Thursday, May 18, 2017

Must Be Metric: BETTER CALL SAUL Tackles BREAKING BAD's Skyler Problem?

It's with some sense of failure that I contemplate the vast amount of high-quality television appearing in recent years--shows I eagerly follow every week they're on--then look at how little I've written about them here. The fact that I've devoted so many articles to THE WALKING DEAD, which usually isn't a good show, makes it all the worse. And, of course, the one most conspicuous by its absence is the one that is, in my view, represents the high-point of television to date. To BREAKING BAD, I've failed to devote a single article. Its also-excellent prequel series BETTER CALL SAUL is presently in the midst of its third season and I haven't written anything here about it either. Fortunately, I've just run into an opportunity to write at least something about those two magnificent beasts.

Monday, Lili Loofbourow posted a piece at The Week magazine entitled and themed, "How Better Call Saul Fixed Breaking Bad's Skyler Problem." An intriguing topic but I'll offer as a preliminary concession that the article is definitely of a species of analysis for which I generally have very little use. Rather than directly engaging with the material, Loofbourow tends to analyze nearly everything about these shows and the reactions to them via a sort of trope-porn, constantly referencing this-or-that generalization identified by someone else as a trope. I'm a storyteller myself. When I run into a problematic narrative and feel the need to expound upon its shortcomings, my instinct is to simply outline where I think the story fell down, not to scour a bunch of academic and critical literature in search of generalizations to try to apply to explain those failings. Some of what are identified as tropes are, in my view, so identified as a consequence of various segments of the educated classes taking the "pattern-seeking" part of pattern-seeking primates a little too far. Many are given a negative connotation without actually deserving one. Depending so heavily on such things makes it sound as if one doesn't have anything to say oneself and the resulting analysis starts to feel like some sort of empty, generic critique wherein one just strings together various pre-existing criticisms not crafted for the object that's supposed to be under examination. I don't often find these tropesplanations helpful. Make of that what you will, dear reader.

On to business...

Skyler was the awful wife of BREAKING BAD's protagonist Walter White, a woman who came to be absolutely despised by much of BB fandom. Loofbourow dives into the trope catalogue almost immediately, declaring Walter's story to be of the "Difficult Man genre" and "the antihero story." She notes that Skyler was meant to be the moral center of the story, not to be hated, and contends that the hatred aimed at the character "was (to put it mildly) excessive." She initially chalks this up to the Bad Fan phenomenon--because why not throw in another trope, eh?--then confesses that when she rewatched the series, she came to dislike the character as well. "My recent reaction to Skyler was so powerful," she writes, "that I've grown reluctant to blame the fans for their response."

During BB's run, it was common for various commentators to assert that the negative reaction to Skyler was based on her being a constant killjoy, always getting in the way of Walter's fun. Loofbourow agrees but this has always been, at best, a grossly insufficient explanation, a short sniff around the periphery of what was really wrong. Those who beat this particular drum often asserted there was a strongly misogynistic element to the Skyler hatred and Loofbourow is particularly down with that but that assertion is strictly off in the ozone, an entirely unfair smear of people with a legitimate beef about a legitimate problem with the series. There were never any clear gender divisions when it came to Skyler hatred--among BB fans, Skyler was hated by both women and men. Loofbourow herself admits to having that negative reaction. The analysis of the Skyler problem I'm about to offer still exists today because a pair of ladies who read it praised it and strongly suggested it was worth keeping (howdy, J. and M., if you're out there).

I wrote that piece, the one I'm about to pull out of the mothballs, a few years ago for the Internet Movie Database's BREAKING BAD board. It was authored during the very long break between the first and second half of the show's final season, at a time when the subject had been provoking another round of heated exchanges. From Jan. 2013, this is my take on why people dislike Slyler,


The writers have always included a particular domestic power relationship between Walt and Skyler. Walter White is this once-incredibly-promising scientist who walked away from his destiny and ended up as this hen-pecked fellow who has allowed his wife to run his entire life, a guy who could be a Master of the Universe but ended up barely getting by in lousy, unsatisfying jobs for shit pay, one who is so miserable and/or defeated that when he learns he's dying from cancer, he just seems to take it in stride as the latest indignity. One of the reasons Walt came to enjoy his criminal activities so much is because this was the one part of his life over which he was in control. Through it, he got back in touch with his inner ├╝bermensch, both the part that was real and, maybe more importantly, the part he only imagined was real. The degree to which he had repressed those impulses in order to become Skyler's docile puppy is remarkable; it suggests a much stronger relationship between them than we've ever been shown.

