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The True Anti-Hero of 'Breaking Bad' Isn't Walter White

Sexual politics and the bad wife

Ursula Coyote/AMC

In the weeks leading up to Sunday’s “Breaking Bad” premiere—the first of the series’ final eight episodes—the spotlight has been fixed on Walter White. A.O. Scott traced Walt’s development into a “complicated and very contemporary folk hero” in an essay titled “How Walter White Found His Inner Sociopath.” “His change is ‘Breaking Bad’’s grand experiment,” James Poniewozik wrote in Time. Promotional posters reveal Walt evolving from an unkempt nebbish into a dead-eyed kingpin presiding over stacks of hundred dollar bills. A chorus of critics has taken up speculation about how it all will end—specifically, what will become of Walt.

But his transformation is far from the most interesting part of the show. Walt’s metamorphosis has been blatant and showy, his inner evil fully telegraphed from day one. Since the beginning of “Breaking Bad,” creator Vince Gilligan has announced in countless interviews that the series would chart Walt's conversion from "Mr. Chips to Scarface.” Gilligan even planned to improve Cranston’s posture as Walt became increasingly sinister. Walt may be the dramatic engine of “Breaking Bad,” but he ceased to be its protagonist long ago. Instead he is the epic, unreal backdrop against which everyone around him has become more human and complex. The critical fixation on Walt feels overblown when other characters have had far slyer arcs: in particular, Skyler White. She reflects our own evolving relationship to Walt, at once appalled and awestruck. As the series nears its end, the real antihero of “Breaking Bad” is the antihero’s wife.

It has been widely acknowledged that the wives of evildoing male protagonists, from Carmela Soprano to Betty Draper, face an uphill battle when it comes to the dubious goal of “likeability.” They are often regarded as rule-bound killjoys standing in the path of masculine adventuring. (One New York Post poll about “how to fix The Sopranos” elicited answers that included “kill all the women.”) “Dexter,” perhaps, took this to heart, as it executed its protagonist’s feeble, saintly wife several seasons ago; she was always materializing at inconvenient moments and forcing Dexter into relationship talks when he had other business to attend to. But there is no one whom audiences have loathed quite as vocally as Skyler. A Facebook group called “Fuck Skyler White” has almost 30,000 “likes.” One blogger made a chart inversely linking the popularity of each “Breaking Bad” episode to the number of Skyler appearances.

Granted, the women of “Breaking Bad” are not exactly its most appealing characters. Skyler’s sister, Marie, is holed up in her own illusions, shoplifting luxury goods and touring expensive homes so she can invent her autobiography anew each time. Madrigal Electric executive Lydia is a jittery narcissist who would rather have her young daughter discover her dead body than believe her mother abandoned her. And Skyler began the series as the spoilsport in the face of Walt’s fledgling criminality. She can be humorless and emasculating. In the season one pilot, she gives Walt a halfhearted birthday handjob without ever taking her eyes off the computer. They discuss their hot water heater and their credit card debt. “Did you take your echinacea?” she asks him. The scene where she confronts Jesse and demands that he stop selling her husband pot is objectively annoying. At first her needling almost helps us to excuse Walt, to validate his quest to reclaim his manhood.

Lewis Jacobs/AMC
Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston as Skyler and Walt.

But with each episode, she grows more complicated. She goes back to work, rebutting Walt’s excuse that he is the one “providing” for his family. She has an affair, playing at a simpler kind of intimacy. In one memorable scene she sports a plunging neckline and pretends to be a bimbo accountant to help her boss, Ted Beneke, evade the IRS; seeing her act the part so persuasively is disturbing in its suggestion that she is just as capable of deadpan deception as Walt. Once she agrees to help Walt cover up his crimes, there is a perverse sweetness to their Bonnie and Clyde moments: the early plans for the car wash, their powwows over the logistics of money-laundering.

As Walt’s hubris snowballs, Skyler evolves from bystander to accomplice to prisoner. She reclaims control only to slowly realize her ultimate futility. Her best scenes are the ones where she begins to understand her own captivity: for instance, when she lowers herself into the pool as her family looks on in horror, her eyes blank and staring. Her statement, in season four, that “someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family” contains its own host of self-justifications. The bedroom scenes are among the show’s creepiest, when Walt whispers into her ear, and she silently submits. The conflicted way she relates to her own culpability makes a persuasive foil to Walt’s intensifying shamelessness.

But amid the frenzy of conjecturing about Walt’s end, Skyler has gone relatively undiscussed. In Sunday’s episode—apart from an early harbinger in which a haggard Walt appears alone, breaking into his abandoned house—the plot picks up right where it left off. Hank emerges shellshocked from the bathroom, Leaves of Grass in hand. Walt has slipped casually back into the role of family man and hardworking small-business owner, but his self-delusions are more chilling than ever. “The past is the past,” he tells Jesse. Non-spoiler alert: The episode is riveting, as is the quiet power of Dean Norris’s performance as Hank. But Skyler, unfortunately, does nothing much of note.

Up until this season, it wasn’t quite clear whether the resolution of the show would ultimately belong to Hank or to Jesse or to Skyler—whether the brunt of the tragedy would land on the betrayed, humiliated brother-in-law, the exploited sidekick, or the wife yoked into collusion. By now, after last season's bathroom cliffhanger and the first of the final episodes, the story seems obviously to be Hank’s. His appeal is clear; as an antagonist for Walt he offers a competing kind of alpha maleness, a decency that is as macho and intense as Walt’s depravity. It is hard not to wonder, though, what “Breaking Bad” would look like with Skyler’s perspective at its center: say, if she turned him in and willingly disgraced her family, or even killed him herself. 

Alas, Walt’s death at Skyler’s hands seems unlikely. Hank is too attractive a hero, too deserving of revenge. (And also, too good a character.) But in the first of the final episodes it is disappointing to see Skyler reduced again to boring oblivion, happily going about the business of suburban life. Here she is in yet another dinner scene, asking Junior about his day at school, their mother-son rapport on the mend. Here she is at the car wash alongside Walt, twin visions in khaki and taupe, telling patrons to “have an A1 day.” It feels like a concession that the resolution of her character comes at the expense of her complexity.

The question of likeability for fictional protagonists has always seemed beside the point. The issue, when it comes to assessing fiction, is not whether we like this person but whether we can identify some psychic strain of ourselves refracted through them, however ugly and small. That’s what makes Tony and Don, even in their awful selfishness, even as show creators dared viewers to empathize with them, such good protagonists. Walt no longer offers us such complex psychological grist. He is less tortured evildoer than mythic bad guy, his ambition amplified and motives blurred beyond recognition. Instead of a jumble of lethal insecurities and urges he is all monstrous, abstract greed. Hank is a straightforward hero, easy to root for. Jesse is the adorable underdog, running frantically on the hamster wheel of his conscience. But Skyler—brash, self-righteous, unsure of what it means to do the right thing—is a messier case. And even at her least likeable, she is key to what makes this show overall so compelling: its moral prickliness, the way its view of good and evil can seem at once so twisted and so stark. 

Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow @lbennett