Unlike Carmela Soprano, Skyler never signed on to become a Mob wife. So how do we feel about her crimes?
[Warning, spoilers below!]
“What’s one more?” Skyler White proposed to Walter in “Rabid Dog”—the fourth of Breaking Bad’s eight final episodes—this coming from a former stay-at-home mother and, in earlier seasons, the series’ moral compass. But now Skyler (Anna Gunn) is making the once-unimaginable suggestion: that Walt (Bryan Cranston) put a hit on his enraged former partner, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who just doused the White family home in gasoline. She is fully committed to Walt since he’s decided to retire from the business, even at the cost of losing her sister Marie, her only friend. Walt’s “confession” video, which she helped make, falsely incriminates Marie’s DEA agent husband, Hank (Dean Norris)—a man who had, until recently, believed Skyler to be an innocent, a victim. Though she hasn’t killed anyone, or even so much as seen a bag of crystal meth, she has most certainly broken bad.
How did the Skyler we first met become an accomplice to the most fearsome and murderous crystal-meth manufacturer in the Southwest? In the pilot, she was a pregnant housewife with an accounting background and literary aspirations, living a quiet middle-class life in Albuquerque. She was as devoted to Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), her teenage son with cerebral palsy, as to her seemingly mild-mannered, nerdy science-teacher husband. But almost immediately, she notices a change in Walt, who, unbeknownst to her, has not only just been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, but also started a business with former student and smalltime meth dealer, Jesse.
After Walt’s maiden voyage of cooking meth in an RV, which involves warding off an attempt on his life by a drug distributor, he slips into bed and aggressively insists on having sex with Skyler while she’s half-asleep. “Walt!” she says, “Is that you?”
And so his double life as “Heisenberg” is born, one he keeps from Skyler for months. With it comes lies and unexplained disappearances that terrify then infuriate her—between his terminal cancer and their new baby, she has every reason to worry. But because of the way the narrative is framed, viewers aren’t inclined to sympathize with her. We never get the chance to know her and their relationship before he’s drawn into this world, so we can’t appreciate her as a likeable, fully realized person. We know his whereabouts. We’re as married to “Heisenberg” as she is to Walter White. To us, she appears clueless, then nagging and shrewish. And once he discloses the nature of his business, his unthinkable transgressions turn Skyler into a person she never wanted to be: shrill, because she fights against this person he’s become, and then corrupt, because her decision to remain loyal to him demands that she be so.
This was not the marriage Skyler White signed on for. Not like The Sopranos’ Carmela (Edie Falco)—she always knew her husband, Tony (James Gandolfini), would take over the New Jersey mob, just like his father. The two women share much in common: their devotion to their families; their complicated, often combative relationships with their husbands that has nearly led to divorce. Both collude with their husbands’ criminal activities, but the way in which they do is where their differences lay—and perhaps why we are more forgiving of one than the other.
Carmela’s collusion comes from the way she relishes the lifestyle that Tony’s blood money affords, which further encourages her husband’s life of crime. She doesn’t ask questions about his work because she doesn’t want to know the details. She treasures her jewels, their Jersey McMansion, her Porsche Cayenne. She can even take advantage of her situation when she wants something. But she does so sparingly and usually for her children, as when she pressures her elitist neighbors to get a college recommendation letter for her daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), knowing how intimidated they are by Tony’s line of business.
Skyler takes on a more active and practical role once she accepts the fact of Walter’s business. Part of what motivates her, initially, is the anticipation of his imminent death—that the nightmare will be over soon. She invents a lie (that he has a gambling addiction) to explain to Hank and Marie, and Walt Jr., the sudden influx of cash. As a former accountant, she exercises extreme caution, terrified of drawing the attention of the IRS. She stashes most of the money in a storage unit. She has them buy a car-wash business as a front to launder money.
Unlike Carmela and the Sopranos, there is nothing ostentatious about the White family: They remain in their modest home, wearing their modest clothes. When Walt buys new cars for himself and Walt Jr., Skyler risks bitch-mom status by insisting he return them. Her few splurges are hardly glamorous: paying off her ex-boss/ex-lover’s IRS audit to deflect attention away from her family’s financials; and picking up the tab on Hank’s medical bills after he’s nearly killed by assassins in pursuit of her husband. Does this excuse her? She could have left Walt. And Skyler did consider leaving him, and turning him in, at the urging of a divorce lawyer. But had she done so, the series would have ended a lot sooner.
Shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos demand that we suspend our sense of morality, and identify—even fall in love with—their anti-heroes, defending them against anyone who gets in their way. The anti-heroes are almost always men—men who are often antagonized, or at least nagged by a wife or a girlfriend. Sometimes these women are moral centers, or figures who are a bit more pragmatic or rational. If considering these women’s role outside the realm of the narrative, a viewer would sooner identify with their moral code than with, say, Tony’s or Walter’s. Instead, viewers regard Carmela as a gold-digger, though many of us have not become disillusioned with her. Even when she fought with Tony—told him she hated him, kicked him out of the house—she had our sympathy. Which didn’t mean we fell out of love with her possibly sociopathic crime-boss husband. Tony, and in turn Sopranos show-runner David Chase, were protective of Carmela in a way that Walt and Breaking Bad show-runner Vince Gilligan were not of Skyler. Much more is demanded of her.
Despite the fact that Walter is diabolical, he has lost few fans. Here’s a man who poisoned a little boy, stood by and watched Jesse’s girlfriend O.D., killed the beloved Mike Ehrmantraut, and murdered everyone who’s threatened him—but his defenders will forgive him everything and still argue that Skyler, despite her loyalty and sacrifices, is a hypocritical, deplorable bitch. Skyler White has elicited such loathing among Breaking Bad fans that, as actress Gunn described in her recent New York Times op-ed piece, it became personal, with vitriolic online comments like: “Could somebody tell me where I can find Anna Gunn so I can kill her?” Gunn wrote, “Besides being frightened (and taking steps to ensure my safety), I was also astonished: How had disliking a character spiraled into homicidal rage at the actress playing her?”
Why? Because Skyler has expressed outrage for Walt’s transgressions and the danger he’s put his family in. Because she calls him on his lies and can tell when she’s being manipulated. Because she sets ground rules when she decides to participate in the business. Carmela Soprano cleaves to her willful ignorance because it’s easier to bear—but it doesn’t make her less complicit. Skyler goes into business with her husband to safeguard the family and has gotten in over her head. That doesn’t justify her complicity, but perhaps if we can extricate ourselves from the cognitive-dissonant world we witness week after week from our collective couch, we can at least appreciate her predicament if not find it in our hearts to sympathize with her.
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