Like a Puppet On a String: In Defence of Skyler White

WARNING
*contains blatant spoilers*

Go on, say it. You hate Skyler White. You hate her and with every episode you squirm in your seat a little whenever she has a line, whenever she grimaces at her husband and whenever she stares dismally out of a window piercing a cigarette to her lips as though taking a pin to balloon. You hate her and you probably tell whoever you’re watching Breaking Bad with exactly as such.

You’re fine to hate her, and I get it, I do. Walter White is the shows anti-hero. Audiences are bound to his narrative, intrigued by his descent into darkness, both hopeful for his redemption but also ultimately wary of it. Redemption equals the end of Heisenberg. Redemption means the end of the show. We root for him through his madness. Walter White is a family man who’s made horrific choices at the precipice of a double edged sword in order to save those that he loves, and as viewers it’s gripping, if not graphically grim, viewing.

A lot of Breaking Bad, especially at the beginning, showed this as a personal tragedy for Walt. He struggled through a clusterfuck of personal demons, suffering and a transformation into Heisenberg almost completely alone. The character is presented as not sacrificing the freedoms, lives and sanity of others but only in sacrificing these qualities in himself in order to save others. And I mean, come on – what a crock of shit. Many viewers see him the way that the character would want us to see him, but make no mistake – the man has become a fully fledged fucking monster, regardless. And still people root for him over his wife.

See, this isn’t seen as being a story about Skyler White. She’s merely a part of the consequences of the action. She could even be seen as a mere puppet moved along by the strings of Walt’s marionette, that he is the moon and she is the tide. But every character is bound to that marionette. They’re all bound together, and every subtle decision that any of them makes impacts on the other. They’re a rat king, all bound by their tails, dragging along into death.

HEISENBERG BLOOD MONEY

When Walt hides his cancer and his criminal dealings from his family, he does it to protect them. It also pushes him into the deep end, changes him completely, his wife struggles to see the man she loves but a vestige of what used to be. We know how much Walt loves his wife – Christ, none of this would ever have come to fruition if his love for her wasn’t so big that it could help him to bring down and takeover an entire empire – but whilst Skyler is left in the dark for a great portion of the show, we as viewers embark on that entire initial journey with him. We see and feel every step and misstep. So when Skyler doesn’t take kindly to his activities and she loathes the man he’s become, refuses his advances and abandons him when we can so clearly see that he wants and needs her, it’s frustrating as fuck because we know exactly what horrors he’s been through specifically for his wife and family.

Show creator Vince Gilligan recently raised the opinion that people who hate Skyler White are misogynists, pure and simple. And I’d be inclined to agree. It’s easy to hate Skyler. It’s easy to not see her as a fully fleshed out character, and just as a meddlesome, nagging woman ruining the spoils of the great Heisenberg. But truthfully? Skyler White is a badass.

SKYLER WINE
A lot of people have taken the argument that she absolutely loves the money that comes with the meth business and that she’s fine to cash the cheques but not to be involved in the crime that writes them. But this is a smart woman who knows money. This is a woman who, despite having been nearly raped by her own husband and treated with contempt, resentment and behavioral patterns that have verged on flat out abuse, has by all accounts stood by him. Just as Walt was looking to protect his family at the start of the show by entering into a ludicrously dangerous set of decisions in order to do so, so too is Skyler White. She watches the money, she protects the way that it’s laundered and processed, because she knows there’s no turning back now. She wants to protect their family just as Walt did. She’s just like him in that she’s made some terrible decisions (euw, Ted) over the gamut of the show and is living with those choices, but she still loves him. She might resent him and fear him until their dying day, but she’s in it for the long run. His actions are her actions. And the audience hate her for it. She’s getting in the way. She’s ruining the fun. She’s a whingebag woman and she should shut the fuck up and stay out of it, right? Fuck no.

But is Jesse any different? Jesse has on repeated attempts tried to quit the meth business. He’s made elaborate, heartbreaking speeches and has experienced the worst horrors of anyone in the show. If anybody is out to ruin Heisenberg’s fun, it’s the Puppy-Pinkman. But we all root for Jesse. We want him to succeed. We want him to live a good, happy and long life, but know that he probably wont. Jesse and Skyler are swinging from the same noose. Both characters have been somewhat responsible for sowing the seeds that have sprouted the deluge of horror that the characters are facing in the final season, and both are also the victims of it.

Whilst Skyler might have been passively responsible – a catalyst for events, rather than an active participant – Jesse knew full well, albeit naively, what he was getting himself involved in. He was King of that World for so long, living the dream and reaping the fruits of his labour and then somewhere around the third season mark he became the place where all the residual shit of their success got dumped.

