Thursday, September 28, 2023

Nobody Likes A Killjoy: How the Writers of ‘Breaking Bad’ Accidentally Made their Audience Hate Skyler White

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Everyone hates Skyler White from Breaking Bad. There are a billion tweets and blog posts about it, there’s a million memes and Reddit threads. And the audience wasn’t supposed to hate Skyler White. Both the writers and the cast seemed genuinely shocked by the vitriol directed at the character. 

I don’t hate Skyler White. I think she’s a very interesting, sympathetic, well-rounded character. And I think that’s why the writers were so confused by the hate–they’d written a coherent character that made logical choices, even when those choices were hurtful or bad, and most of her mistakes are well within the realm of things normal people do.

They wanted her to be the sanity of the show, to be Walter’s moral grounding, and to be his foil as he slowly lost his humanity. She has agency, she makes choices, she’s everything a character should be. That’s not the problem with her.

So What Is Skyler White’s Problem?

The problem is with her role in the narrative.  I’m going to look at the first season of Breaking Bad. People really hated Skyler by the end of that season, and I think it encapsulates the issues with the character, or rather, the character’s role in the story. The problem starts with Walter, however, not Skyler. Or rather, how the audience feels about Walter.

Audiences tend to sympathize with the protagonist of a story–the main character who’s pushing forward the action. The audience also tends to turn this character into a hero, whether they are a hero or not.  This is more likely to happen when the protagonist is interesting (regardless of whether or not they are “good”).

American History X, Rambo, Taxi Driver, and Fight Club are all movies where the male protagonist isn’t meant to be a role model, but pop culture quickly made them one. If Walter is our protagonist, then anyone who challenges him, anyone who tries to stop his plan, questions his motives, or dissuades him from his goals becomes the antagonist. And if he’s the hero, that makes the challenger the villain. And since Skyler, as Walter’s spouse, would prefer he not Break Bad, she becomes the villain.

A secondary problem to the hero/villain dichotomy is that Skyler, as a character, doesn’t offer a storyline that the audience has any desire to see. Skyler wants Walter to be “normal”. She wants to return to their pre-cancer life together, and raise their new baby and see their son off to college. She wants her husband to live.

The problem is that “normal” Walter is a sad, unhappy person, as well as a boring one. He has some unresolved stuff with the fact his son has a disability, he feels he didn’t reach his potential with his career, he has a demeaning second job, he’s middle-aged and about to have a new baby.  We don’t want to watch six more episodes about a guy going to couple’s therapy, we want to watch a man dying of cancer making meth. 

Now, as a person, Skyler’s actions make sense. She’s heavily pregnant and her husband may be dying and might be losing his mind, she really needs him to get his shit together. And from a character development perspective, it shows Walter’s journey. He transforms from the man that lovingly records on a camera that Skyler is the love of his life to a man that manipulates, lies, and uses her. But from a narrative perspective, it’s trash.

Skyler drags the story to a screeching halt trying to force-feed the audience a possible plotline we know will never happen and we don’t want to see anyway. Because when Skyler starts nagging Walter to get it together at the end of episode 1? The audience knows there are 6 more episodes. We know this plotline isn’t going to be followed up on. That means the only function Skyler has in the story is a killjoy. She brings the plot and narrative to a grinding halt whenever she shows up, threatens to end the show existentially, and keeps us from seeing the things we really want to see.

But What About the Audience?

Skyler White became the lightning rod that the audience could vent all their frustrations on. She was holding the story back, but not offering a compelling narrative. She seems to want our “hero”, Walter, to be unhappy. Her personal journey is less interesting than his. Everything about her becomes an irritant. Giving her more screen time isn’t going to help this problem; spending more time with a killjoy doesn’t make them less of a killjoy.

And I think this is common in adventure-driven story, where the female character only serves to be the killjoy, the debbie downer, the block to the story that everyone paid money to see. And this female character is often the male lead’s romantic interest, a woman holding him back from fun and potential and adventure and excitement and danger. In trying to side-step making a flat, one dimensional character, the writers accidentally tapped into a more hateful archetype.

I think they wanted to make something realistic and relatable. But what’s true in real life isn’t true in narrative. Some things don’t translate. Loving advice and demanding accountability are healthy things in a real relationship, but they are miserable in a story. And I think writers need to be more careful because it’s not just about well-rounded characters. It’s about their place in the story, and how the whole audience would react.

What could the writers have done differently? I don’t know. As I said, I liked Skyler White a lot. I liked her story, I felt it was real and emotional and relatable. Her flaws and failures were as tragic as they were understandable. I was as confused as they were by the reaction to Skyler. I researched, read a lot, watched a lot, to form a thesis on why so many people felt the way that they did about the character. I’m not the person to ask for solutions to a problem I don’t intuitively understand, I did my part to explain why people felt the way they did.

But, if you want my opinion? Maybe the problem wasn’t the writers. Maybe it was the audience.

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Image courtesy of AMC


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