‘Breaking Bad’s’ Anna Gunn and the triumph of hero over anti-hero

September 23, 2013

It’s hard out there for a hero.

Anti-heroes have it easy. Their sinful existence satisfies our basest desires. We love them for being the kind of reckless, selfish people we would despise in real life. They get away with it, whatever it may be: an affair, a secret identity, a criminal enterprise, murder. If they don’t like what’s being said, they change the conversation.

For the heroes, though, it’s a tougher game. It’s all crustless sandwiches and catchphrases for the man who protects this family. It is much, much harder — often a thankless task — to be the one who protects this family from the man who protects this family.

Anna Gunn, whose suckerpunch-to-the-solar-plexus of a performance as Skyler White on “Breaking Bad” was rewarded last night with an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama, has both spoken and written about the way her character is regarded by a certain unsavory segment of the show’s fan base.

These are the “bad” “Breaking Bad” fans. This isn’t to say people they don’t follow the program religiously. (Does that segment exist? Either you’re either on the RV or you’re off the RV, as it were.) They’re the fans who think that Bryan Cranston’s Walter White — a depraved, egomaniacal, greedy monster living in the body of mealy-mouthed, cancer-ridden chemistry teacher — is just so awesome. He makes barrels of money. He’s a criminal mastermind, a drug kingpin, a millionaire many times over. He’s got killers on call. (Wonder how he reaches them… 1-877-NEO-NAZI, maybe?) Skyler, viewed through that warped lens, is the opposite. She’s a no-fun, humorless buzzkill, the one always saying “no” when Walt wants to hear “yes,” the person pointing out that Walt’s actions will have consequences, the worst of which will fall upon the people he claims to care about the most: his family.

The argument has been made (recently by The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan) that you don’t have to be one of those fans to have had problems with Skyler. In earlier seasons, Skyler’s character wasn’t nearly as well-written as Walt or, for that matter, Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul. Her role was limited, due in part to her purpose in the plot. She couldn’t find out about Walt’s new job right away; the fact that she “couldn’t” figure it out, combined with Walt’s brilliance, didn’t make her look as smart as she would later prove to be. That, and she had the unenviable job of being the voice of reason in a world where fun increased with direct proportion to chaos.

But even as seasons three and four progressed and that writing problem receded, the “bad fan” reaction to Skyler held strong, clearly loud enough for the “Breaking Bad” writers to hear. Last week’s “Ozymandias” brought Gunn to a knife fight and put the stream of misogynistic vitriol that the worst of “Breaking Bad” viewers have been spewing at her for years right in Walt’s mouth: “What the hell is wrong with you? Why can’t you do one thing I say? This is your fault! This is what comes with your disrespect!... You know, you never believed in me. You were never grateful for anything I did for this family. [in a fake Skyler voice, taunting her] ‘Oh no! Walt! Walt! You have to stop this!... It’s immoral, it’s illegal! Someone might get hurt!”

With all this in mind, it is deeply satisfying to see that the Emmy voters, for all of their flaws, are “good” “Bad” fans. They get it. Sure, they think Jeff Daniels deserves to run on stage with a mouthful of gum to collect a trophy while Cranston and Jon Hamm blink slowly into space, wondering if they’ve heard correctly. But in the case of Skyler White, Emmy voters see what should have been self-evident all along: Skyler is a hero (a complicated, morally conflicted hero who is finally just as compelling to watch as her husband), portrayed heroically by Anna Gunn.

A win for Gunn is a fitting one for another reason, too: it abides by the laws of the Vince Gilligan Universe, where terrible things happen to innocent people, but a kind of cosmic justice rules the day. Where every evil action has an even more brutal and opposite reaction. Where the bad guy won’t away with it.

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