Why Does Everyone Hate Skyler White?

I don’t know, but even since the first season Anna Gunn’s character has been the […]

Faces of Breaking Bad: Skyler White

I don’t know, but even since the first season Anna Gunn’s character has been the sore taste in the mouth of Breaking Bad fans. Whether it has been the criticism that her acting is inferior, that her character is unbelievable, underdeveloped, or just plain unappealing, the criticisms have never made much sense to me. That is to say, I have understood the distaste for her, I just haven’t been able to pin that distaste on any of those sentiments. All’s I know is, America’s most famous contemporary TV villain has a partner-in-crime, and a pawn, and a nemesis, all in one character, who happens to be his wife, whose name is Skyler White. Complexity has been on her side, in more developed ways than any of her compromised-wife contemporaries–Betty Draper, Claire Underwood–and so has believability. Many of the Skyler White hate-memes repeat the look of cold shock or tearful anger that has defined the last two seasons of her situation, as if making a point about her performance. It is hard, even for the most die-hard of BB viewers, to delineate all that has transpired for her since Walt’s cancer diagnosis five seasons ago…

Actress Anna Gunn recently responded in the NY Times to the vitriol her character has received since the show’s inception, entitled “I Have a Character Issue,” and tries to pinpoint what exactly has been behind it:

When Skyler discovers what Walter has been up to, she tries to stop him, to no avail. She is outraged by the violence and destruction of the drug world, fearful for her children’s safety, disgusted by the money Walter brings in and undone by the lies and manipulation to which he subjects her.

Because Walter is the show’s protagonist, there is a natural tendency to empathize with and root for him, despite his moral failings. (That viewers can identify with this antihero is also a testament to how deftly his character is written and acted.) As the one character who consistently opposes Walter and calls him on his lies, Skyler is, in a sense, his antagonist. So from the beginning, I was aware that she might not be the show’s most popular character.

tumblr_mq9dgqW3BD1qzpxx1o1_500In short, Gunn’s harrassment–the harrassment of Skyler White–is rooted in her antagonism to the anti-hero we love to see rising to power. In a sense, she relents, the show is meant to play on this irony: especially in the first two seasons, when Skyler is blind to Walt’s meth-world, the audience is meant to fall in love with the American illusions of success he is contortedly conceiving. And then they are to see they are rooting for perversion. Skyler is an essential element (he he) to this puzzle: we are meant to find her unappealing because we are meant to see our bloodthirst for making it big. She is a crucial device in the audience feeling badly about our convictions. But Gunn also says it is more than this:

“I have never hated a TV-show character as much as I hate her,” one poster wrote. The consensus among the haters was clear: Skyler was a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an “annoying bitch wife.”

I enjoy taking on complex, difficult characters and have always striven to capture the truth of those people, whether or not it’s popular. Vince Gilligan, the creator of “Breaking Bad,” wanted Skyler to be a woman with a backbone of steel who would stand up to whatever came her way, who wouldn’t just collapse in the corner or wring her hands in despair. He and the show’s writers made Skyler multilayered and, in her own way, morally compromised. But at the end of the day, she hasn’t been judged by the same set of standards as Walter.

As an actress, I realize that viewers are entitled to have whatever feelings they want about the characters they watch. But as a human being, I’m concerned that so many people react to Skyler with such venom. Could it be that they can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or “stand by her man”? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, Walter’s equal?

It’s notable that viewers have expressed similar feelings about other complex TV wives — Carmela Soprano of “The Sopranos,” Betty Draper of “Mad Men.” Male characters don’t seem to inspire this kind of public venting and vitriol.

One can never underestimate the mythologies that television shows spawn and corroborate, and certainly the “leading male” is one of these mythologies. As Gunn says, her character hasn’t been given the same metric as Walt. I’m less convinced, though, that this is the main reason America bristles on Skyler. Complex, leading females who must reign in the whims of a passion-crazed leading male? Sounds an awful lot like Gilligan’s old show, The X-Files, with an exactingly shrewd Agent Dana Scully putting Fox Mulder back in the saddle of reason. People loved Scully.

