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Anna Gunn And 'Breaking Bad's' Skyler White: Just The Tip Of A Very Big Iceberg

Posted: 08/25/2013 9:47 am

I am glad Anna Gunn wrote this eloquent editorial about the hatred her "Breaking Bad" character has induced among some fans of the show. And I absolutely and unequivocally condemn the vitriol the actress has endured during the past few years.

In my opinion, however, Gunn's piece doesn't go far enough.

It would be inaccurate if the narrative surrounding Skyler implied that Walter White's wife was extremely interesting and nuanced from the start, and that she was every bit as compelling as the male characters on the show, but was rejected by a subset of fans simply because they couldn't handle a complex female character.

That narrative would ignore the fact that the writers for "Breaking Bad" didn't write the character particularly well for a couple of seasons, at least.

It's only in the last season or two that Skyler has truly become more than a home-front foil and a hindrance to her husband's ambitions. It's only in the last dozen or so episodes that I've started to think that Skyler may actually be the key to the show's denouement. I'm thrilled that's the case, but it took a very long time before "Breaking Bad" made Holly's mother as interesting as Heisenberg.

"Breaking Bad" is an undoubtedly a great show, but, as is the case with too many television dramas, for while there it didn't really know what to do with its female characters. The AMC drama clearly struggled to make Skyler and Marie Shrader (wife of DEA agent Hank Schrader) anything but subsidiary figures who rarely moved into -- or deserved -- the spotlight. Their behaviors and reactions were easy to predict, and if the writers didn't show consistent interest in their emotional lives and the women's inner depths, why would viewers care about them, let alone have positive responses to them?

The reaction to Skyler -- and to "Mad Men's" Betty Draper -- isn't some fluke. Dramas that are otherwise competent in many different arenas are too often content to offer uninteresting, tone-deaf and/or poorly serviced female characters. I'm not condoning the worst responses to Skyler; I'm saying it was quite possible for a reasonable viewer to be frustrated with the character for a long time -- as I was.

Too often, women are around to remind male characters of lines they aren't supposed to cross, as the men (because they are rebels!) are allowed go ahead and break those rules. Too often, the dudes' transgressive behavior serves as catnip to the women who float in and out of the guys' orbit, and if the men act like assholes, well, they have so much pressure on them (nagging females, whaddaya gonna do?). Too often, women are around to assist the lead guy, to sexually service him or to perform some mundane plot-driven function.

If you haven't seen Showtime's "Ray Donovan," the previous sentences sum up why I just cannot deal with that show. Any show that writes that poorly for Paula Malcomson deserves a long stint in TV jail.

The point is, decades of television programming on all kinds of networks have led viewers to expect female characters that fall into one of the categories above. Why does it surprise anyone that some viewers feel comfortable heaping scorn on female characters when so many shows treat the women on screen with indifference, confusion or even disdain?

Skyler White and the attitudes toward her didn't arise out of a void. Yes, part of the reaction to her is straight-up sexist bullshit. But is television feeding and nurturing those kinds of repellent attitudes, or helping stamp them out? I'd love to say that the latter is true, but commercial American television still has so far to go on so many fronts.

It's true that there are more interesting female characters on the screen than there were even a few years ago. But it's too soon to tell if the recent wave of programs with unapologetically complex female characters, female creators and/or female ensembles is the opening of the floodgates or a temporary fluke. Television writers, showrunners and executives have been overwhelmingly white, straight and male for decades, and those numbers hardly ever budge. Writers don't write about things that don't fascinate them, and executives generally don't commission scripted shows that don't speak to them on some level. Hence plumbing the depths of experience of women -- or gay characters and people of color -- just hasn't been a consistent priority for ambitious cable dramas and populist fare alike.