The Walt known to Skyler is the one who does what she tells him, and she, for her part, seems to enjoy that dominant role. The writers could have handled this a few ways. Just because Skyler is domineering doesn't mean she has to be written as a bad person. She could just have a strong and in-charge personality and Walt acquiesces to it because he loves her and doesn't really care about such things. A basic plot-point of BB is that Skyler had little idea who was really inside this meek fellow to whom she's been married for years. When she starts to become aware of it, it's like he's a totally different person to her. She has no frame of reference for who he's becoming. This is happening against the backdrop of his coming under a sentence of certain death. The emergence over time of this "new" Walter could have been milked for some serious, meaty drama. Skyler could have been written as very curious and concerned. The very wrong turn the writers took was instead to make the power relationship both toxic and the core--and nearly sole--element of the characters' relationship as we see it, Skyler's seeming central concern and the thing around which all of her interactions with Walt revolved.

There's always a great deal of contempt for Walt in those interactions. In the very first ep, her birthday treat for him is an indifferent handjob she carries out while reading on her laptop. When Walter became ill, she was certainly concerned about him but that contempt was still there. She was reading books and trying to learn about cancer and absolutely insisted he seek treatment but even that ended up being written through the prism of that power relationship--Walt, in initially declining treatment, was defying her. She never engaged in any deeper, more intense heart-to-heart, you're-the-love-of-my-life-and-you-can't-leave-me talk with him. His eventual capitulation was explicitly presented as more a case of his giving in to her as he always has, rather than genuinely deciding it was better to try to live.

Skyler has also been written as both a very self-righteous prude and a hypocrite, a woman who has very over-the-top, outraged reactions to Walter allegedly smoking an occasional joint and to her sister's shoplifting, one who, when she became aware of Walt's drug-making, was beside herself in disapprobation yet who we'd already seen take up smoking while pregnant in what appeared to be little more than a bratty fit of pique. Skyler is only human and could be forgiven these and so many of her other transgressions if only the writers had created a human character that made viewers in any way inclined to forgive her. Instead, this sort of thing, over and over again, is all we get from Skyler.

When she began to learn of Walter's criminal activities, there was absolutely nothing in her reactions that indicated she had any real love for her husband at all. They've been together for more than two decades and the writers just don't give us any human connection there. The revelation should have been a major WTF? moment. She never even asks him why he would do such a thing, though if she'd given it a moment's thought it would be screamingly obvious. She doesn't think. She rages. She wants to throw him out of the house, divorce him, she cheats on him then rubs his nose in it, cuts him off from his children, hurts him at every opportunity and never once stops to have an adult conversation with him about what the hell has been going on, despite his repeated efforts to initiate one. She's all fury and no love and while she puts forth no effort to understand or even learn what this is about, viewers had seen she was the reason for Walter's plunge into the drug trade, that he embarked upon a life of crime and horror and systematically sold his soul one piece at a time for her. Skyler's reaction when she begins to learn the truth makes her come across as the most selfish bitch imaginable and that reaction, in turn, is largely what turns Walt into Dark Walt--full-blown Heisenberg. Walter's willingness to go through so much for her suggests a very strong bond, one the writers simply haven't conveyed at any point in the proceedings.

This is the only major failing of BB, a show that is otherwise among the best the medium has ever produced, but it's a serious one. The writers have done virtually nothing to establish Skyler as a three-dimensional person or to make her marriage to Walter make sense beyond that power thing, yet important parts of the story in every season are made to depend upon these missing elements. Who is Skyler? What's her story? What's the story of Skyler and Walt? The lack of shading on such points is a big part of why Skyler became so hated.

Later, when Walt brought her in on the business, the writers continued to keep that power relationship front and center but this time they milked it for comedy, having Skyler come in and basically begin taking over Walt's criminal life in the same way she'd been running the rest of his life. That twist actually worked pretty well--Anna Gunn, who plays Skyler, earned her Emmy nomination for it--but it didn't last long and not only did it fail to solve the problem with the character, it arguably made it worse, because as she became more aware of everything Walt's criminal activities entailed, she realized she had no real power and regresses, cutting Walter off from his children again, even openly hoping he dies from his cancer and still never has that adult conversation with him. She doesn't have that conversation until the middle of the 5th season of the series.