No, instead, my guess is that Skyler’s initial, unsexy ignorance, then sneaky counterintelligence, then fearful cooperation, then compromised involvement, is too sticky, too real for us to feel comfortable watching. It starts when we can’t stand to see her trying to make sense of what she cannot see going on; it has continued into a culpability that is as severe–through compliance and survival–as her methlord husband’s. We must watch all of this, a strong leading woman, imprisoned in her own home–an equal to a villain, yet subject to his whims–waiting for a shift in the tides of fate. Maybe this is it, though: the terrible relatability we feel with her lack of life choices. That, because we are Skyler, we hate Skyler–and this is our character issue. Exhibit A:

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=VrtyYCWjR0s&w=600]

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COMMENTS


29 responses to “Why Does Everyone Hate Skyler White?”

  1. Rebecca W says:

    Truly I think you’re on to something here ..
    But do we identify with Walt in the same way? Why not the same reaction to Walt?

    Although, I do think people have been steadily losing sympathy for Walt (& now are “done” with him?)

    • Ethan Richardson says:

      Rebecca, I’ve thought about that, too. On one hand, recently at least, Walt’s character has become harder to watch. A huge turning point for me was the Mike standoff. On the other, it seems to me you’re right, that the time for rooting for Walt’s ascent has ended. He is easier to put at arms-length that way, to villainize his pursuit and put him at a wholly un-sticky, un-relatable distance. Skyler on the other hand, has the unhinged helplessness that we can relate to, I think. And that freaks us out.

  2. David Zahl says:

    Incredible post! I think you really hit the nail on the head with those final two paragraphs, E. Thanks for this.

  3. Bryan J. says:

    Ok, so I’m three episodes in on season 1, and I already loathed Skyler as a character. So interesting to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way about her, and that my loathing should be the source of some introspection 🙂

  4. Colin Page says:

    Hell of a post! I couldn’t agree more.

    It is Skyler’s lack of control that we cannot accept because we cannot bear to acknowledge it in ourselves. Instead, we gravitate to Walt, especially in the early seasons, because we see a man who has broken out of the malaise. Awaken by his diagnosis, he takes charge of his circumstances and his legacy in a way that is so intoxicating to watch. Now, 5 seasons in, we see what Walt’s death grip on control has done to him and to everyone around him.

    Thanks for holding up the mirror, Ethan.

  5. Great article for a great show.

  6. Ebie says:

    Great article. I’ve only watched Season 1, so my observations may not be as informed as the rest of you, but that’s never stopped me before, :), so:

    I think it’s pretty simple. We are MEANT to hate Skyler. It goes beyond the way she is written and into the production values of her clothing and the way her makeup is done. Note first the creepy extremely-pale eyebrows. That’s on purpose, to make her less sympathetic. Then too look at the colors she is given to wear: harsh blues, very often; note the contrast to the “vulnerable” earth-tone greens, grays and browns alloted to Walt, esp. when he’s living in the straight world.

    In terms of her character, she is not just “strong and complex”, she is first and foremost a middle-class MOTHER. Within that role, she embraces and defends a conservative middle-class morality that is directly at odds with the criminal intent we are cheering for in Walt. (Again, I’ve only seen S1, and based on your article, maybe we’ll stop cheering him?). So yeah, she’s the antagonist, even while she represents the people and the values that Walt tells himself he is working to secure.

    I read her NYT article, and I’m a little surprised that Ana Gunn doesn’t mention these things. That we hate her is not an indictment of the audience’s character — it’s a tribute to the skill of the writers and production staff. Thanks again for your article, very illuminating!

