Saturday, August 24, 2013

The problem with Skyler White

Breaking Bad is fantastic, and you should be watching it. If you're not watching it, don't read this post. Also don't tell me, because I won't respect you quite as much afterwards.

With that said, I wanted to build off this "mild" critique of Skyler's character, from--who else--Matt Yglesias:
Skyler-hating has tended to be tinged (or worse) with misogyny, and consequently I think a pernicious pro-Skyler sentiment has become the conventional wisdom among TV-watching’s intellectual elite. This episode, though, highlighted exactly what’s wrong with Skyler: For someone who’s so scoldy about the drug kingpin lifestyle, she sure seems like a willing accomplice.
Yglesias is dead-on about the critics: TV writers are generally in the Skyler camp because they want to disassociate themselves with the people most vocally opposed to her, not because of anything particularly to do with the show itself, or the character portrayed on the screen. I myself am a Skyler agnostic. I never found the character egregiously annoying, and her relationship with Hank and Marie is consistently enjoyable.

But there's never been an episode where the show cut away from Skyler, and to Walt or Hank or Gus, and I was disappointed. Can you think of one?  I'd honestly be surprised if even the character's bigger boosters could. Which, for me, casts their declarations of support somewhat in doubt.

Look, let's face it. There are a lot of fantastic characters on Breaking Bad. Skyler White is not one of them; she's pretty good at best. I suspect, whether or not they'd admit it, virtually everyone feels this way on some level, at least to the extent demonstrated by my little thought experiment above. The question is why they feel this way.

One explanation (often put forward) is that it's because she's a woman. That's not totally crazy to suspect and is undoubtedly true for many viewers. But there's a deeper problem that's been obscured by the internet's back-and-forth over the character. Here's the short version of the internet debate (as you can see in the Yglesias post above): Skyler haters often seem to believe that she should be impressed by her husband's achievements, while the pro-Skyler crowd has, not unreasonably, pointed out that it would be implausible for her to react favorably upon discovering that her spouse is running a minor criminal empire.

This debate misses the point. The fundamental problem with Skyler's character isn't her stance on Walt, it's that her role in the show is more-or-less reactive in nature. It's a problem baked into the show from a very early date: in the first half of its run, Breaking Bad was about a man leading a double life as a suburban dad and a meth cook. In order to keep that balance, it was important that Skyler's motivations remain relatively mundane. But having established that fact, it now wouldn't make sense for have her own major criminal designs independent of Walt's. As a result, there's only two possible ways for the character to evolve: she can work to restore the domestic status quo ante, or she can work to support Walt, but essentially as a subordinate player in his scheme. The show has toyed with both, but in either case the dynamic is the same: Walt's the prime mover, and consequently, it's always more interesting to see what he (or one of the other independent players) is up to.

But before I give too much aid and comfort to Skyler's detractors, there's something worth considering: Jesse has, at times, had the exact same problem as Skyler. Regardless of whether he's at loggerheads with Walt or helping him out, the writers have never convincingly removed him from Walt's immediate orbit. But he attracts a lot less hate from viewers, something that probably partially does have a lot to do with him not being a woman.

UPDATE: Charles suggested another, simpler, better explanation.  Unlike Walt, Jesse, Mike, Saul, Hank, Marie, and essentially every other character on the show, Skyler never really gets a comic scene.  Even her interactions with Ted, which could have been funny, generally weren't.  Breaking Bad needs comedy to balance out its darkness and abrasiveness, and when Skyler's around, you can rest assured that no comedy will be forthcoming.

No comments:

Post a Comment