“Confessions” isn’t necessarily a Skyler-centric episode of Breaking Bad, but it nonetheless functions as a near perfect accompaniment of Anna Gunn’s recent op-ed for the New York Times about her “character problem.” Gunn, of course, doesn’t have a problem with her character, but a problem with the people who nurture an odd and borderline misogynist hatred for Skyler seemingly because she serves as the most viable and enduring “antagonist” to Walter White. As Gunn expertly details in the op-ed, Skyler— who, like every other character on the show, is by no means innocent— has become a lightning rod for fans who miss the point of Breaking Bad and have turned “Heisenberg” into a modern day Tony Montana. Or to put it more simply, the kinds of people who in “typical online posts complain that Skyler [is] a ‘shrieking, hypocritical harpy’ and [doesn’t] ‘deserve the great life she has,’” the latter complaint being one of the best instances of entirely misreading a show’s intent in recent memory.
As much as “Confessions” appears to be another step in the currently mostly cold war between Walt and Hank, it is in actuality one of the most heartbreaking episodes of the show thanks to the way it spotlights the culture of victimization that surrounds Walt and has specifically traumatically impacted Skyler. Jesse, of course, gets a more direct and volatile exploration of victimhood, but his victimhood is also more problematic, as he has been a willing participant in Walt’s activities since the beginning. Likewise, Walt Jr. is a victim, too, but he remains blissfully unaware of Walt’s crimes and is therefore not trapped in the same way Skyler is. Skyler has truly blossomed as a character in the time since she not only discovered what Walt was up to, but was forced to become a part of his operation in order to feel as though she had some control, however slight, over the situation. But now Walt hasn’t just incriminated her through involvement, he has forced her to choose between her own family— the family that includes Walt, yes, but also her children— or the family she was born with, specifically Marie. We root for Walt, even though we know he is a violent and disturbing criminal, because he symbolizes a kind of freedom, a way of turning a terrible situation around and regaining some kind of control. And we hate Skyler because she reminds us that Walt has become, or maybe always was, a morally reprehensible and nearly inhuman person.
Walt’s power comes from that duality of his personality. Viewed from one angle, he is a beloved father and mentor in a grave situation. Viewed from another, truer angle, he’s a monster who has turned his greatest weakness into his greatest weapon, working out all the years of not getting what he feels he deserved through a bloody criminal empire. This duality is what he utilizes now that he’s facing down his greatest threat, his brother-in-law Hank’s covert investigation of “Heisenberg,” and it’s what also forces Skyler’s ultimate decision in regards to her loyalty. Deftly manipulating the truth about real things he knows about Hank— that he once took Walt on a ridealong, that his Gustavo Fring obsession got him maimed, that he only recovered because of the cash infusion Walt gave Marie for medical bills— Walt records a “confession” for Hank that is really the story of Hank as Heisenberg, a masterful flip of reality that hinges on Walt’s understanding of the power of Hank’s ego. Skyler helped with this, planting as she did the seed of doubt about what proof Hank even had or where he had gone with it, and throughout the entire episode, Gunn plays Skyler like Walt plays himself, Walt’s narrative about unwittingly being forced into a drug operation mirroring the narrative his own wife is trapped in.
Where the Skyler/Gunn hatred reveals its misogynist roots is in the incredibly contradictory reactions to her status as a hostage versus Jesse’s status as a hostage. Like Walt, Jesse has been written as a character we root for and love despite ourselves, and this was the culmination of that, as Jesse finally called Walt’s inhumanity out and begged him to just be up front about how little he cares about Jesse. It was a beautifully orchestrated scene, Aaron Paul’s acting chops in full effect as he played the scene to the fullest without chewing the scenery. As viewers, we’ve been manipulated into buying into the narrative of Jesse as anti-hero and when he puts two and two together and forgoes the disappearing act Saul and Walt set up for him because at the last minute he discovered what really happened with the ricin cigarette, we cheer. We worry when he barges into Saul’s office and beats Saul and we worry even more when Jesse appears poised and ready to kill Saul, because Saul is another despicable character we’ve been taught to love. And when Saul is given mercy and Jesse heads to the White residence, while Walt hurriedly picks up a stashed gun from work, we look forward to the action we know is coming. Jesse covers the house in gas and we know he’ll burn it down because we’ve seen the future. And we’re happy for Jesse for acting out, for challenging Walt. But it’s also a fake moment, because this is Breaking Bad and everything Vince Gilligan and company encourage us to root for winds up hurting us.
I don’t know what will happen next, though I suspect it will be the death of an actual innocent, whether it’s Holly or Walt Jr or both. Even if that doesn’t happen, the real destruction of the White house is just a handy physical depiction of the Fall of the House of White, because even if Walt and his hostage partner Skyler succeed in their plan— and based on Hank’s bad behavior at work and unwillingness to trust any of his peers, it almost certainly will— they will have only succeeded through the sacrifice of their own family and whatever vestige of good they had left in them. Gunn’s inability to understand the specific brand of hatred so many “fans” have for Skyler is perfectly reasonable, but that common remark about Skyler not “deserving the great life she has” is perhaps unwittingly accurate. Skyler doesn’t deserve this great life she has, because unlike Jesse, she never willingly entered into it. She deserved the boring, unglamorous but ultimately far more happy and rewarding life Walt ended for her when he decided to end it for himself.