In a recent episode of Breaking Bad, Walter White grabs a kitchen knife from his wife Skyler's hands and starts towards her. The scene is intended to shock, but I wasn't surprised. You see, in season two of Breaking Bad, Walt sexually assaults Skyler. You might not remember this, and I couldn't blame you. It didn't cause too much of a stir.
The assault is violent; he yanks down her underwear and pushes her into a submissive position against the refrigerator. Their son, Walter Jr., comes home to find a kitchen in disarray, with a smear of facial mask on the fridge from where Walter pressed her cheek. Walt verbalizes no regret. He looks shocked at himself but not guilty. Skyler tells him he shouldn't take out his anger on her --- and then silence. There is no mention of what happened. The episode continues, guns are loaded, and Skyler's sister Marie makes plans for dinner. No comment on Walt forcing his wife against the refrigerator. It might as well have never happened.
I started watching Breaking Bad late this summer, but before I started I already had a good idea of the characters and plot -- so the scene came as a shock. If this main character raped, or at the very least sexually assaulted, his wife, shouldn't I have heard about it? Why don't we discuss the fact that Walter White sexually assaulted his wife?
Sure, there are a few articles which appear when you search "Walter White rape." The fourth result is a forum with a discussion title "remember when walt kinda raped skyler" and replies range from "it wasn't rape, she wanted it" to "I can't wait till he rapes Lydia" and at the worst: "I hope he murders her."
This is the far end of the spectrum: most viewers aren't rooting for more rape on the show or for more violence against women perpetrated by men. But ignoring or trivializing what happened means placing yourself on that spectrum and aligning yourself with those commenters.
Walter White has clearly demonstrated that he expects obedience from his family. It may not be in the angry, threatening way of his faux threatening phone call to Skyler. In Walter's view the phone call makes it seem as if he abused his wife, but what he and many viewers don't realize is that he did in fact abuse her. There is nothing fake about the explanation that Skyler's participation in Walt's crimes can be credited to domestic abuse. Why did it take until Walt took a knife to her, three seasons after the rape, for viewers to agree upon this?
Early in season two Walt returns from a particularly violent deal with Tuco to find a very pregnant Skyler at home in her bathrobe. This is the beginning of Heisenberg, the day Walt comes home with his infamous hat. Viewers have a well documented hatred of Skyler White. Did they skip this episode? Or like the commenters above, did they cheer Walt on?
It may seem like not addressing one scene in five seasons of a show isn't a big deal. After all, there aren't enough hours in the day to be horrified by the acts of violence on Breaking Bad. But dismissing Walt's assault of Skyler as par for the course is a powerful indicator of how we treat non-fictional sexual assault survivors.
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