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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

An Open Letter Response To Anna Gunn

On Friday August 23, 2013, Anna Gunn (the actress who plays Skylar White on AMC's Breaking Bad) wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times about the fan hate and utter vitriol regarding the character of Skylar White entitled, "I Have A Character Issue" In the piece, Gunn talks about the fan's reaction to her character on various AMC and other message boards, describes her reaction to seeing death threats because the fan's dislike her character so much, and briefly describing the roles of women on television in recent years.

Truthfully, most of the piece described things I already knew- that the Breaking Bad fans do not like Skylar White. Last year when I was binge watching the series for the first time, I remember having a conversation with my father (who had already seen every episode up to that point) after watching a season and a half or so. I remember saying something along the lines of, "Boy Skylar is really starting to piss me off. Why can't she just let Walt sell his meth!" Then, I binge watched the rest of the show- which at that point was only season 1-4. 

Breaking Bad has gotten more and more popular over time. This was just a rinky dink show when it first started off. But thanks to critic support, Emmy nominations (and wins), Netflix, and the fact that it's the best show ever created, more and more people have started to watch Breaking Bad. Thus leading up to the premiere of the final 8 episodes- which drew an incredible 5.9 MILLION viewers, on par with the biggest show on television right now, The Walking Dead.

With this increase in popularity, comes an increase in discussing the show. And as more people watched the show, the more people began to dislike Skylar White. Many people had the same reaction I did, and voiced their opinions about it. As Anna Gunn writes in her op-ed piece, "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."

Then of course came the backlash to the backlash. The show's creator Vince Gilligan of course will defend Skylar White until the end, and truthfully doesn't understand why the fans hate her and not the true monster: her husband Walter White. Anna Gunn mentions in her piece that the reason for the Skylar White hate is because we as a television culture hate wives in the general, and this sentiment is the leading argument in this strong backlash to the backlash. My favorite TV critic (who just wrote a phenomenal book about The Golden Age of Television including chapters on The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad), recently apologized about being a crusader in the anti-Skylar White campaign (along with the anti-Betty Draper and anti-Carmelo Soprano campaigns).

Here is my response to these criticisms that Anna Gunn has mentioned.

After watching the first 4 seasons, I began to fully immerse myself in the Breaking Bad culture. I began to see the fully extent of the Skylar White backlash, as well as read into the backlash of the backlash. I also then watched Season 5.1 of the show (because those were the new episodes that were airing at the time) and I actually started feeling bad for Skylar White. The reason for this goes back to Anna's line above, about how Walter White is the protagonist, therefore anything Skylar White does to go against Walt will be viewed as villainous. 

But that being said, Vince Gilligan has always said that the purpose of this show is to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. When we first meet Walter White, he's an extremely sympathetic character. He has a son with Cerebral Palsey who needs crutches to walk around, his 40 year old wife is pregnant and not working, and Walt is grossly underpaid and underutilized working as a chemistry teacher despite being (probably) an actual chemistry genius. Oh, and Walt then develops lung cancer which, of course, he can't pay for. Walter White's decision and early goings of becoming a meth cook was all to support his family. Most, if not all, viewers had the same reaction I did, "Just let Walter White make money to support his family!".

However, now we are at a point in the series, (as of this writing there are only 5 more episodes left to air) where Walter White is Scarface. He's a full-blown monster. He's manipulative, he's cunning, and he kills or moves out of the way anyone in his path. He killed 9 people (who were in prison) last year in 2 minutes. He destroys his nemesis in Season 4 because he overreacts to threats that aren't there. Even though he is technically the protagonist, he is completely unlikable. Many people, like myself, wish for his death by series end, and will (probably) be disappointed when it doesn't come. That it turns, changes (at least for me) our view of Skylar White. 

I think the biggest turning point for Walt's transformation is where he gives the "I Am The One Who Knocks!" speech. This is turn creates a character who refuses to do anything his wife says or wants. He moves back in with her, and sleeps in the same bed as her even though she clearly doesn't want him there. He continues to go about his evil empire despite the wishes of his wife. That creates an unsympathetic lead, and in turns created a sympathetic Skylar White. 

I think now the show has forced the viewer to feel more sympathetic to Skylar White. But that doesn't excuse what it did to make us fans dislike in the first place. After the episode itself during Season 5.1 made me change my mind regarding my feelings towards Skylar, I re-watched the entire series again. And my anger for Skylar grew strong again. 

