Breaking Bad returns for its fifth season Sunday, and at this point it’s pretty clearly in a two-horse race with Mad Men for the “best show currently on TV” title. The show’s third year was one of the best TV seasons of all time, while the fourth wasn’t far behind, as Walter White (Bryan Cranston) continued his rise in the meth trade and his descent into further moral depravity.
As with most prestigious TV dramas of the past few years, the weekly reviews and recaps by the likes of Alan Sepinwall, Matt Zoller Seitz, Tim Goodman and the AV Club crew have been invaluable in terms of following the show, with these writers often coming up with a dynamic, multifaceted essay in almost no time at all after the episodes air, and most of those sites have also offered vibrant discussions in the comments.
However, during the third and especially the fourth seasons of the show, I noticed a subtext in some of these online discussions that I found a bit unseemly, and I’ve also heard it from friends who have caught up on the show late.
The notion that the character of Skyler White (Anna Gunn) was acting like a bitch, that her very presence was ruining the show, and “why does Walt even put up with her,” became a recurring motif in Breaking Bad commentary (Not by the recappers themselves, I want to make clear, but rather by commenters).
Sometimes the character of Marie (Betsey Brandt), Skyler’s sister, Hank’s wife and the show’s only other prominent female, was part of the criticism as well; there were even nastier digs at Gunn’s physical appearance in the fourth season. See the comments on this Entertainment Weekly Season 4 premiere recap for some rather unfortunate observations of the kind, as seemingly half the commenters’ reaction to one of the series’ most intense episodes was to dig at Gunn’s weight.
It got to the point where even Gunn herself addressed the issue in a recent interview with The Wrap:
“At first I didn’t understand: Why do people think Skyler’s a bitch?” Gunn told TheWrap. “She’s this woman who’s trying to keep the family together, and her husband is cooking crystal meth. … I think that people were so behind Walt that they saw Skyler and said, ‘Why are you giving him such a hard time?'”
The past decade of prestige cable dramas, from The Sopranos to The Shield to Mad Men to Sons of Anarchy to Breaking Bad, have all focused at least in part on a male antihero protagonist. Therefore, despite all the numerous bad acts committed by the main character, the instinct of many audience members is to root for him and see the world through his eyes. As a result, a certain segment of fans of these shows end up adopting an adversarial attitude towards the wives or other female characters, who often end up the way of his sometimes-nefarious plans.
Look at The Sopranos. Most of its run took place before the rise of the super-recappers, but I followed online discussion of the show during its early and middle seasons, and it sometimes got pretty ugly.
There was a large segment of the Sopranos fanbase who watched the show only to see people get “whacked,” and believed that if an episode went by in which no one got killed, it was a bad episode. There was a similar attitude that anything involving Tony Soprano’s wife and children was a “waste of time,” and that the show should drop all that and get back to the killing. (Here’s something I wrote on the subject, back in 2002.)
When the New York Post ran a poll, during one of the periods light on whacking, about “how to fix The Sopranos,” some of the answers included “kill all the women” and “Carmella’s whining too much – whack her!” As though the Tony/Carmella marriage, and before that Tony’s relationship with his mother, wasn’t a huge part of what made the show great all along.
And yes, Carmella was guilty of complicity, hypocrisy, and numerous other sins- but Tony was the one who frequently killed people, among many other crimes. That he was never judged as harshly as his wife is a sexist double standard that, to this day, persists.
More recently, it’s been pretty common to see sizable fan backlashes against wives and other major female characters, whether it’s Betty Draper on Mad Men or Lori on The Walking Dead. And now we have the anti-Skyler White movement.
With Breaking Bad, this is especially unfair. The “Skyler is a bitch” case is mostly built on the character 1) sleeping with her former boss while separated from Walt, and then telling him about it, 2) Dropping her disgust with Walt’s choice to become a drug dealer – as well as her plans to divorce him- and abruptly deciding to cooperate with him, and 3) Adopting a hectoring and emasculating tone towards Walt at various times.
So those are the worst things Skyler has ever done. What are the worst things Walter White has ever done? Numerous murders. Living a double life that involves serially lying to his own wife and children. Making and selling crystal meth, one of the most destructive drugs known to man. Indirect responsibility for a plane crash that killed hundreds of people. In the fourth season finale alone, he set off a bomb at a nursing home, encouraged an elderly man to become a suicide bomber, and poisoned a little boy.
I’m not saying Skyler is innocent of cravenness, selfishness or other sins. Complexity and nuance is a big part of Breaking Bad and all of the other shows mentioned here. But come on- she’s just about the only non-murderer on the show!
So when you watch the fifth season of Breaking Bad and you read the recaps every Sunday night, and you ask yourself why Walt would put up with someone as nagging and indecisive as Skyler, try to ask, at the same time, why Skyler would put up with a meth lord who blows up nursing homes and poisons children.