small screen sirens: in defence of breaking bad’s skyler white
The nuclear family is a pretty familiar trope to anyone who watches TV. Whether you’re a sitcom fan or streaming HBO, any series with a family at its core is prone to its man-wife-2.5 children dynamic. The husband or the kids generally carry the narrative. They’re brooding heroes or outrageous players, sullen teens or misfits. But the wife character is a tricky one. Frequently relegated to a “voice of reason” role, it’s hard to remember a comedy or drama series in recent years that has relied on the wife character to exercise authority, comedy or her own storyline, beyond how it relates to her husband or kids. From sitcoms where the hot, nagging housewife is partnered with her overweight, man-child husband (King of Queens being the penultimate example), to modern drama series The Walking Dead, where Lori earned the loathing of a fandom by her continual trait of, well, doing nothing.
Breaking Bad is an interesting point of difference. For those who haven’t seen the series, its protagonist is Walter White, a down on his luck, highschool chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. In a last ditch effort to provide for his pregnant wife, Skyler, and son with MS before he goes, he starts manufacturing crystal meth with an ex-student. His wife, for a few seasons, remains blissfully ignorant of Walt’s ways, and meanders around storylines in a pretty typical wife role. She’s alternately sweet, oblivious and naggy, until, of course, the meth business that Walt has found himself so embroiled in starts to cross over.
It’s a series about the total disintegration of character. Walt becomes obsessed with his newfound power having lived a life of condescension and hardship, and he becomes a drug kingpin through sabotage, corruption and murder. Walt’s level of delusion ups every season, and his core belief that he is doing awful things for the sake of his family instead of himself becomes harder and harder to justify and for us, as an audience, to believe. In the meantime, Skyler has become the old Walt; a startled, wide-eyed, accidental hero thrust into a life she never wanted, desperate to protect and provide for her family.
We’re five seasons in now, and the big difference that now stands between Walt and Skyler is that whilst Walt is no longer afraid to be the bad guy, he is still afraid to be seen that way by those nearest and dearest to him. He’s done awful things to his family and to his partner-stroke-surrogate-son, Jesse, but he still paints himself as the hard-done-by-hero. His sense of delusion is one that cries out for the validation and the love of his family as a means of justifying his actions. Skyler on the other hand, is doing bad things for the right reasons, and is continually bearing the brunt of the very real repercussions. She’s a bitch to her son, a depressive cheater to her sister, a dumb whore to the IRS. Nobody, barring us as the audience, knows the extent of her actions, how she has moved and grown continually to protect her little, broken family.
The thing is too that no matter how villainous and deluded Walt gets, you always remember the man Walt was. You remember season one and two – Walt-the-anti-hero, Walt the-deserving. Unfortunately, audiences also seem unable to forget Skyler-the-ignorant or Skyler-the-nag. I’ve seen so many blog posts, reviews and online commentary that remember her as the killjoy finish to Walt’s eager (and at the time, kind of fun) adventures, and not as the badass lady she’s become. Not as the unwilling-hero or the martyr of image, status and life. After all, Walt chose this. Skyler didn’t.
In many ways, Skyler is the ultimate desperate housewife – she has been thrust into a set of circumstances that have changed her life in unimaginable ways. She has been forced into getting her hands dirty since the end of season two, and has done so with the intelligence and the passion of a woman in love and then of a woman cornered. There’s this great moment in season four, when Walt’s getting further out of hand and reckless, and Skyler, steely and so-fucking-done, says, ‘Someone’s got to protect this family from the man who protects this family.’ It’s a shivers-up-the-spine moment, and works so well at summing up Skyler White as a character and why she works. She adopts so many of the housewife sitcom trope – her husband has his adventures, his fits of immaturity, and carries the more outlandish storylines, whilst she stews at home being pointedly Not Fun. Only Breaking Bad is all these tropes to their brilliantly-written extreme. Skyler is no fun, but she’s also coming out of these recent seasons as, to borrow a quote from Joss Whedon’s Firefly, a big damn hero. We’ve only got half a season left before Breaking Bad comes to an end, and I’m excited to see how it goes (and who survives it), but I’m also excited to see the legacy a character like Skyler White can leave behind.