It’s interesting that Jesse Pinkman has had the arc that he has because a lot of the characters who’ve suffered the most at the hands of Heisenberg’s Big Dream have suffered because of simply putting their love and trust into the wrong people.
From Ted and Jane Margolis to poor, sweet Gale, Walt and Skyler lying to and hurting Hank and Marie, even down to that poor, murdered kid during the train robbery who witnessed the heist and still trusted the troupe enough to offer a friendly wave at them in the aftermath.

5-todd-murders-an-innocent-kid Breanking Bad (Season 4) JANE MARGOLIS DEATH ted beneke dead

It’s obvious how much of a kick Jesse gets out of Mr White. They form a loving, albeit dysfunctional, pseudo-father-son bond together, but it also becomes obvious that Walt is completely toxic for him. He exploits and manipulates the trust and bond that they share together in order to further his own agenda. Amazingly, we eventually encounter Mike as the better father figure for Jesse and it’s devastating when Walt eventually murders him on the sly. This is something that keeps happening to Jesse: find something that he cares about, has faith in or needs and take it away from him. It’s a textbook cycle of abuse that ties one person to another.

The women of the show are no different, but the way in which the audience perceives them is. They’re stronger than I think the audience gives them credit for, women who’ve stood by and supported their men for better or worse. They want better for them, as anyone does with loved ones, and they suffer for it.

Whilst Hank is clearly the biggest obstacle for Walt’s business and survival in the final season, he isn’t a character that the audience hates. We like the challenges that he poses – isn’t a villain so much as a threat. But his wife? My fucking God do people hate his wife. A deliberately irritating character – she is the troublesome, do-gooder, nosey sister of Skyler after all – people groan when she comes on screen.
There’s Marie. Sticking her nose in again and acting all self-righteous. THAT’S RIGHT, SHUT THE FUCK UP, MARIE.
But you have to have absolutely no heart not to have felt for her during Hank’s recovery when he started to obsessively collect minerals and forced upon her a constant stream of indignant criticism, berating her at every turn, when she did nothing but care for him. She gave herself up to his needs 24/7, and was met with a barrage of disdain as a result.

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That narrative mirrors the relationship that Walt and Skyler have. There’s no way for Skyler to win in their situation. Pander to Walter’s wants and she walks a dangerous line towards further endangering her family. If and when shit would hit the fan following this, you can bet your ass that it would mostly fall upon Skyler’s shoulders, not Walt’s. But if she doesn’t pander to Walter’s wants and needs then she’s the stereotypical bitch wife.

It also didn’t matter what Marie did with Hank. If she were to abandon him in his time of need then what would have become of him? Marie might have thrived, but Hank wouldn’t have. He was completely dependent. To stay with him, and suffer, because she loves him and desperately believes that it will be worth it in the long run is all she can do.

Skyler White is no different. She’s damned is she does, and damned if she doesn’t. And frankly, the audience would loathe her either way. The scene in which she walks into the swimming pool fully clothed embodies this idea perfectly. She is fully submerged in the actions of her husband. She’s soaked in them. Pulled down by their weight. When Walt dives in to save her, it’s not just because he wants to but because he’s responsible for it.
SKYLER SWIMMING POOL Skyler Swimming Pool Submerged Breaking Bad Episode 504
The whole narrative we’ve been paying attention to what Walter White needs, and what Walter White wants and what Walter White does and have taken our attention away from the wife who’s keeping shit together in the background. She’s a victim of the consequences and she’s carrying the load round with her. This is just as much Skyler White’s story as it is Walt’s – not to mention that of Hank, Jesse and Marie, and we’d be ignorant to think it otherwise. Any one of them could quickly snip the string from the marionette that binds them all and bring the whole story crashing down.

So next time you watch Breaking Bad and you hurl the usual onslaught of abuse at your TV telling Skyler to shut up, just stop. Because it really doesn’t matter what Skyler White does, she’s fucked either way, and you’d probably still hate her regardless. The truth is Skyler is far more interesting than you might have bargained for, and you might have actually noticed if you spent less time focused on the puppet, and more time focused on the strings.

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One thought on “Like a Puppet On a String: In Defence of Skyler White

  1. I’ve really enjoyed the show but since the first episode I couldnt like Walt. Skyler is a wonderful character, deep, complex and interesting. We can see her moral standards changing and she was never naïve. That’s why I like her so much. I love when I find someone who agrees with that

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