  7. Megan says:

    Unlike the apparent majority of ‘Breaking Bad’ fans, So far, I have not felt hatred towards Skyler. Sure, I don’t often agree with all of her actions, but I can certainly sympathize with her. I can’t say the same for Walt, whom I can not longer sympathize with and only pity now.

    Having heard your theory, I wonder what this says about me?

  8. scott says:

    naw its cause she cheated on her cancer stricken husband then used his money to bail out her lover. Sure its great, crushing drama but it ruined her moral setup in the first two seasons. Walt’s a monster but I was really hoping for a moral check in his wife to prove that she actually cared about her family enough to not sleep around. What was the motive for that? revenge? control? I don’t know but it turned her character from a guiding light to a black hole. If she was a strong woman with a backbone of steel then why couldn’t she turn away from both men who were committing crimes?

  9. LL says:

    I’m just a quarter through season 3, and now I’m starting to really DISLIKE Skyler. I’m just having trouble with her sense of morality. It seems that the things she does at work are somehow acceptable, but Walter’s dirty dealing are an abomination. I like that she is taking a stand and not turning into some mobster’s wife, blithely turning her head to her spouse’s sins, but she ought to shine that light on herself too

  10. Liz says:

    Maybe if you have never lived a life like Skyler is the reason people don’t like her. Or maybe they just don’t like women. Or the fact that she is so much smarter than Walt yet reluctantly went along with his dumb a** to try and protect her family instead of selfishly putting them in harms way because of greed and the love of money. I can’t recall one incident of her being bitchy.

    • Dude says:

      So much smarter than Walt? LOL yeah right

      His lies were just transparent, doesn’t maker her smarter than him.

    • Cleavon says:

      Her hypocrisy is bad; her stridency is worse. If a guy talked to me that way, I’d punch him.

  11. SunGold says:

    Skyler isn’t a sympathetic character in that she is not provided with those moments of broken humanity, kindness, and love we see in Walt or Jesse. Both of these characters have scenes that touch the heart, that make us want to love them, in spite of their immoral, unethical, and illegal actions. Even when Skyler is being a mother and wife, she’s cold and hard. She rarely smiles and never extends a loving/lover’s touch. It’s a pity that the writers can’t write a strong, complex, even sometimes confused female character who touches our human impulse toward vulnerability, love, empathy, compassion … it’s as if, in writing Skyler strong, they make the same mistake as early feminists: the only way for a woman to be strong is to reflect the macho male stereotypes.

  12. thinBillyBoy says:

    Skyler is dull. Or rather was dull. Like she was plain vanilla in a Ben and Jerry’s store. She didn’t become interesting until season 3 or 4. She was one of the more normal characters, or rather lived a more normal life (or as normal as a person who has a sick husband and a disabled son can live it’s in the realm of something that can happen at least) and so I think that’s what she is being judged on. We don’t judge Walt like that because he had the world’s most mental midlife crisis and decided to cook meth, that’s not normal we know it, we don’t judge him on good or bad, mostly if his decisions in reaching his goal are smart or not, because he is out there. Skyler wasn’t. And she has an unappealing personality. Oh who knows maybe she is a hoot off camera but we haven’t seen that so who gives a shit? Having to make excuses in order to like a character is not good enough. We haven’t seen her good sides enough to see her as a pleasant person. It seems like she was the good one compared to the rest of the assholes we met during Walt’s journey. From the first season almost all of the scenes presented her as a selfish person who was kinda rude sometimes. Also some people on our beloved internet stated that she was expected to be a moral compass. She wasn’t though. That is boring because we know she would’t be able to do anything by stating her moral standpoint anyways except for sounding nagging (although it would’ve been interesting if she has smacked a Cousin in the name of justice and protecting her family). Her cheating finally made her interesting. Her breaking bad (albeit small time) finally made her personality bearable. And yet she just isn’t a good character not even in the end imo.