The show created reasons for the fans to dislike Skylar. It had nothing to do with Skylar's gender or anything of the sort, it had to do with her actions. And while we (or at least I) as fans understood where she's coming from (who really wants their long time significant other to become a drug king pin), she's still the antagonist  When you create a television sow about the devil and get the viewers of said show to sympathize with the devil, the angel becomes the character you like the least. 

And let's not pretend Skylar is a perfect angel either. Vince Gilligan and Skylar White fully agree that Skylar has done some morally questionable things. That's the whole purpose of Breaking Bad. Skylar smoked cigarettes during her pregnancy, overreacted to who/what What is/does (while not morally questionable, it does add to the fans dislike of her character), laundered money for, and then slept with Ted Beneke, is a co-conspirator for Walter's money laundering, and took all of Walter's money and gave it to Ted to cover her her own misdoings. 

But "worst" of all, she's stubborn and inserts herself in the criminality of this drug empire without being truly aware of the surroundings. The solution of giving Ted Beneke money to solve his IRS woes was a terrible one from the getgo, and even though her attorney (Saul Goodman) was vehemently against it, she went ahead with the plan anyways, and, surprise, surprise, the plan went to shit. 

But the most damning thing against Skylar White was forcing Walt to purchase the car wash. Walt and Skylar needed a legitimate business to help them launder their money. Again, despite the vehement wishes of Saul Goodman to purchase a laser tag place or a nail salon, Skylar forces Walt to buy a car wash and agrees to help launder the money that way. Surprise, surprise, that plan turns to shit. Skylar realizes very early on that the business a car wash brings in is not nearly enough to launder the amount of money that Walter brings in, and is forced to keep all the money in storage. It seems that if Skylar had listened to the advice of a professional, the enterprise would be better off.

The purchasing of the car wash and giving Ted the money to pay off his IRS fine was the result of Vince Gilligan and company making a conscious effort to paint Skylar White in a bad light. This had nothing to do with Skylar acting has the voice of reason to the devil on Walt's shoulder, they were decisions made in preserving her own self-interest. 

Now I will say that while I do believe many of the hate of Skylar White is well-deserved, I do feel sorry for Anna Gunn with how far people have escalated their vitriol. Anna Gunn mentions looking on internet message boards for fan's reaction to Skylar. That's just a recipe for disaster. A lot of that has to do with our internet culture as a whole and the fact we only post on message boards when we dislike something and rarely post when we enjoy something versus Skylar White as a character in general. I will also say that the death threats she has received is gross and uncalled for, and behalf of all Breaking Bad fans everywhere, I sincerely apologize. 

Lastly, I want to address the fact with how women are portrayed on television in general. Specifically Carmela Soprano and Betty Draper. Now while I have only seen the pilot to The Sopranos, I have seen every episode of Mad Men. And like Skylar White, Betty Draper is an unsympathetic character to start off with. In laments terms, you watch the first 3 seasons of Mad Men and you know that Betty Draper sucks. She's infantile, naive, and stubborn. The show went out of its way to paint Betty Draper in a bad light. And while it paints Don Draper in a pretty freaking awful light as well, at this point in the series, the viewers know what a piece of shit Don Draper is. And by the way, they paint male characters in a terrible light as well. I don't think there's a single Mad Men fan who likes Pete Campbell. Also, it is my understanding that Tony Soprano's son A.J. was pigeonholed in many story lines which upset the fans.

When Anna Gunn says that T.V. has "a wife problem", well she's probably right. But I don't like the argument that T.V. has a female problem as a whole. The Sopranos was revolutionary in that it created a male anti-hero, and shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad have followed in its place. That's a result of a show finding out what the viewers want and other people "copying" that model. But not only is that model outdated now (as evidenced by the reviews of Low Winter Sun and Ray Donovan), there are plenty of examples of female leads taking power now.

Claire Danes portrayal of Carrie Mathison on Showtime's Homeland is an example of taking the "male anti-hero" concept and spinning it a little bit. Scandal is wildly popular, and has a strong female lead at its core. HBO comedies Girls and Veep are a critical success and have earned their leads loads of praise. There are also plenty of strong females (both good and bad) on HBO's super-hit Game Of Thrones. 

So Anna Gunn, I appreciate your op-ed piece. I think it's a nice reminder that we as Breaking Bad fans need to keep our dislike of your character at bay. And like the show Breaking Bad itself, I think the Skylar White haters have a valid point and the Skylar White defenders have a valid point, and the truth lies somewhere in the grey area.