Breaking Bad and Women

It seems that a mandatory accompaniment the enormous – and entirely-deserved – popularity of a show such as Breaking Bad is opportunistic, attention-grabbing criticism. Of course, it can be a good thing to challenge the consensus, overwhelming as it is, with legitimate opinions, and as a Les Mis-sceptic I can certainly relate. The problem with Breaking Bad is that it’s really good; obnoxiously good, in fact, and this means that the wave of obligatory tall-poppy criticism against it ranges from a few passable critiques to excruciatingly transparent cries for attention. Rebecca Nicholson’s article in The Guardian, ‘Breaking Bad is great TV, but with no real women it can never be ‘my’ show’, grabbed my attention because I felt that the ‘Skyler Problem’ is a fairly legitimate criticism of the show, but her condescending dismissal of surely one of the most enthralling pieces of entertainment in modern TV or film as “a good, solid drama” on the basis of mildly flawed gender-writing really took the biscuit. What is more, on every level, Rebecca Nicholson’s arguments against Breaking Bad are fundamentally flawed, beginning with:

“It’s easy to argue that Breaking Bad is about a masculine world because high-level crystal meth dealers are likely to be men, and that, therefore, its female characters could only be secondary”

She is correct! The strong, obvious points are certainly easiest to argue, and in no way does this detract from their value: it’s easy to claim that unicorns don’t’ exist; it’s easy to contend that Donald Trump is an arsehole. Nicholson refutes this elephant-in-the-room point on the basis that while The Sopranos was similarly concerned with organised crime, it also included “some of the fullest female characters in the history of television”. On the other hand, the women of Breaking Bad are a mere “adornment” to the plot, and Skyler is written as a “nag and a bore”. Furthermore, Nicholson reiterates a point from a separate article (which, by the way, falls neatly into the transparent ‘look at my controversial opinion’ category), which posits that Skyler is unsympathetic and therefore fails as the moral centre of the show. Hold yer horses! Are we talking about the same show? Breaking Bad is a story about change: there is no moral centre as this would be contrary to the spirit of the show. The closest thing to a moral centre would be Hank, or even Jesse, but Skyler? No. The moral trajectory of the characters is built on the decisions they make and Skyler’s choices, from laundering money to ‘dealing’ with Ted, have been far from moral.

As soon as Nicholson starts talking about Marie (“a skittish woman treated with weary contempt by her husband; her sole interesting trait is a shoplifting habit”), I suspect she has been ‘multi screening’ throughout the last few series of the show. Thinly hidden beneath his jocky bravado, Hank’s love for Marie is evident in almost all of his scenes, even when he’s treating her like shit because he’s ashamed of her seeing him disabled and emasculated. And shoplifting? I’d almost forgotten about that it was so long ago – Series One much?

As previously iterated, most of the women in Breaking Bad are not key players in drug empires and therefore do not have the most glamorous or appealing roles, but it is a testament to the predominantly-male writing team that they do not drop the ball on these characters, as one might fairly have expected. The women of Breaking Bad are characterised as thriving in adversity and as such, act as a perfect, grounded counterpoint to the hubris and myopia of the men. Marie, for example, seems initially to be a two-dimensional stay-at-home kleptomaniac wife, but when faced with her injured husband at his weakest, her strength emerges as she contends with his frustration and takes the step of going behind his back to accept money to provide him with care. It is only because of Marie’s subversion of Hank’s foolish male pride that he is able to walk and salvage his macho façade on which he relies so heavily. Similarly, Skyler’s adaptation to the threat of her husband is inspired: she makes use of her guts and common sense – which her spouse so sorely lacks – to ruthlessly procure the car wash at the expense of its owner, in a symbolic reclamation of a place which once emasculated her desperate-to-provide husband. Her ability to cope with any complications that arise in her part of the business is an inspiring development which has won over even the most hardened Skyler-haters.

So why the Skyler Problem? To be fair, at the beginning of the series, Skyler seemed to fit the ‘Nagging Bitch Wife’ trope pretty well, but this is only because she was placed in direct opposition to the character we were rooting for. The real question is when do we stop rooting for Walt and start empathising with Skyler? Perhaps the problem with the show is a kind of Dexter-syndrome: the audience will root for almost any main character, even if their favourite pastime is serial-killing. By Season Four most of our empathy should have moved from Walt to Skyler, but the audience is loath to forsake a central character, and particularly one as compelling as Walt.

The problem with Nicholson’s comparisons is that The Sopranos is about a family governed by crime, whereas Breaking Bad is about a family destroyed by crime, and told from the perspective of the destroyer. So who is going to be more appealing – the wife who bitterly resists the main character’s rise to psychopathic drug lord, or the wife who is already complicit in the main character’s nefarious activities? These are two different scenarios and cannot be compared; and this only goes to show the ridiculousness of scrutinising all television under the limited microscope of gender.

Ultimately, Breaking Bad has a far more distinct, concise narrative direction than The Sopranos: the series specifically charts the consequences of Walt’s actions and – with the exception of Fly – each episode is set in a motion which only allows characterisation to derive from plot. The Sopranos, on the other hand, lacks this strong catalyst, allowing more time for the development of characters such as Carmela and Meadow. In truth, the least developed character in Breaking Bad is Walter Junior; while he has a crucial part to play as Walt’s innocent and unaware son, this role forces him outside of the inner circle of fully-fleshed characters. One might question if 16 year-old Walt Junior’s complete naiveté is entirely convincing and furthermore, is it meant to be more believable because of his disability? While undoubtedly a minor point, this is surely a stronger flaw in Breaking Bad than anything Nicholson’s article mentions, but one which will be overlooked by any Guardianites nit-picking for gender issues.

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