"One of the things that made Walt and Skyler fall in love with each other was that he has a brilliant mind and so does she," says Anna Gunn of the character she plays on Breaking Bad – leaving no doubt that she, for one, sees unlikely drug lord Walter White and his increasingly horrified wife Skyler as equals. It's not just talk: Gunn's the finest female foil for a male antihero on television right now, turning in a quietly crushing performance as an intelligent, independent woman slowly getting sucked into the gravitational maw of her husband's monstrousness. That conflict has led to her stunning breakdown on this week's episode – and to Skyler joining the growing number of women characters on major TV dramas singled out by furious fans.
Was Skyler's car-wash meltdown her crawlspace moment?
Yeah, I think that’s a pretty fair way to look at it. It's obviously the first time that anybody has seen her break like this. She just snapped.
Walt's complete obliviousness to her emotional state in recent episodes had to have played a part in why she finally broke down. He used to be more attuned to her, if only to be a more effective liar, but now it's like he's on another planet and she's completely alone.
She is. And she's more terrified than she's ever been in this whole thing, because she doesn't know what he's capable of. In playing these early episodes, whenever he comes into a room that I'm in, there was a feeling of me wanting to move as little as possible, wanting to breathe as little as possible, almost like you're prey and you know somebody's looking at you through the crosshairs. That was the feeling of it: "Maybe if I don't make any sudden moves, maybe if I don't speak too loudly, he won't do anything."
Why do you think it was Marie who provoked her breakdown?
I thought that was really clever. Despite the humorous side of their relationship – well, humorous to the audience – where Marie nitpicks and pokes at her sister all the time, I don't think Marie means to do that. They both really love each other. Betsy [Brandt] and Vince [Gilligan] and I have discussed this: "Where's their family?" You never hear about the rest of the family, the mom and dad, at all. We made the assumption that we did not have a particularly happy or easy childhood, and that led to the two of us sticking together, because they're very close. For actors, you've gotta sometimes fill in your backstory. At least that's what I did, very specifically – that I needed Marie, and I love her, and I know she doesn't mean ill.
But Skyler has not been able to let this stuff out to anyone – only her divorce lawyer. It’s been building up in her so much that at this point she’s like a pot about to boil over. Marie just happened to push her buttons that day. And both because of the closeness of their relationship, and because of who Marie is and how she expresses herself by rattling on . . . on that particular day, there’s not one more thing Skyler can handle, not one more thing she can take, so she just blows her top.
By the end of the episode, I started wondering for the very first time if Skyler would resort to violence to escape her situation. What is her escape route at this point?
This is what is stressing her right now. During the last couple of seasons it’s like, "Do I want to run away with the kids? Do I turn him into the police? What do I do?" It’s a constant wheel that turns in her head. When she realizes that he was responsible for Gus Fring’s death, that’s the bottom falling out of her life. When she walks out and she sees Junior watching Scarface and they’re quoting the movie together, in light of everything else that’s happened, it’s so quietly horrifying to her that all she can do is turn around and walk back to her room. She knows that there’s no saying, "Walt, please don’t do that." They're past that. She’s also in a state of depression at this point, a sinking-into-yourself where the feeling is, "I don’t really want to try. Why bother? Why bother doing anything?"
But, within that, there’s still really desperate wheels turning. I don’t think she cares about herself anymore – she's just thinking, "How can I keep my kids safe?" She does not have the answer, but she’s definitely looking for it. And you know what? She'd do anything to ensure that. She is desperate enough to do anything.
There's been a backlash against Skyler, something she has in common with women characters on a variety of big dramas about men who tend behave much worse than they do. Do you have a sense of why this happens? Does it faze you at all?
Some of it is still the double standard in our society – that it’s more acceptable for a man to be this antihero badass doing all these things that break the law or are really awful. People watching want to be Walt, or they identify with him. He doesn’t have to answer to anybody. He does what he wants. There’s a fantasy element to that, I think. I also think that in some ways, there’s kind of a sexism to it, honestly. Sometimes . . . [pauses] I’ve been told particularly, how do you say . . . non-flattering or just really vicious – you could use the word vitriolic – angry stuff about Skyler, or about other female characters on other shows. The hatred and the vitriol and the venom and the nastiness and the attacks are so personal sometimes that it feels like, "Oh gosh, OK, I get that you don’t like Skyler, you like Walt, you’re on his side, but it just feels different." I don’t feel like that stuff would be written about a male character.
Honestly, Skyler is sometimes the biggest impediment to Walt doing whatever he wants. For the people who love Heisenberg, who love the badass Walt, when Skyler says, "No, you shouldn’t do that," they’re like, "What is her deal!? What’s wrong with her?" [Laughs] I can understand that. I can. But having looked at articles that cite other female characters being attacked like this, I find it disturbing just in terms of a cultural phenomenon. I'm not saying everyone who's into the show and has an opinion is like that, but I feel there's an element of that in there, and it's an interesting gender issue. I'm glad that people are talking about it.
I caught up with Breaking Bad in a huge Netflix binge, and spending that much time in that world messed me up, emotionally. How do you feel at the end of shooting a season?
Pretty much the same way. [Laughs] After we shoot certain scenes, I feel like I need to take a shower. A long, hot one. I've got about a thirty-minute ride home from the studio to where I live in Albuquerque, so that ride is important. Music is selected carefully to help me shed it. Sometimes in watching the episode, I will start to feel, in my body, the way I felt when I was filming the scene. Like at the end of Episode 2, where Walt climbs in the bed next to Skyler – I felt this feeling of [makes gagging sound] in my body, the same feeling that was going on during the filming it. I can’t watch it too close to bedtime.