Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Breaking Bad, Power, and Abuse

TW discussions of emotional abuse

Breaking Bad is one of my all time favorite TV shows. It has the uncanny ability to pull you in and get you hooked, even when you know you are rooting for "the bad guys."

I'm pretty sure people can and are writing entire dissertations on the gender portrayal of the show, so it's not something I can tackle in a blog post. But I do want to talk about the current state of Walt and Skyler's relationship and how I think it reflects a toxic and abusive relationship. With that said, if you haven't yet seen the current season up to the most recent episode, there will be spoilers after the cut.

Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Walt (Bryan Cranston)
To back up a bit, let's review how things used to be in the White household. Skyler, as portrayed by Anna Gunn, was a bit of a stereotypical, nagging TV wife. We, as the audience, could see how Walter (Bryan Cranston) just wanted to get into the meth business to ensure that his family would be taken care of and to offset the costs of his cancer treatment. Skyler, at that point, served as an impediment so we were frustrated by her. Walt's big goal was keeping Skyler unaware of things and as such, we were on Walt's side. He was just doing it all to take care of his family, right?

However, as things progressed and Skyler became an accomplice to Walt's business, things began to shift. Britt Hayes chronicles this nicely in her piece at Screen Crush about the growth of Skyler's character and the changing dynamics in the White household. She said:
From the outset, Skylar clearly had the edge on Walter in their suburban marriage. When she was upset, it read like grating theatrics. When she told Walter no, we’d root for him to do whatever it was she didn’t like...‘Breaking Bad’ put us in his corner from the very first episode, creating an empathetic character — a nervous, intelligent man whose capability had been second-guessed by his wife and his colleagues for years. 
...But Walt has too much power now, or so he thinks, and like many men who let that power go to their heads, he’s lost sight of reason, and he seems oblivious to how fickle his power truly is.

...Like most good television, ‘Breaking Bad’ has taken advantage of perspective. When we began the series we were firmly in Walt’s shoes. This is his show. But as the seasons have worn on, the layers are peeled back, giving us more perspective so that we see the way Walt hurts those around him and the ways in which Job has forsaken his God and taken the power for himself, blinding his moral compass and making him feel omnipotent. And now Skylar’s nagging doesn’t seem so terrible. Her outrage upon discovering Walt’s secret meth-cooking business and the hidden money seems reasonable. 
So we see things now from Skyler's perspective--especially when we the action takes place in the White home. Instead of being sympathetic for Walt, we are see him as someone unhinged. We see him as a monster. We see that he is power hungry and dangerous. We see him exactly as Skyler does and we begin to understand that their home is her prison. In the last episode (Season 5, episode 5 "Dead Freight") she even said to Walt, "I'm not your wife. I'm your hostage."

Like in many abusive relationships, Skyler feels powerless and trapped. As an act of desperation in the previous episode (Season 5, episode 4 "Fifty-One") Skyler acted emotionally disturbed enough to attempt suicide in their home pool in front of Walt, her sister Marie, and brother-in-law Hank. Her goal, and the result, was that Marie and Hank took Skyler and Walt's kids for a few days so that Skyler could get them out of the home--one which she referred to as a "toxic environment." In an especially intense scene when Skyler and Walt are alone, Walt demands to know what her next move is--where exactly she expects this to go. It's clearly a power struggle and Skyler is out of options. She tells Walt that she'll start hurting herself, leaving visible bruises so that Hank and Marie will keep the kids longer.

Walt counters that he would just have her committed and comments, "Do you really want to tell your 16 year old son that his father is a woman beater?" This is the part that stuck with me. In this intense moment where Skyler is grasping in desperation to anything that could protect herself and her children, Walt suggests that it would be most detrimental if she were to call Walt an abuser; detrimental enough that she should continue in silence, enduring his psychological warfare. It's a classic abuse tactic and victim blaming method used to shame the abused into silence, "If you tell anyone, you'll just cause problems for our family." (Never mind what Walt is currently doing to his wife and the daily danger he subjects her and his children to.)

And it appears that Walt doesn't see himself as "that bad" because he isn't leaving marks on Skyler's body. It's a mistake that I've seen emotional abusers make in my own life. The idea is that harming the mind isn't "real," which couldn't be further from the truth. I think there's no question, the White household is clearly abusive and dangerous.

It can be tempting to blame Skyler for her current situation. She didn't turn Walt in, after all. But while Skyler initially agreed to some level of involvement in Walt's meth business, she was more accurately forced into it. By the time that she was fully aware of the extent of his situation, life as she knew it was at stake. She couldn't freely choose involvement because at that point, what was the choice? All along, things have been progressing against Skyler's will and she is watching Walt transform more and more into a monster. The most recent episode shows a woman who is out of options. Skyler even told Walt that she is just waiting for the cancer to kill him. It was a chilling moment which rings all too true for those of us who have felt suffocated by someone's emotional torture.

Breaking Bad has long existed in the gray. So many of the moments leave us wondering who is the "good guy." But with Walt's current characterization I suspect that the series is preparing us to feel comfortable with him getting his comeuppance. It seems safe to assume that Walt's power-hungry nature and overt cruelty will be the undoing of him, not only in his personal life, but also for his business.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I haven't had the chance to see braking bad.

  2. Hi, I have just finished watching BB here in the UK and found this article after I searched for 'feminist perspective of BB'. I related to Skyler on many levels and in some ways BB is like a metaphor for the breakdown of my own relationship with my husband, a mild mannered high achieving genius of a man with a secret chip on his shoulder and it is still looking for a resolution. If you removed all the blood and guts and crystal meth, I think your interpretation of 'psychological warfare' for their relationship is one I hadn't thought of but see it now. "And it appears that Walt doesn't see himself as "that bad" because he isn't leaving marks on Skyler's body. It's a mistake that I've seen emotional abusers make in my own life. The idea is that harming the mind isn't "real," which couldn't be further from the truth. I think there's no question, the White household is clearly abusive and dangerous" Thank you.


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