Piggybacking on the popularity of Breaking Bad’s final season, and jumping at a chance to propagate their lefty agenda, the New York Times recently published an editorial by Anna Gunn entitled I Have A Character Issue.
Gunn, who plays Skyler White on the show– the wife and foil to Bryan Cranston’s meth-cooking Walter– is a talented actress, to be sure. However, as she has come to realize, her character is universally despised.
The vitriolic hatred of her character prompted Gunn to write the editorial defending Skyler, and trying to identify the “real causes” of people’s anger toward her. Gunn’s conclusion is as solipsistic and agenda-driven as you’d expect:
My character, to judge from the popularity of Web sites and Facebook pages devoted to hating her, has become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women.
I’m concerned that so many people react to Skyler with such venom. 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?
But 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.
In fact, people’s hatred of Skyler isn’t caused by her breaking out of an expected mold, but because she’s all too familiar. What Gunn fails to acknowledge is that this is how the writers of the show always wanted us to feel about Skyler.
It was written into Breaking Bad’s DNA from the very first episode. In the pilot, we are introduced to the pathetic Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher and niceguy, and his lantern-jawed, Amazonian wife Skyler, who chastises him for using the wrong credit card for a $12 purchase, forces him to eat veggie bacon (“We’re watching our cholesterol”), and gives him a half-hearted handjob for his birthday*.
The character of Skyler was conceived as an antagonist of sorts from the beginning, someone who made us sympathize immediately with Walt’s situation. As befits the dramatic architecture of such a brilliantly complex show, this obstacle to Walt’s plans and desires is also someone he loves, and needs to be in harmony with in order to achieve his main goal, providing for his children’s future after he eventually dies of cancer.
Interestingly, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has backed off this obvious characterization of Skyler in recent interviews. This can be chalked up to his wanting to avoid controversy and backlash, a concession to mainstream political correctness in order to not alienate any viewers or critics. It seems abundantly clear that Gilligan’s true intentions with Skyler are to serve as both a shrewish impediment to Walt, and also at times the glue that holds the family together. He succeeds, but that doesn’t mean we (and him too, maybe) are not constantly annoyed by her. The proof is in the pudding.
In her editorial, Gunn conveniently omits all the subtleties that make her character a fully fleshed-out human. Instead, she cherrypicks aspects of the character and cites them out of context in order to make her fit the same old, tired Feminist narrative we’ve heard a million times before.
When Skyler discovers what Walter has been up to, she tries to stop him, to no avail. She is outraged by the violence and destruction of the drug world, fearful for her children’s safety, disgusted by the money Walter brings in and undone by the lies and manipulation to which he subjects her.
Hmm… sounds like her character is just a helpless, special snowflake…
Ah, that’s right.
Skyler does a ton of deplorable things on the show. She even becomes a conspirator in Walt’s drug business, and justifies it with the same reasons he does (family).
I point this out because it underscores the disingenuous tone Gunn uses in her editorial (though she does mention once that Skyler is “morally ambiguous”). I might describe the character as “a horrible person on every conceivable metric,” but let’s not mince words, right?
But this still doesn’t completely answer the question of why Skyler White is so despised that Facebook groups such as “Fuck Skyler White” have soared in popularity. And the last piece of the puzzle is the one that Gunn has the biggest blind spot for.
Skyler is disliked because of Anna Gunn herself.
Though Gunn is an excellent actress, she’s not a particularly likeable one. Her line delivery, her somewhat masculine look, and her very presence do not garner the type of pathos that is generated every time a Bryan Cranston or an Aaron Paul is on screen.
This is partially exacerbated by the writing and role Gunn is fulfilling, but that just underscores how intentionally she was cast and molded to make us dislike Skyler.
The writers of Breaking Bad are geniuses. If they wanted us to truly like Skyler, they could have done it. But that was not the story they are telling. In a sense, it’s highly disrespectful for Gunn to skew and politically color the morally ambiguous world her bosses created.
Anna Gunn took an easy opportunity to get her name published for jumping on the Feminist bandwagon and repeating their talking points, but anyone who has watched Breaking Bad will see how hollow her outrage echoes.
The full editorial can be found here.
*This scene was later pulled from the pilot episode as it is now presented on Netflix and reruns. Perhaps this was done to soften Skyler’s unsympathetic qualities, a surprising move for a show that has always been uncompromising in its stark portrayal of human flaws. But this seems congruent with Gilligan’s other recent revisionist statements where the character of Skyler is concerned.