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Skyler White: the underdog who set the template for TV's antiheroine

Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad.
White lies... Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad.

Skyler, it seems we owe you an apology – and, yes, it has been a long time coming. It is a decade since Breaking Bad began airing on television and Skyler White no longer tops the list of TV’s Most Annoying. She’s been superseded by the likes of Piper on Orange Is the New Black, Marnie from Girls and that British guy in Westworld. Still, there was a time when Walt’s priggish, perma-pregnant, party pooper of a wife raised the hackles like no one else, and her many Facebook hate pages accrued nearly 60,000 “likes” between them.

The general gripe was this: Walt was out doing whatever had to be done to provide for his family, while all she did was sit at home, moan and get in his way, right? Wrong. We didn’t know it back then – perhaps even Breaking Bad’s creator Vince Gilligan didn’t fully understand – but Skyler was the precursor for the modern antiheroine, a character type who’s only just now showing up on screen. Take Cersei Lannister popping up to swig wine and slay (literally) in an otherwise non-genre show, Game of Thrones. Or in Orange Is the New Black or Netflix western Godless – an ensemble antiheroine drama in which every character has the nuance and depth previously reserved for a male lead.

Back in 2013, the actor who played Skyler, Anna Gunn, was so disturbed by the vitriol directed at her character that she penned a comment piece for the New York Times that started a conversation, but also didn’t do much to dispel Skyler’s reputation for schoolmarmish scolding: “At the end of the day, she hasn’t been judged by the same set of standards as Walter,” Gunn wrote. “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.”

Kicking heroine: Anna Gunn as Skyler White.
Kicking heroine: Anna Gunn as Skyler White. Photograph: Ursula Coyote/AMC

In a later interview with New York Magazine, Gilligan concurred with this analysis, which deflected the blame away from the show’s writing and located it instead entirely with the sexist attitudes of the audience: “I think the people who have these issues with the wives being too bitchy on Breaking Bad are misogynists, plain and simple,” he said. “I like Skyler a little less now that she’s succumbed to Walt’s machinations, but in the early days she was the voice of morality on the show. She was the one telling him: ‘You can’t cook crystal meth’ … How could you have a problem with that?”

Yet having a problem with Skyler is not and never has been the preserve of Mens Rights misogynists holding forth on obscure subreddits. “Skyler was not my favourite character when I first watched the series,” admits Lara C Stache, feminist academic and author of Breaking Bad: A Cultural History. “I devoted a whole chapter to her in my book, because I needed to grapple with a lot of these questions…I appreciate strong women in the media, and I also found her generally unlikable.” For Stache, sexism was part of the explanation for this character’s unpopularity, but not the whole. “Skyler seemed to see others’ behaviours as black and white – Marie’s shoplifting, for example – and then takes it upon herself to tell people they are wrong. However, as her character undergoes a transformation, that initial moral black and white looks like hypocrisy rather than evolution.”

While Skyler is far from the only widely disliked character on television – possessive, patronising Ross from Friends? Whiny Dawson from Dawson’s Creek? – she does seem to epitomise a particular type, from a specific era of television, who is mostly female. Dana Brody, the teenage daughter of Damian Lewis’s Nicholas Brody in Homeland; Betty Draper, Don’s beautiful, inscrutable wife in Mad Men; and all of Tony Soprano’s family have been dismissed by fans and cultural commentators as annoying, boring, spoilt or equivalents.

Cash and carry: Skyler White (Anna Gunn) and her husband Walter (Bryan Cranston).
Cash and carry: Skyler White (Anna Gunn) and her husband Walter (Bryan Cranston). Photograph: Lewis Jacobs/AP

“I think she’s typical of the antihero’s wife but I think it’s more accentuated,” says Margrethe Bruun Vaage, lecturer in film and media at the University of Kent and author of The Antihero in American Television. “Skyler is more clearly portrayed I think in an unsympathetic manner than some of the other wives in antihero drama.” Bruun Vaage is a Skyler sympathiser, but it took several rewatchings of the series for her to reach this place of sisterly understanding: “I deliberately tried to imagine her perspective, whereas the series doesn’t make it easy for me to understand what she’s thinking and feeling. So, I think that’s also part of the explanation for why she’s perceived as annoying. We’re actually given very little access to her.”

