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Breaking Bad as Literature
It's a fact: people hate Skyler White.
They hate her so much that someone actually went and proved that she made episodes less likeable. They hate her so much that both Vince Gilligan and Anna Gunn, the actress who plays her, have had to publically comment on it.
So let's break it down.
The first two seasons wouldn't have been half as interesting if Walt weren't keeping a secret from someone who suspected something. And though she can be kind of a tightwad about the whole meth business, it's not like Skyler is Ms. Upstanding Goody-Two-Shoes herself.
When Season 5 rolls around, she's really not even standing in Walt's way. In fact, she's laundering Walt's cash; bug-spraying whatever cash she can't launder; and even when Hank gives her a free pass out of the whole messy situation in "Blood Money" (Season 5, Episode 9), she doesn't betray Walt to him. ("Am I under arrest? AM I UNDER ARREST?")
Plus, uh, there was that whole affair with her creep-o boss, Ted Beneke.
So do the Skyler haters have a point? Is Walt Jr. right when he says, "If all this is true, then you're as bad as him" ("Ozymandias," Season 5, Episode 14)? Or is it, like Vince Gilligan says, just old-fashioned misogyny that causes people to dogpile on her?
In this lesson, we're gonna look at the evidence and have you decide for yourself.
Why, Skyler, Why?
The Skyler hate out there is already sky-high, so before we get the discussion started, we want you to read two pieces from the other side of the aisle.
- The first is Anna Gunn's New York Times opinion piece, in which she discusses the outright hatred for the character as "a measure of our attitudes toward gender."
- We'll follow that up with this essay by PopMatters critic Colin McGuire, where he compares Skyler's treatment to other famous TV wives like Mad Men's Betty Draper and The Sopranos' Carmela.
All set? Okay, now let's talk about Skyler, Shmoop style. We're going to break it down in terms of her big decisions in the overall story.
The Beneke affair. Skyler begins flirting with her boss, Ted Beneke, in Season 2; she ends up not only covering for his accounting fraud, but starts an affair with him in "Over" (Season 2, Episode 10) that runs through all of Season 3. Oh, and in "Salud" (Season 4, Episode 10), she secretly arranges to anonymously give Beneke $621,552.33 of Walt's drug money to cover the fraud loss. (Thanks, "Great Aunt Birgit"!)
Three seasons of lousy, selfish betrayal, right?
Now wait a second. You could argue that her infidelity isn't just a matter of giving into her attraction for Ted, but to provide an easy, clear way to break off her clearly ailing relationship with Walt, which is threatening the family. (She's not wrong to be suspicious, either.) Ted suspects this is what's tempting her, and he even uses it to seduce her: "Being that rock takes everything you've got," he says when he makes his first move in "Over" (Season 2, Episode 10), implicitly telling her that it's okay to have the affair—as long as it's for the good of the family.
As for covering Ted's fraud, she really shows off her own knack for deception in "Bug" (Season 4, Episode 9), when she pretends to be an empty-headed, incompetent ditz to protect Ted from the IRS auditor.
Whatever you want to say about Skyler, you can't really argue that she's strictly selfish or pride-driven, like you can with Walt. All of her major decisions in the show involve protecting and enabling other people—whether or not she benefits. Walt often does things to save face in front of Walt Jr. (like buy him a car), but Skyler is willing to do the good things that make her look bad, like give the car back: "Once again, he'll blame his b**** mother for taking away what his loving father has given him" ("Cornered," Season 4, Episode 6).
Conspiring with Walt. She's not exactly happy about doing this, but who would be? And Walt doesn't make it easy for her, either—he's totally shady about it for two seasons, and when he's finally ready to spill the beans, she's already had it with him: "Whatever it is, I'm afraid to know" ("ABQ," Season 2, Finale).
But once she's finally involved, she throws all her power and cleverness into protecting Walt's secret for the sake of her family. She uses her accounting skills to launder the money, just as Walt uses his chemistry skills to make it. But perhaps more importantly: do you remember what her job was at the beginning of the series? That's right—a struggling fiction writer, someone who knows all about crafting elegant lies. And she has no illusions about it, either:
I don't need to hear any of your bulls*** rationales. I'm in it now. I'm compromised. But I won't—I will not—have my children living in a house where dealing drugs and hurting people and killing people is shrugged off as "s*** happens!" We're back at it? Fine. But the kids stay away, and that's that. ("Fifty-One," Season 5, Episode 4)
Remember how we compared Walt to Macbeth? Well, Skyler becomes a kind of Lady Macbeth herself. She even gets ahead of Walt in his own ambitions: in "Rabid Dog" (Season 5, Episode 12), she pushes Walt to kill Jesse, saying, "We've gone this far, for us, what's one more?"
But she's not afraid to turn the tables on Walt if she has to: she even walks into the pool and tries to drown herself, faking a nervous breakdown in front of Marie and Hank to get the kids sent away from home—which neatly mirrors Walt's flimsy "fugue state" alibi in "Down" (Season 2, Episode 4).
At the end of the day, she doesn't do anything for the sake of being loyal to Walt, or saving herself, or grabbing some of Walt's reflected glory; from the very beginning, her goal is to keep her family together. As she says in "Cornered" (Season 4, Episode 6), "Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family." And in "Ozymandias," she finally does just that, slashing Walt's hand to keep him away from Walt Jr.
And what does she get? Walt kidnaps Holly and gives Skyler a nasty, taunting phone call, blaming her for everything that's gone wrong:
You're always whining and complaining about how I make my money just dragging me down while I do everything! And now, now you tell my son what I do after I've told you and told you to keep your damn mouth shut? You stupid b****!
As the New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum points out, Walt is actually helping Skyler here by making her sound innocent to the police, but even so, his attitude sounds an awful lot like the misogynist anti-Skyler ranting that goes on online.
The Skyler haters may be on Walt's side, but the show seems to be on Skyler's.
Her smoking. Yeah, it seems pretty irrelevant to the plot, but Skyler's smoking habit keeps coming up again and again throughout the series for a reason: it's symbolically important.
Smoking is probably the only 100% selfish thing she does at all (remember, she smokes while pregnant in "Down," Season 2, Episode 4). It's telling that the only thing she does for herself is both addictive and self-destructive and a little bit harmful to people around her. And it's another example of her ability to keep her own secrets from Walt—in "Breakage" (Season 2, Episode 5), when Walt finds out she's been smoking, he says, "This is so unlike you," and she smoothly replies, "How would you know?"
Also, remember what kind of cancer Walt has: lung cancer. Her smoking may be something that she initially hides from Walt, but she ends up using it as a gesture of defiance, like when she comments on Walt's behavior in "Breakage" ("Perhaps I smoked them in a fugue state," Season 2, Episode 5), or when she starts openly smoking in the house and using Walt's birthday mug as an ashtray in "Fifty-One" (Season 5, Episode 4). Oh, and that smoke can't be pleasant for a lung cancer survivor to breathe; look how she blows it right in his direction in "Fifty-One." All this self-destructive aggression signals that, in her own way, she's sort of like—you got it—Walt.
At any rate, it isn't healthy, but it probably beats meth.
Unless she gets a hold of that ricin cigarette…Go to Lesson: Brother…In Law