To celebrate Women's History month, TVGuide is looking back on some of the best female TV characters who were underappreciated in their time — and almost no one is more deserving of that recognition than Skyler White (Anna Gunn) from Breaking Bad.
There were a lot of terrible characters on the AMC drama who deserved audiences' vitriol. The psychotic drug lord Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) was so unhinged and violent that it might've been funny were it not so concerning. Then there was Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), the Chilean crime boss and fast food mogul whose calmness and sophistication only made him scarier with each prolonged stare. Plus, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) himself may have started out well-intentioned enough, but he became a power-hungry murderer before all was said and done.
While all of those characters had pernicious personality traits, they were somehow still regarded with fondness by the show's rapt audience, who savored every ounce of their savagery and clamored for more. At the same time, Walt's wife Skyler was regarded as — and remains, to some — a malicious monster for getting in the way of her husband's illicit ambitions, even when her worst fears about his new profession proved true.
Skyler didn't sign up for the life Walt chose. When we first met her on Breaking Bad, she was late into her surprise second pregnancy; she had a teenage kid with cerebral palsy and a husband who made a modest living as a high school teacher and part-time car wash clerk. It wasn't a life of glamour or fortune, but she was satisfied with it.
Then came Walt's cancer diagnosis, which was nobody's fault. That alone would've been a seismic blow to everything the couple had built, but Skyler didn't even have a chance to react to the situation in a normal context. Instead, she only found out about her husband's cancer after Walt had already decided to pursue a life of crime.
Rather than turn to his wife for support or guidance, Walt decided to break bad (title wink!) with zero warning to her. Though he did eventually tell his wife about his condition, she didn't learn about his second life until he was elbow deep in the trenches of the meth business. Put yourself in Skyler's modest pumps. In her eyes, her husband was suddenly becoming duplicitous and distant, and his entire persona seemed to change overnight. She'd spent decades sharing a bed with one man and, for reasons she couldn't comprehend, woke up with another.
We the viewers got to see and empathize with Walt's massive movements along the way. His growth into Heisenberg felt a little like watching a phoenix rise from the ashes of a death sentence, becoming a full-on drug kingpin with buckets of cash and respect. Even in his worst moments, it was almost too easy to root for him to continue subverting the law. As a result, every scene that centered on Skyler's dissatisfaction with Walt felt like yet another hurdle for our hard-working antihero. Rather than give her the same kind of in-depth character analysis Walt inspired, fans widely considered Skyler a nag and a shrew who wouldn't just get out of the way and let her husband do what he thought was right — even when he knew it was wrong.
Anna Gunn responded to that backlash, which was becoming more and more personal, in a 2013 op-ed for The New York Times. She wrote that she felt her character had "become a flash point for many people's feelings about strong, non-submissive, ill-treated women."
"I finally realized that most people's hatred of Skyler had little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives," she continued. "Because Skyler didn't conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender."
Gunn's male co-stars would later echo her confusion over the contempt. Speaking with Entertainment Weekly for the 10th anniversary of Breaking Bad's premiere in 2018, Aaron Paul asked, "Why did our audience not sympathize with this poor woman? Granted, she is the thorn in Walter White's side, and everyone's rooting for Walter to succeed, but my God. You wake up one day you find out your husband is a meth kingpin, you know, you're going to have something to say about that."
Indeed, Skyler did have to say something about it. Then, when that failed, she tried to do something about it. And when it became abundantly clear that there was no safe or ordinary way out of the mess Walt had put their family in, Skyler decided to participate in an effort to protect herself and her children from the inside. And it almost worked.
Thanks to her financial know-how, Skyler and Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) were able to erect a money-laundering racket to clean Walt's cash and establish a legitimate business that would've been more than enough to keep the family afloat for years to come. If Walt's true motivation was really to leave his family with the means to survive his death, that mission was accomplished thanks in no small part to his wife. Their marriage was no longer salvageable by then, of course, but that was almost irrelevant at that point anyway.
Walt's greed, sloppy decision making, and poor choice of associates ultimately doomed them all, however, and Skyler was left holding the bag for all of his mistakes. She lost her job, her house, her reputation, her son's happiness, and her beloved brother-in-law. In the end, the only thing she managed to hang on to was the one thing she refused to compromise: her life and the lives of their children.
Whatever snippy comments Skyler threw at Walt — or even the extramarital affair she engaged in — paled in comparison to what she was made to endure as a result of his harmful decisions. She stood in Walt's way all that time because she knew what he was doing was dangerous, that he was not in control, and that even if he was the one who knocked for a time, someone else would be knocking at her door later. She was right about it all, and whatever viciousness the internet had for Skyler looks even more ridiculous in retrospect.
Breaking Bad fans may have wanted Skyler to pipe down during the show's run, but on rewatch, perhaps they'll discover she should've been the one making the calls the whole time.
Breaking Bad is available for streaming on Netflix.
This week, TV Guide is celebrating some of TV's most underrated female characters. As part of Women's History Month, we're paying tribute to Justified's Winona Hawkins, looking at why Connie is the unsung hero of Steven Universe, and more. You can check out all our Women's History Month content here.