Breaking Bad isn’t the only show that could be accused of having underwritten supporting characters. This seems to be an unavoidable trope of antihero drama, the defining genre of TV’s “golden age”. Any show in which the male protagonist is as textured and nuanced as Don Draper, Dexter Morgan, Tony Soprano or Walter White is bound to make other characters look insipid and two-dimensional by comparison. Yet the characterisation of Skyler goes beyond this. She’s annoying not just by comparison to Walt, but precisely because she is what Gilligan always intended her to be: “the voice of morality on the show”. When you’re trying to kick back and enjoy the moral grey area of great drama, a voice that’s constantly reminding you of right from wrong is bound to be grating. Skyler is a drag and surely Gilligan is too skilful a writer to have genuinely thought she could ever be otherwise?

In fact, there is good reason to believe Skyler wasn’t just collateral damage incurred en route to Breaking Bad’s narrative destination but an intentional, and therefore noble, sacrifice to the greater storytelling good. In a 2012 interview with Salon, Gunn said that Gilligan had early on directed her to play Skyler as unemotional and therefore less sympathetic than she might otherwise have been. She added: “Having Skyler be that way was really smart because if you had been watching, like in season two, and thinking: ‘Oh my god this poor woman. I can’t believe he’s doing this stuff to her and to this family,’ then how would the show be able to carry on? Because if you lose your sympathy for Walt that early what are you going to do with the show?”

Throne muse: Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister.
Throne muse: Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister. Photograph: Helen Sloan/HBO

In most mainstream US television “likability” is, after physical attractiveness, the most important quality any female character can possess, but Skyler was created for a different purpose. She represents the dull domesticity that the antihero must reject in order to set the thrilling events of the narrative in motion, but she also acts as a lightning rod for negative emotions, thus allowing the audience to get thoroughly, guiltlessly swept up in Walt’s story. Never let it be said that Gunn didn’t earn those two best supporting actress Emmys.

It is a heavy emotional burden to bear, and one that traditionally falls on women. “I think Skyler White provides telling evidence that moral codes and standards of moral evaluation remain gendered in some measure,” says Milly Buonanno, author of Television Antiheroines: Women Behaving Badly in Crime and Prison Drama. “Men have traditionally been allowed, and even expected, to break rules.” Female characters, on the other hand, are expected to uphold rules, and still get called an “annoying bitch wife” for their troubles.

But why does this “voice of morality”, this narratively necessary fun vacuum, always have to be a woman? Actually, it really doesn’t. Gilligan himself confirmed as much with Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul, in which affable Jimmy McGill follows a similar trajectory to Walt, as he morally morphs into the shyster lawyer Saul Goodman. Here, though, as Stache points out, the show’s female lead, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), is the anti-Skyler: “Kim is an ambitious lawyer, drinking hard liquor, and supporting her friend (especially behind the scenes, without his knowledge). Kim fits the boys-only club better than Skyler, and so her evolution is a story we accept early on.”

Reach for the Skyler: Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards.
Reach for the Skyler: Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards. Photograph: Nathaniel E Bell/Netflix

Moreover while the narrative still needs its love-to-hate homebody for McGill to react against, this time it’s a man; his brother Chuck (played by Michael McKean), who represents the ties of home and family by being near housebound, as a result of his possibly made-up electromagnetic hypersensitivity. In the newly diverse TV landscape of 2018, 2008’s fixation on white, middle-aged, married men acting out against a perceived crisis of masculinity seems old hat and oddly unambitious.

Where the old-style male antihero is in evidence today, such as Jason Bateman’s money-laundering family man Marty Byrde in the obviously Breaking Bad-influenced Ozark, he’s flanked by a family who are themselves morally complicated from the off. Skyler didn’t cheat on Walt until season three; the infidelity of Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) is in Ozark’s first episode and part of what sets the plot in motion. Perhaps the ultimate post-Skyler antiheroine is House of Cards’s Claire Underwood, because of how clearly her rise reflects the real-world power shift between genders. She began the series as secondary to husband Frank but has slowly been revealed as the more interesting of the two. In the upcoming post-Weinstein season six, actor Robin Wright will officially step up to replace the disgraced Kevin Spacey as lead.

Could any of this have happened without a character whose supposed flaws showed the limits of the antihero? Skyler may not have been “the one who knocks”, but she was the one who kicked the door in, making way for all the wayward women yet to come.

This article titled "Skyler White: the Breaking Bad underdog who set the template for TV's antiheroine" was written by Ellen E Jones, for The Guardian on Saturday 13 January 2018 10.00am

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