In Defense of Breaking Bad’s Female Characters

For as long as there’s been a Breaking Bad, there’s been a legion of fans claiming it to be the greatest television show of all time. While it’s certainly close for me (The Sopranos is my pick, perhaps stereotypically), some viewers have had trouble getting past individual characterizations.

Walter White might be one of the most dynamic, complicated characters in the history of the medium, but that doesn’t mean everybody who shares the screen benefits from the same characterization. Those who criticize Breaking Bad often focus on at least one of two things: the first being that Breaking Bad is often too funny for its subject matter (that’s another essay entirely), and the second being that the female characters are poorly developed compared to their male counterparts.

I’ve heard this argument so much, and so often, in the last couple of weeks that I’ve thought really hard about whether or not I believe it. It’s true, Marie and Skyler (virtually the only female characters, with Lydia essentially making cameos every few episodes) have very distinct character traits that are rarely deviated from by the actors.

Marie in particular.

Betsy Brandt brings a certain nagging, obsessive energy to the role of Marie that makes her feel a little too familiar, and for all the wrong reasons. She’s a stereotypical housewife, not unlike any other sitcom neighbor who comes over to deliver broad jokes about her husband’s snoring.

Betsy Ann Brandt as Marie Schrader in Breaking Bad

 

In other words, Marie is the classic shrew. She’s annoying. But is she a disservice to the show? Is her character two-dimensional compared to her male costars?

Let’s look at Saul Goodman, the slimy lawyer who seems to have a friend in every major criminal category. He tells dumb jokes, sports a hilarious comb-over, is able to produce a plot device when things get too hairy, and, most of all, he never changes from the moment we meet him until the moment Jesse punches him in the face.

In fact, Saul has changed less than Marie, who, over the course of five seasons, has revealed layers and made noted changes in her personality. In the first season, Marie is the ultimate stereotype, as is everybody else in the show. It’s the point of Breaking Bad for Walt to go from Mr. Chips to Scarface. He can’t do that without changing his surroundings. In the first season, the Mr. Chips season, Marie is a bored, middle-aged professional who is married to a man who is always at work.

While Hank is certainly a much more dynamic character, he’s also got a much more dynamic life than Marie. Part of Marie’s character is to be a foil for Hank, the DEA agent who is tracking down Gus Fring, and, eventually, Walter White. Should Gilligan have written Hank’s character as a woman? Maybe so. It certainly would have made things interesting. But as the show is written, Hank is the cop, and Marie is the wife of the cop. She’s also Skyler’s sister.

Marie only changes when her exact situation changes. Sure, she steals from time to time and refuses to fess up, but her real conflict doesn’t even begin until the second half of the fifth season, when she finally learns who Walt truly is.

Marie and Walter Jr. are the only characters, for a long stretch of time, who live almost completely outside of the world of Heisenberg, at least to their knowledge. Marie is important because she represents the Mr. Chips America that everybody else has been forced to leave behind.

However, now that Marie knows Walt’s secret, her character is going through rapid changes. She’s paranoid, she can’t sleep or eat, she’s daydreaming about poisoning Walt and stealing his children. She physically assaults Skyler. The Mr. Chips fantasy is dissolving right in front of us.

Marie’s lack of change over the course of the show reflects the strong writing of the show, not the weaknesses. When Hank is shot, Marie becomes a worried wreck, believably, under the stress. Over the course of the following season, Hank treats her worse and worse, until she feels so alone that she has to resort to stealing again to get some relief.

At home, with Hank depressed, crippled, in bed, all she can do is be positive and act like everything is going to be okay. Brandt’s eyes gives us a different story in those scenes. She’s tortured for those months that Hank can’t get out of bed, but she can’t let Hank know that. She wants him to get better.

I experienced a very similar situation in my own life, where my father was very sick and my mother had to be the emotional center of the family. She stayed positive and strong so we wouldn’t get too worried, and it made all the difference. Marie’s scenes during those episodes felt extremely accurate for me.

An important detail to remember is that Breaking Bad belongs to Walter White, not Marie and not Skyler. They’re supporting players in a focused narrative about one man’s descent into madness.

Marie takes up the same approximate screen time as Saul Goodman, and Saul Goodman has even less of an arc. And yet he’s probably getting his own show. Walter Jr. has had no arc whatsoever, and he is the last true remnant of the life Walter destroyed. Walter Jr.’s lack of an arc is intentional, as it reminds us of how far Walt has traveled from the first episode.

So let’s talk about Skyler. Not only is she inexplicably hated by a huge community of bullies, but she’s often the example critics use to point out how poorly the women of the show are written.

But is she poorly written?

Like Marie foils Hank, Skyler foils Walt. Like Marie supports as Saul does, Skyler supports as Jesse does.

Betsy Ann Brandt & Anna Gunn in Breaking Bad

As a foil, Skyler is absolutely what she needs to be. As Walt has morphed into a super villain, Skyler has morphed into a grotesque version of her former self. In the first season, Skyler is a pregnant, happy stay-at-home mother who yearns to pick up her old hobby of creative writing full-time again. She talks about writing a collection of short stories while taking care of her baby.

She’s attentive with Walter Jr. and she cares deeply for Walt, acting as the glue of the family.

As the series continues, and Walt transforms into Heisenberg, Skyler’s optimistic spirit is crushed. It’s easy to forget just how optimistic and happy Skyler is at the start of the show, since she’s been unhappy for so long. Look at her in this past week’s “Rabid Dog,” and then look at her in the pilot. Those are completely different women.

Look at Jesse in “Rabid Dog,” and then look at Jesse in the pilot. Two completely different men.

Both have been hollowed out by Walt. Their lively spirits have dulled. Jesse became a breakout character for his goofy phrasing and impossibly light attitude, but that attitude has been gone for nearly two full seasons. Just like Skyler’s.

But why is Jesse believed to be a better-written character, when Skyler has faced a similar trajectory?

It has a lot to do with focus. Look at a children’s Bible and then look at a regular Bible. The story of Noah is vastly different in each version, but it’s the same story. In the children’s version, the cute animals are the most memorable part of the story. In the regular version, the most memorable part of the story is the decimation of everything else on the planet as a punishment for being bad.

Same story, two perspectives.

Anna Gunn as Skyler White on Breaking Bad

In Skyler and Jesse’s case, we’re just more intimate with Jesse. It’s Walt’s show, and over the course of Breaking Bad, Jesse has been Walt’s partner. Skyler is certainly an essential part of the show, but she did most of her changing offscreen.

When she learns about Walt’s second life, she disappears for days at a time. And since it’s a show about Walter White, we stay with Walt. Skyler is not the protagonist, she’s a supporting character, so we only ever really see her when her story directly affects Walt’s character.

Should Walt have been a female character? Maybe, it would have certainly been interesting. But that doesn’t mean Skyler isn’t developed, it means she’s a supporting character with a similar arc to Jesse’s. But, for some reason, her arc isn’t as recognized as Jesse’s.

Am I missing something? What do you think about the show’s female characters? Let me know in the comments below.

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