gunn had to write an op-ed in The New York Times to defend her character Skyler White from the legions of future GamerGaters attacking her in Facebook groups and online forums.

“I’m concerned that so many people react to Skyler with such venom,” Gunn wrote. “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?”

“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," Gunn concludes in her op-ed piece.

Anna Gunn took home two Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Skylar White. (Source: Twitter)

In a later interview with New York Magazine, show creator Vince Gilligan concurred with this analysis, which deflected the blame away from the show’s writing and directed it instead to the sexist attitudes of the audience: “I think the people who have these issues with the wives being too bitchy on Breaking Bad are misogynists, plain and simple,” he said. “I like Skyler a little less now that she’s succumbed to Walt’s machinations, but in the early days, she was the voice of morality on the show. She was the one telling him: ‘You can’t cook crystal meth’ … How could you have a problem with that?”

Promotional poster for Breaking Bad featuring Skyler White. (Image Source: Pinterest / AMC)

The unfortunate 2008 timeframe of Breaking Bad’s arrival certainly inhibited recognition of Skyler White as one of the best female characters on TV. Her complexities made her fiercely human, and everything she did was in the best interest of her family. And audiences across genders are finally starting to realize it in the #metoo age today.

Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, and Bryan Cranston pose with their Emmy Awards. Breaking Bad won 7 Emmys in 2014. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Show creator Vince Gilligan never intended to portray Skyler as a hero or even as a likable character. It’s evident through the show’s narrative, which lays focus on Walter White’s transformation from a resigned suburban chemistry teacher to narcissistic drug kingpin. Centering a show around a Byronic male anti-hero in a television age dominated by male antihero dramas was nothing new. Don Draper held our sympathies almost throughout Mad Men and so did Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. Similarly, Walter White remained the anchor for the audience to stay rooted to until the very end, no matter how viscerally disturbing we found his actions, no matter how ravenously he spiraled out of control or how badly we wanted to see him brought to justice.

Skyler White (Anna Gunn) in Breaking bad. (Image Source: Twitter)

Skyler was initially in the way of Walt and then never fully on board with his plans to build a meth empire. She became the first hurdle in the protagonist’s adventures and consequently, she became the natural magnet for the audience’s disdain. Every time Walt defeats a villain, he has to face Skyler’s withering glare; no matter how he frightens her, he always has to reckon with the fact that she maintained a great deal of control over his children.

Yet she remained largely powerless, a supporting character that could have easily had more depth if the writer chose. Perhaps the sentiment is best captured in one of the show’s iconic scenes - when Walter grabs their baby Holly and drives off, and a distressed Skyler, in one of the most powerful scenes of the series, chases after him only to collapse on the street hysterical.


In a sense, Skyler triggered the parts of our brains that yelled at our own mothers for nagging us when we were otherwise carefree children, trying to break bad in our own ways! But much the way that children eventually come to appreciate their mothers’ chiding, a look back at Skyler’s character five after the show’s end, leaves her a much more sympathetic character.

More importantly, her brand of female power is precisely the character exploration upon which Breaking Bad might have focused more heavily had it premiered today and not 10 years ago.

Last weekend, The Guardian’s Ellen Jones wrote a thorough essay on Skyler White laying the ground for the modern female antiheroine. It’s an excellent analysis of why Skyler was so unlikeable, even as she descended into moral grayness. The essay goes on to point out how Skyler bore the cross for female characters such as Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister, House of Cards’ Claire Underwood, and even Better Call Saul’s Kim Wexler, who have been able to slide out of the traditional female role of supporting the male protagonist and explore every side of the human psyche in the way that male characters traditionally could.

In the essay, Jones mentions how Gilligan always intended Skylar to be: “the voice of morality on the show”. And indeed there is good reason to believe Skyler wasn’t just collateral damage incurred en route to Breaking Bad’s narrative destination but an intentional, and therefore noble sacrifice to the greater storytelling good.

Image Source: Twitter

In a 2012 interview with Salon, Gunn said that Gilligan had early on directed her to play Skyler as unemotional and therefore less sympathetic than she might otherwise have been. “Having Skyler be that way was really smart because if you had been watching, like in season two, and thinking: ‘Oh my god this poor woman. I can’t believe he’s doing this stuff to her and to this family,’ then how would the show be able to carry on? Because if you lose your sympathy for Walt that early what are you going to do with the show?” Gunn said in the interview.

In the Guardian’s essay, the character of Claire Underwood from House of Cards, is attributed as the 'ultimate post-Skyler antiheroin' because of how clearly her rise 'reflects the real-world power shift between genders.’

In fact, in the upcoming post-Weinstein season six, actor Robin Wright will officially step up to replace the disgraced Kevin Spacey as lead. Indeed, the arts and especially television have always mirrored and reflected the political landscape of the times and one look at the power structure in HBO’s Game of Thrones should help confirm this - the show is slowly tilting its focus towards its stronger female characters and the kings seem to be playing second fiddle to the shows two strongest female characters, Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen.

Skyler bore the cross for future strong TV female characters such as Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister and House of Cards’ Claire Underwood (Image Source: Pinterest)

So here’s to Skyler White, the character who bore the cross with Christ-like restraint, paving the way for a generation of well written, deep female characters on screen that are set to equal, if not overtake the traditional role of the male protagonist. As we celebrate 10 years of Breaking Bad, a show which is still arguably unparalleled in its gripping narration and style in the last decade, let us not forget the pivotal, groundbreaking role that Skyler White played.

'Skyler may not have been “the one who knocks”, but she was the one who kicked the door in, making way for all the wayward women yet to come,’ is how Ellen Jones concludes her analysis of Skyler’s character. There’s no better way to summarize the multiple Emmy winning performance of Anna Gunn in the shoes of the ever-defiant Skyler White.

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