The greatest disappointment of "Lost," for me, was that its female characters were largely shunted aside in the last season so that Jack, Locke and Sawyer could get epic concluding arcs. "The Walking Dead" and "Sons of Anarchy," for the most part, shoehorn in the women's stories around the edges of the guy's narratives, and never mind if the women's behavior is inexplicable or eye-roll inducing as a result. You could fit a Manhattan skyscraper into the gulf between what Matthew Weiner apparently thinks he's doing with Betty Draper Francis and the way the character usually comes across. "Modern Family's" dispiriting treatment of Gloria, Cameron and Claire (Ladies love shopping! Gay men love drama!) deserves its own essay.

We're shifting into a new, multi-platform age, though, and I think it's partly fatigue with the same-old, same-old gender dynamics that has led viewers and critics alike to embrace a new wave of frisky, varied shows, from "Orange Is the New Black," "Orphan Black," "American Horror Story," "Top of the Lake" and "Scandal." As television finds new platforms to conquer, writers are also starting to stake out or dig deeper into the kinds of territories and characters that have so often been marginalized in the past.

But it's a process, and the evolution of viewer attitudes are part of that process. One of the ugliest moments of my career as a critic was enduring the vicious response to a piece about a final-season "Battlestar Galactica" episode that was written by a woman and largely revolved around female characters. I'll go to my grave thinking that if Ron Moore's name had been on that script, it would have only inspired moderate grumbling at worst, and I'm sure half the reason fans hated the episode is because one of its core characters, Ellen Tigh, was a frequently drunk, post-menopausal wild card who didn't give a shit about what anyone thought of her. Trust me, sexist jackasses in the "Breaking Bad" fandom have nothing on sexist jackasses in the "BSG" fandom.

But they're the minority -- a shrinking one, I hope. I strongly believe that many fans loved "BSG" in part because it had female characters who were allowed to fail, triumph and freak out as much as the men did. Skyler is similarly flawed: She's noble for putting up with Walt's awfulness, and she's nearly as delusional as him if she thinks this can end well for anyone. But as I wrote recently, Skyler may well be the hero of the intensely moral "Breaking Bad," because her goal -- to ensure the safety of her kids -- is selfless rather than self-serving.

As male-driven Golden Age settles into its twilight, it's heartening to see that "Breaking Bad" has learned its lesson, and has quietly inserted a heroine's journey -- or a believably nuanced woman with heroic qualities -- into an anti-hero drama. I give the show a lot of credit for working hard to make Skyler a believable and fascinating lead character -- and that process, Vince Gilligan admitted in a recent GQ interview, has been a struggle. But Gilligan thought it important to deal with that problem, and he and his writers did so with their usual thoroughness.

"Breaking Bad" is all about the lies people are willing to live with, and it's not in anyone's interest to ignore the many factors that feed the ugly backlashes to female characters. Those attitudes about women -- the disinterest, the disdain, the confusion, the disrespect and the outright hostility -- can be found far beyond the Albuquerque city limits. Message-board haters, for all their energetic wrath, have far less power than Hollywood executives and storytellers who don't ask themselves tough questions about what kinds of characters they're putting on our screens and why. Have those attitudes substantially changed since the mid-aughts, a.k.a. the height of the Anti-Hero Age? Time will tell, I guess.

Still, it's encouraging that this conversation is happening, and that so many people are paying attention to it. As Walt and Skyler both know, you can't keep a lid on difficult truths forever.

Loading Slideshow...
  • Dean Norris as Hank Schrader

    "Breaking Bad" Season 5 Exclusive Gallery Photo.

  • Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman

    "Breaking Bad" Season 5 Exclusive Gallery Photo.

  • Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut

    "Breaking Bad" Season 5 Exclusive Gallery Photo.

  • Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman

    "Breaking Bad" Season 5 Exclusive Gallery Photo.

  • Betsy Brandt as Marie Schrader

    "Breaking Bad" Season 5 Exclusive Gallery Photo.

  • RJ Mitte as Walter White Jr.

    "Breaking Bad" Season 5 Exclusive Gallery Photo.

  • Anna Gunn as Skyler White

    "Breaking Bad" Season 5 Exclusive Gallery Photo.

  • Bryan Cranston as Walter White

    "Breaking Bad" Season 5 Exclusive Gallery Photo.

 

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