  13. Vic says:

    Skyler was just plain cold. Leading ladies in TV series need to show a little “stand by your man” but she chose to get back at Walt by cheating on him with wimpy wuss-boy Ted-the-tax-cheat. Ted was a sleaze-ball for seducing a married and vulnerable women. This is why I chose to hate Skyler. She is plenty attractive, but she made too many cold hearted choices. The car for Walt Jr she refused to let him keep. For what ever reason, imagine being a teen boy with your first license and getting a new Challenger, and then after owning it for 15 min. you are told “no”. Then your mom buys you a PT Cruiser?

    • biggyfries says:

      It was skyler who ‘forced’ Walt to drive that repulsive Aztek. It was skyler who forced him to eat veggie bacon for hells sake! She ALWAYS opposed him, even if she didn’t say a word–he knew she was not on his side.

    • Cleavon says:

      She seduced Ted to throw it in Walt’s face. She used Ted – she’s no better than Walt, in one sense.

  14. A G Dorsey says:

    After the first six episodes in season one I saw Skylar to be no more admirable than her meth cooking husband. She’s persistently shrewish and insufferable. She didn’t really love Walt so much she loved being victorious. She dictated to Walt to seek a second opinion and undergo chemo-therapy; she threw Walt out of their house and then invited Walt back when she felt differently; she forbade Walt access to their children and when her mood shifted again she single-handedly exiled their children to her in-laws. Perhaps it’s her hormone-fueled mood swings which prevented her from appreciating her own sanctimonious hypocrisy: Walt lied so she screws her employer. He confesses to her his illegal activities so she dives right in to participate, laundering his profits and using them to pay her lover’s taxes. Walt is no angel. But he’s at least a more predictable and believable character than his capricious, hypocrite bitch wife.

  15. HEISENBERGER says:

    I think what I dislike most about skyler is that she is just boring. She is the nagging wife even before all the drama and the meth, with a stick up her butt. She also cheats on her cancer stricken husband and then uses his money to bail out her lover, and yet we are still supposed to feel sorry for her. I’d also just say, I don’t like the actress or her acting skills. But she doesn’t do a completely awful job.

  16. Michael Tabone says:

    what?

    Liz said “Maybe if you have never lived a life like Skyler is the reason people don’t like her. Or maybe they just don’t like women. Or the fact that she is so much smarter than Walt yet reluctantly went along with his dumb a** to try and protect her family instead of selfishly putting them in harms way because of greed and the love of money. I can’t recall one incident of her being bitchy.”

    Do we watch the same show? Skyler doesn’t have many scenes where she is NOT bitchy. I am marathoning the entire show from start to finish and I am on season 4 episode 6.

    Skyler joins the majority of women on television and movies in the modern era because she exemplifies these qualities:

    -she is not supportive of her husband in anyway
    -she gladly benefits from her husband’s actions while disapproving of the those actions
    -she is left with little moral or ethical superiority to everyone she hates on
    -she believes the husband/significant other is completely idiotic and all actions taken by that male is void of merit

    BUT unlike sitcoms, she is not made out to be the hero by showing these qualities. I have some episodes to go and don’t get me wrong would love to have to come back on here and say that she is a character I hope lives, grows and develops… but I must say I am waiting for the episode when Saul has her taken out by some hit man.

    It is unfortunate that all unsupportive and morally bankrupt wives are stricken from this tired and dull concept that men are stupid and women are superior in all ways.

    Reality? It’s not a man/women issue, its human being issue. Men and women are geniuses or idiots on individual cases alone.

  17. Titus says:

    I think Skyler character has the right to complain because life has not dealt her with a “fair hand”.
    But she is not as righteous as she thinks and cheats on Walt in bitterness and lust ….her infidelity is first fundamental crack in her character.

    Walt is a intellectual while Skyler is a book keeper … seeming rather uneducated … she only came of her high horse only after she wanted to use the dirty money that Walt had earned.

    Walt is becoming more evil as show progressed there is no denying that … but he does the evil for three reasons :

    1. survival, 2. providing for his family, 3. selfish desire to be powerful/destructive

    But at no time was he making the conscious decision to hurt Skyler.