Unless she's just supposed to be nothing more than a selfish bitch--and if she's nothing more than that, it creates a serious crack in the overall story--she needs to be much better realized as a character. I hope this gets some attention in the final 8 eps.[1]


In a Vulture interview cited by Loofbourow (and also much-discussed on IMDb back when it was current), BB creator Vince Gilligan is entirely blind to all of this, or making a show of being blind to it:

"[W]ith the risk of painting with too broad a brush, I think the people who have these issues with the wives being too bitchy on Breaking Bad are misogynists, plain and simple. I like Skyler a little less now that she's succumbed to Walt's machinations, but in the early days she was the voice of morality on the show. She was the one telling him, 'You can't cook crystal meth.' She's got a tough job being married to this asshole. And this, by the way, is why I should avoid the internet at all costs. People are griping about Skyler White being too much of a killjoy to her meth-cooking, murdering husband? She's telling him not to be a murderer and a guy who cooks drugs for kids. How could you have a problem with that?"

These sorts of comments could be defensive in nature--Gilligan just trying not to deal with a problem he had allowed to happen. Gilligan has been involved in film and television projects for 15 years prior to BB, so it doesn't seem likely he doesn't understand the dramatic problems presented by Skyler. He has reportedly been involved in a long-term relationship, so it doesn't seem likely he doesn't understand how such things work, how people involved in them and who love one another work out problems. The explanation staring the reader in the face is that Gilligan is simply depending on his audience embracing a very simplistic morality on these matters. Skyler shouldn't try to understand Walt, no one should sympathize with Walt and viewers should sympathize with Skyler because gosh-darn it, breaking the law is just wrong! That's the most obvious explanation but it's horseshit. Gilligan is known for these projects of sublime moral complexity and Skyler was never written as any moral compass,[2] nor did she know about any "murder" by Walt until very late in the game. I don't believe for a moment Gilligan is so profoundly out of touch with this part of his creation but he'll have to address the subject himself, if he ever does in a straight way.

Despite the obvious problems with Gilligan's comments, Loofbourow doesn't question his sincerity on this. Maintaining her distance from the material, she runs with it, writing "I submit that the problem with Skyler in Breaking Bad is not a fan problem. It's a structural problem... [W]hen you've made the wife the antagonist and stripped her of the thrills of villainy--when you've made her not just the boring wife, but also the show's moral center? Well, that there's a recipe for massive annoyance. Which, when you want to be entertained, quickly morphs into hatred." And that hatred, in her estimation, is misogynistic. "There's simply no separating the vitriol Skyler received from her femininity," Loofbourow insists. The character is an "annoying pregnant wife" with an "annoying extended family" making "domestic demands" and generally acting as a hindrance to Walt's quest for "manly-man power." Rather than the straightforward dramatic problem I've outlined, it's just a matter of Skyler being "structurally impossible to love."[3]

It's difficult to read this as anything other than an effort to have your misogyny and eat it too. Loofbourow concedes that even she didn't like Skyler. Why not concede that this was just a poorly-conceived and badly executed character? It's the job of the creators to make viewers like characters--the ones that are supposed to be likable anyway--and Gilligan and co. simply failed here. Why cling so insistently to misogyny as an explanation when there doesn't actually seem to be any? Gilligan's comments from which Loofbourow are working certainly don't display any. Loofbourow has basically conceded misogyny wasn't behind the fan reaction to the character. She's rendered misogyny this free-floating entity, something unmoored from anyone's intent yet present "structurally." This mode of analysis isn't really as loony as some will initially receive it--when it comes to reading art, the only real measure of an interpretation is how well the work will bear it--but BB won't, in my view, bear the misogyny talk.

The opposite of Skyler, writes Loofbourow, is Kim Wexler on BETTER CALL SAUL. The fact that Kim is a character everyone, including the Skyler haters, seems to love would, at first blush, seem to take all the air out of the "misogyny" balloon but Loofbourow has a patch for that too--she invokes another trope. Kim is a Cool Girl, that is, a character written like one of the guys but in the body of a beautiful woman. Loofbourow doesn't think much of Cool Girls. She describes Kim with an avalanche of positive adjectives--funny, loyal, beautiful, etc.--then insists these, cumulatively, are a bad thing. We never see Kim's family, don't see her home, "she's marvelous precisely because she's unfettered by back story... Best of all, she's an enabler for Jimmy's shenanigans. The show likes to pretend that Kim is a straight shooter, a moral compass for Jimmy akin to what Skyler was supposed to be. In practice, Kim plays 'Giselle' to Slippin' Jimmy and scams dudes out of $50 tequila shots." Kim is the creators' solution to the Skyler problem: "eliminate everything about her that made her vulnerable, annoying, and, well, human."

