Reel Women: On Skylar White of ‘Breaking Bad,’ Perspective and Power
It was easy to hate Skylar White, the wife of cancer-addled meth-cooker Walter on AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad.’ In the beginning she felt like a nagging, controlling wife who emasculated her husband, but Skylar evolved as the series went on, giving us one of the most complex female characters on television.
From the outset, Skylar clearly had the edge on Walter in their suburban marriage. When she was upset, it read like grating theatrics. When she told Walter no, we’d root for him to do whatever it was she didn’t like. We wanted Walt to be a real man. ‘Breaking Bad’ put us in his corner from the very first episode, creating an empathetic character — a nervous, intelligent man whose capability had been second-guessed by his wife and his colleagues for years.
Giving him cancer made him that much more sympathetic. He was not only a man who had been put-upon by his family and friends, but now his own body had turned against him. If you had to compare Walter White to anyone, you might think of the biblical character Job. God and Satan argued over Job’s soul and his faithfulness to his savior, with Satan proclaiming that if God took away Job’s good fortune and unleashed a litany of horrible circumstances on his follower, Job would turn against God. So God took that bet and started killing and taking away everything Job loved to test his loyalty. And Job was still really loyal, no matter what, even if he kept screaming “Whyyyyy?!” at the sky all day.
Walter is similar to Job in that he’s continually put-upon, but he never weakens his resolve to his family. In fact, cancer only reinforces that he needs to provide for them, and on a high school teacher’s salary, that’s just not possible. Woe is Walt as misfortunes continue to befall him, and even Skylar seems to test his loyalty. It’s hard to say whether Skylar or the family unit represents God to Walt, but he remained subservient and continued to illegally cook meth to secretly hoard money that would keep his family afloat once he died. Until Skylar found out.
And in the ultimate moment that tested the audience’s loyalty, we took Walt’s side as Skylar reamed him for engaging in illegal behaviors and keeping this huge, dangerous secret from her. How could she not understand that he’s just doing what he felt he had to in the name of his family? We cheered Walt on as he found new power in his marriage, telling his wife to crawl out of his ass and deciding that he could do whatever he damn well pleased, especially when the pair of them separated.
But Walt has too much power now, or so he thinks, and like many men who let that power go to their heads, he’s lost sight of reason, and he seems oblivious to how fickle his power truly is. And he should know better than most, after killing off imposing meth kingpin Gustavo Fring at the end of season 4. Which leads us to why we shouldn’t hate Skylar White after all.
Like most good television, ‘Breaking Bad’ has taken advantage of perspective. When we began the series we were firmly in Walt’s shoes. This is his show. But as the seasons have worn on, the layers are peeled back, giving us more perspective so that we see the way Walt hurts those around him and the ways in which Job has forsaken his God and taken the power for himself, blinding his moral compass and making him feel omnipotent.
And now Skylar’s nagging doesn’t seem so terrible. Her outrage upon discovering Walt’s secret meth-cooking business and the hidden money seems reasonable. She is his wife, this is their family and he is dabbling in something that could tear them apart — perhaps even worse than any cancer taking him away from them. It seems that Walter White has been a villain from the very beginning — a wolf raised in sheep’s clothes who remembered what he really is.
Currently in season 5, we see Skylar as a wife who is put-upon by her husband. She is terrified and cornered and clawing at any corner to get out, no matter what lies on the other side. This is a man capable of murder (and many things of which she’s still thankfully unaware). It was one thing when Walt was asserting himself within their marriage, and Skylar found a function for herself amid the illicit activities, running the car wash and laundering the drug money. But Walt isn’t all talk, and though we as the audience rooted for this man to become the monster he is now, the end result feels horrific and grotesque. We, like Walt, forgot about his family. Flawed as they may be, they are no different from any other family, and Skylar White is no different from any other concerned wife.
No one can know what goes on in a marriage except for the two people involved, and we have no idea what their marriage might have been like prior to season 1. Walt no longer cares about his family or the reason he started cooking meth in the first place. He has forsaken them in the name of power.
This week, Skylar walked into their swimming pool as Walt gave a melodramatic speech about his cancer and how his wife was there for him — how he thought he would die, but he still lives. In a desperate act to get her sister and brother-in-law to believe her mentally unstable enough to warrant the removal of the children from the White home, Skylar walked into the beautiful swimming pool, as blue as the meth her husband cooks. As blue as the meth that has become the cancer in their life and poisoned them all. And this week we rooted for Skylar to have a moment of peace beneath the surface of the water.
That moment was destroyed when Walt pulled her out, and in a harrowing confrontation in the bedroom, Walt counters each one of Skylar’s suggested plans. If she hurts herself, he’ll have her committed. If she says or does anything that could threaten his livelihood, he’ll tell the police about her ex-lover Ted and how she aided in his tax evasion. Skylar is a woman with nowhere to turn, trapped in a box that she let her husband build for her. And in some ways she helped him construct the walls around her, but that doesn’t mean she deserved it.