People hate Skyler White.
I know this because I’ve written about her sympathetically; I may as well have written COME AT ME, BRO in all caps. Remember when Walt bullied and bullshitted his way back into their home in Season Three, daring her to rat on him, knowing she couldn’t? Remember how awful and gross that was? I called that one of Walt’s lowest lows; some commenters felt differently. “That was a friggin’ high point for Walt, it showed he STOPPED being a pushover to his overbearing wife, and started fighting back.” Because Walt had been such a milquetoast up until that point? “[What about] men who don’t want women to kick them out of the houses they bought with their money? What legal right did she have to kick him out? none! Good on Walt for ‘brutalizing’ his wife into obeying the fucking law and letting him use his own hard earned property.” Well, we certainly wouldn’t want anyone on Breaking Bad to disobey the law.
This kind of reaction is not uncommon, for Skyler in particular and for women – often wives – on top-drawer TV dramas in general. Characters like Skyler become targets of vituperation unimaginable to their male counterparts, most of whom engage in vastly more destructive and immoral behavior every episode. By failing to indulge every whim of the the male antiheroes around whom their shows are built, the women become obstacles to those men getting exactly what they want when they want it at all times, which is the core fantasy of antihero fiction. Cold cunning, ruthlessness, rage, self-interest, a propensity for physical violence – we gender these unheroic characteristics as male, and celebrate them; passivity, bitterness, grief, emotional enmeshment, a knack for attacking and deflating egos – we gender these unheroic characteristics as female, and loathe them. (Alyssa Rosenberg has nailed this phenomenon.) Skyler White, Betty Francis, Megan Draper, Catelyn Stark, Sansa Stark, Cersei Lannister, Carmela Soprano: On the sole count of “being women,” Fan Court finds you guilty as charged.
So for the purposes of reviewing tonight’s episode, “Hazard Pay,” I’m ignoring that segment of the audience. Instead I’m addressing the segment that’ll watch that scene between Skyler and Marie in her office, watch her repeat the phrase “SHUT UP” so that at first it’s funny, then it’s cringe-funny, then it’s just cringeworthy, then it’s actually frightening, and gasp “Jesus Christ, this poor human being.” It’s an uncomfortably familiar scene that writer Peter Gould concocted here, nailing the way a breaking mind can replicate its inadequacy to express the pain it’s feeling by seizing on an inappropriate or unrelated phrase or action and slamming it down over and over till it hits bone. Now it becomes clear that the repetitive nature of Skyler’s near-identical episode-ending interactions with Walt so far this season – reacting to his oblivious overtures with chilled horror – was set-up, not wheel-spinning, designed to get her to this point just as surely as each step in Walt’s meth or murder plots leads to a batch or a bomb.
It comes down to Anna Gunn, of course, a powerful actor painting a portrait of the consequences of criminality, but not in the same way that Bryan Cranston does as Walt or the increasingly awe-inspiring Jonathan Banks does as Mike. Cranston and Banks code-shift between genial dad and gruff but lovable grandpa respectively into cold-blooded monsters. But in much the same way that Aaron Paul’s Jesse is always a wide-eyed kid in over his head even when he’s fronting hard, Gunn’s Skyler is always a pretty, thoughtful mom, who wears her mask of criminality with visible discomfort and has no “Heisenberg” persona to retreat to. The “SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP” scene is her brain frantically searching for a back-up reservoir of dispassionate amorality and reporting “file not found.”
Of all the characters to provoke Skyler’s agonizing, riveting break down, it’s ironic that it’s Marie, the show’s most unsympathetically portrayed woman. Her default mode right through this very scene, when she kvetched about the subpar window-washing techniques of “the more ethnic-looking” car-wash employee, has been to say and do the most stereotypically priggish, square, obnoxious, assholish thing possible at any given moment. It’s a shame, because Betsy Brandt has shone every time the writers have added colors to Marie’s palette – confident and funny when she went to real-estate open houses and made up whole new life stories; playful and sexy when she jerks Hank off in the hospital; genuine and suddenly selfless when reacting to trauma experienced by her loved ones. We see that side of her later in the episode, when she responds to the revelation that Sky cheated on Walt with Ted (I was genuinely unsure whether or not Walt knew Sky had never told Marie about this, until he took that IDGAF bite of the apple afterwards) by hugging him with an intensity that even an accomplished liar like Walt didn’t expect to wring out of her.
Indeed, Walt not quite having a handle on how to deal with the people in his life made for a running theme. He’s got Jesse wrapped around his finger, yeah, gently steering him away from Andrea and Brock over beers and the Three Stooges. (Is Mike Moe or Curly? That is the question.) But that only happened after he hung out with Brock and realized he wasn’t quite as comfortable with having poisoned a child as he thought he was. He’s obviously badly misread Skyler’s state of mind, too, and remains just as oblivious and uncaring after her breakdown. I mean, dude invited a woman driven to mental illness by his murderous criminal activities to sit with him and the kids and watch the fucking end of fucking Scarface.
Worst of all, he’s mistaken Mike’s fear of him being out of control for fear of him being in control, and started stepping to this experienced killer and lawbreaker like they’re on equal footing. Mike’s trapped in the business relationship with Walt because, unlike Walt, he really does have a code, a loyalty to the people who depend on him and on whom he depends that transcends lip service. Walt’s so used to looking out for number one that Mike may as well be speaking Swahili when he explains all this to him. “You will be made whole,” Mike told his man in prison; Walt’s like a walking, talking rebuke to the idea that that’s even possible, in any way.
The filmmaking steers us down Walt’s delusional path right until the very end. Longtime director Adam Bernstein’s cross-cutting from Mike to Jesse to Saul to Walt as they wait to hear if he’s okay with Mike’s demand of hands-off treatment wordlessly establishes Walt’s new position as leader of the crew. Then there’s that magnificent musical montage in the makeshift meth lab, possibly the show’s best to date: gorgeous psychedelic shots of chemical reactions, relentless forward motion in the form of liquids flowing through tubes to their destinations, the Peddlers’ coolly funkified cover of “On a Clear Day” delivering a shot of hypercompetent Don Draper Mad Men music-cue string-section swagger. It’s only when we hit the final scene and Walt not-so-subtly hints to Jesse that Mike (Mike!) may be flying too close to the sun that the distance between Walt and reality becomes clear. Walt thinks he’s the head honcho of the new Vamonos Pest, but he’s really the infestation, and the cloud of poison that requires you to pack up and drive away if you value your life. He’s about to turn 51; he’ll be celebrating 52 alone, with a fake ID, a Denny’s breakfast, and a machine gun. It’s going to be a long year.
Last Episode: Heisenberg Uber Alles