    I see skyler caring for Walt at the beginning but there is little sense of chemistry / true love between them. Well, Walt does love Skyler for sure …as he cannot leave her even after what she had done. As the show moved on its clear that Skyler only care for herself and her interest (Walt Jr).

    To me Gunn had not demonstrated well her love for Walt … she had little or no drive to better their lives. Not a engaging character – she goes through the motions but rather annoyingly so … could have been more moving … feels rather sluggish

  18. candy says:

    I just could never get over the feeling that this is the one miscast character in an otherwise pretty flawless line-up. She is just not believable as the “love of” Walter White’s life. Yeah i know she got the award but she was still seriously out of place in that role and people instinctively react to that. That said, i am still racking my brain trying to figure out who could have done justice to the part. But the sense that the right person could have carried it off with a totally different approach remains. Obviously a lot of other viewers are equally as conflicted. It’s like you are totally caught up in this story but this one note keeps appearing and it’s off. And it keeps taking you out of the story and making you fret about it instead of the story.

  19. Louise C says:

    I don’t think Skyler is complex. She’s a humorless housewife. We are to think that Walt is some kind of cool nerd hero, and Skyler is his ball and chain. It’s plain sexism. It’s the old story of the cool and funny guy, and his boring housewife who nags and spoils all the fun. A strong woman would never stay with Walt. Walt is an ugly old fart who is never home, and has nothing to offer her. No woman in her right mind would have a baby with him. She’s young, smart, good looking, what is she doing in that home? Walt is not believable as the love of Skylar’s life.

    • Cleavon says:

      You’re begging the question. Being a bitch, she is man repellent; Walt is her best option. Jesse likes women, women like him; he hates Skyler, Skyler hates him. She has one pitch, the fastball to the chin. No man wants that all the time any more than he wants a doormat. Her morality is complex and confused – like all people – but her personality and self-righteousness are like nails on a chalkboard.

  20. Dillon says:

    Skyler is not a victim of sexism- I’m not even sure she’s even a woman. She’s unlikable for a whole bunch of reasons, including that she’s a huge witch who cheats on her husband for a pretty stupid reason. Skyler has been a real ball and chain at least for the first few seasons. Walt is her submissive little pet who has to do everything she says, and she’s always upset anyway. Throughout the entire show she’s been so annoying, she’s lucky to have a husband at all. Maybe a guy like Walt can’t do better than Skyler at this point in his life, but she shouldn’t be able to either. Neither one of them are spring chickens and I think Skyler is ugly. Plus Skyler is ice-cold, most men would never ever want a wife like that. Nor do I think Skyler is smart. She called the police on her husband and the whole time I was thinking, “The police can’t tell him to leave since he’s not a threat to her and it’s his house too.” My wife and I love and support each other, neither of us would ever act as immature, impulsive and as controlling as Skyler- she’s a horrible spouse who never loved Walt even from the beginning. And as you might expect, my wife and I are hoping she gets what’s coming to her. Walt did immoral things FOR his family while Skyler did it to HURT her husband (and because she just felt like it). She is one of the most selfish characters I have ever seen on screen and let’s not forget that instead of being there for her man who was literally dying of cancer, she chose to go through his phone records and try to keep tabs on him. It so happens she was right though but geez… the man was dying! I still have some seasons to go as it seems Walt is going to become a real jerk or something later on, but my opinion on Skyler will never change unless she dramatically changes. I will say I kind of like the name “Skyler” though, so good work there writers 🙂

  21. antherus says:

    Here’s why Skyler is so hated: because she ALWAYS treated her marriage as a competition of wills. It was never a partnership, it was simply her vs. Walter. It was always this way, even before the meth, even before the cancer diagnosis.

    In the push to write a “strong female character” the writers forgot to make her a sympathetic one. They just made an insufferable jackass in a dress.

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