So I just devoured Breaking Bad in the last few weeks, and while I wait for my brain to piece itself back together after the events of the latest episode “Ozymandias” (OMG, LMNOP, WTF, !!!!!), I’m going to talk about the women on the show.
Breaking Bad has often been compared to a modern-day Macbeth, a story that expertly depicts the devolution of a bitter, resentful, but mostly okay (or at least not terrible) person into a complete monster of a human being. It has two of the most complex characters (Walter White and Jesse Pinkman) in television history. The focus of Breaking Bad is mostly masculine – aside from Walt and Jesse, we also have fascinating characters like Hank Schrader, Gus Fring, Mike Ehrmantraut, and my beloved sleazeball Saul Goodman – but the show also has a handful of interesting female characters who are, in their own ways, unlike most female characters I’ve seen on television: Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, Skyler White, and Marie Schrader.
I’ll start with Lydia, the only female villain on the show. Lydia is a meth supplier who comes into her own shortly after Gus Fring is murdered and makes business deals with Walter White and white supremacists. She is not a good person.
Why I find Lydia refreshing: I feel that, too often, female villains in fiction are portrayed as examples one of two archetypes. Either the villain is a temptress who uses her sexuality to get what she wants, or she’s a ballbuster who acts so tough and masculine that she might as well be a man.
Lydia is neither of those things. Lydia is a snappy dresser and loves her Christian Louboutin shoes, even as she’s gingerly stepping around a sea of dead bodies in a desert, but she’s not a sexpot. She doesn’t leap at the opportunity to be a seductive when she senses that the white supremacists are ogling her body; their attention makes her uncomfortable (as well it should. *shudder*) At the same time, she’s not a ballbuster who thrives on emasculation, a “tough-guy” character who was originally written as a man until the producers realized they needed more women on the show and did a last minute, gender-swapped casting.
Lydia is interesting to me because she’s ruthless and evil with no moral compass, but she’s also jittery, nervous, and neurotic. She has absolutely no issue with having a group of neo-Nazis kill a large amount of people, but the idea of looking at all of those dead bodies makes her physically queasy.
Lydia is pretty terrible. She loves her daughter, but that doesn’t make her a good person any more than Walt’s initial motivation to protect his family makes him a good person. I appreciate seeing a female villain who looks like she might actually exist in the real world, rather than a male fantasy of a “hot” bad girl or a male nightmare of an emasculating witch.
Now I have to talk about Skyler White.
Skyler White is one of the more hated female characters in recent history. (Just do a Google image search of Skyler White and see what pops up, if you want to feel really depressed.) She’s probably hated even more than Catelyn Stark on Game of Thrones. She is known as the nagging bitch wife who cheated on her husband after finding out that he was a meth dealer.
(Remember, folks: if you’re a man who cooks meth and kills people, you’re just complicated and deep, but if you’re anything short of a perfect woman or wife, you’re nothing more than a bitch.)
Fortunately, Vince Gilligan doesn’t share this misogynistic viewpoint of Skyler White. Neither do I. In fact, I’m damn glad she’s on the show.
Why I find Skyler interesting: My reactions to Skyler have been all over the place since I first started watching Breaking Bad. I found her annoying and cringeworthy when she gave her husband a half-hearted handjob for his birthday. I felt sorry for her but also wanted her to stop being so pushy when she held an intervention for Walt with that “feelings pillow” (thoughts pillow? It’s been ages since I’ve seen that episode). I felt really sorry for her after Walt forced his way back into the house and played on their son’s favoritism. I cheered her on when she told Walt, “I fucked Ted.” I was impressed with her when she came up with the gambling lie on the spot, frustrated when she took Walt back entirely, fearful for her when she felt stuck in the house after Walt became EXTRA scary, and immensely disappointed in her when she sold Hank and Marie up the river to protect her awful husband.
Skyler has sometimes been described as Walt’s victim in an abusive relationship, and also his willing partner who is culpable for her own share of their problems. But this isn’t a case of either/or. She is both of these things, and that’s what makes her fascinating to me. I never know whether Skyler is going to do something smart and shrewd or stupid and short-sighted, or if she’s going to disappoint me or impress me. She’s unpredictable yet consistent, and all of her actions make sense based on what we know about her.
Is she likable? Not really. But no one cares about the likability of male characters, so why should we care whether or not Skyler is likable? She’s complex, and that’s what’s important.
Finally, I have to talk about Marie Schrader.
Marie Schrader is Skyler’s sister and Hank’s wife, and she’s just great. I love her.
Why I love Marie: To be honest, I didn’t expect to love Marie when I first started watching Breaking Bad. She was a little grating and she never stopped talking, and I didn’t understand why we were wasting time with her shoplifting problem when there were bigger crises going on. (Now I see that Marie’s kleptomania was a bit of irony – her family is disgusted with her for her crimes, and meanwhile, Walt is cooking meth and killing people all over Albequerque.)
But then came the intervention scene in season one, the intervention that Skyler carefully arranges so that her family can convince Walt to stay alive – and instead of toeing the party line, Marie announces that she thinks Walt should be able to die in dignity if that’s what he wants.
That was the scene that made me wake up and pay attention to Marie, because she was so much more than the overly chatty “annoying sister” archetype that I expected.
Sure, she talks too much. Sure, she nags. But she’s also fiercely loyal to her husband and wants what’s best for her family. Not loyal to her family in the same way that Walt is loyal, in that he uses his family as props to convince himself he’s a good person, but actually loyal, always looking out for the best interests of her nephew and niece.
Which means she’ll still look Walt in the eye and calmly, yet tearfully, advise him to kill himself before he ruins his family, in an incredible moment that twisted my stomach because I was so shocked to hear it.
Marie is a better person than most people on Breaking Bad, actually wanting to help others in her own imperfect way (imagine, a character wanting to help others existing on this show!) But she’ll still indulge in thoughts of poisoning Walt during her therapy session, admitting that while she’d never hurt anyone, “it just feels good to think about it.”
Lydia, Skyler, and Marie are three female characters who cannot be described in any one way, who break from the archetypes prescribed to them when they’re first introduced. I hope TV writers take note of them and rethink the way they write women in drama.