Loofbourow tries to take the edge off by professing great fondness for Kim and actress Rhea Seehorn but her premise is what it is and the unrecognized ironies that jump out at the reader seem to go on forever. Immediately after so doggedly holding on to that misogyny thing with Skyler, Loofbourow then goes out of her way to cook up a profoundly cockeyed rationale for hating on this character. The fact that Kim is a no-nonsense, hardworking, professional career girl is used to argue that Kim isn't really a woman at all but just a man in the body of a woman, someone stripped of everything that made Skyler "human." BETTER CALL SAUL is a prequel to BREAKING BAD, yet Loofbourow implies it's as a remake in treating Kim as the creators' version of a new-and-improved Skyler rather than as an entirely different character in a different story and hates on Kim, even while professing to love her, for being different.

Loofbourow is also wrong on some points that are pretty central to her argument. While it's true we don't yet know much about Kim's extended family and backstory, it's also the case, as I noted in that piece years ago, that we never learned much about these things with Skyler either. Skyler wasn't problematic because she had a family and a backstory; part of why she was problematic is that she didn't and, in the context of that series, badly needed one. Skyler and Kim are both supposed to love and be in long-running relationships with the male protagonists of their respective series and the point where I most vehemently part company with Loofbourow is in her assertion that Kim is "an enabler for Jimmy's shenanigans," because the grounds on which she's here condemning Kim is that Kim, unlike Skyler, is written as genuinely being in love with her man. She knows Jimmy is flawed but she loves him. She's trying to deal with the situation as best she can. She is a straight shooter and a moral compass, who wasn't corrupted by her brief excursion into the world of Slippin' Jimmy.[4] She was furious with Jimmy for his Mesa Verde forgery but she correctly put it in the context of the larger Chuck/Jimmy feud. The same is true of her defense of Jimmy before the disciplinary hearing, where Chuck's insane personal jealousy of his brother led him to set an elaborate trap intended to take Jimmy's law license. Allowing that wouldn't be just. Loving Jimmy, Kim isn't going to allow that to happen. Characterizing her as "an enabler of Jimmy's shenanigans" based on that is obscene.

BREAKING BAD was top-of-the-line. No tv project yet has been perfect but its shortcomings are so few, they're easily listed.[5] And the major one is that Skyler was just really badly written. While BETTER CALL SAUL isn't BB, it's been a worthy successor. Its creators Gilligan and Peter Gould are knocking it out of the park every week and it's the best show on television in an era when that really means something. It's not at all absurd to suggest that if it lasts, it may eventually eclipse its predecessor. The only real point in such a comparison is as a measure of BCS's quality. If it makes it to a natural end, Kim won't. By the time of BREAKING BAD, she's already gone. Whatever eventually removes her from the scene is guaranteed to be a tragedy viewers will mourn. That's not a "structural" thing; that's great storytelling.



[1] Alas, it didn't.

[2] There was no moral compass on BB. The writers were true to their title; all of the characters broke bad.

[3] Since the pregnancy thing was stressed, it's worth pointing out that Skyler gave birth in season 2; the show continued through 5 seasons and Skyler was never much loved.

[4] Jimmy brought Kim in on the "$50-shots" scam Loofbourow describes to show her what a con was like and Kim had fun with it but she recognized that it was entirely unethical and certainly not something they could ever really take up.

[5] Why would Gus Fring, a major drug-lord who is so very careful about concealing his activities, make his identity known to a pair of lowly street dealers who could be pinched by the cops at any moment? Jesse turning against Walt is never entirely convincing. Jack and his gang make off with Walt's fortune but opt to stay in the drug business anyway? Some of the resolutions of the various plotlines, particularly that of Jesse, were disappointing, as was part of Walt's final conversation with Skyler.

Twitter: @jriddlecult

1 comment:

  1. I like that Kim doesn't have a backstory. It allows me to fill in the blanks based on her actions in the show. For instance, the fact she spends all her time with Jimmy or working on the law leads to me to think she doesn't have family or they are estranged. Kim has to be independent and hard working because she is the only one making a life for herself.