“It’s really too bad that the Emmys hate the future,” critic Kate Aurthur wrote at BuzzFeed today, expressing a lot of people’s frustrations that the voters for the Emmys — as for many other television awards — seem so stuck on a few aging shows, like “Modern Family,” rather than recognizing the programs that are reshaping the TV landscape. But as much as I might have preferred to see the golden statuettes distributed differently overall, I want to praise one of the ceremony’s throwback decisions: the acting award for “Breaking Bad” star Anna Gunn.
Series creator Vince Gilligan describes the trajectory of the main character of “Breaking Bad,” science-teacher-turned-master-meth-cook Walter White (Bryan Cranston), as the transition from Mr. Chips into Scarface. No such neat phrase ever summed up Gunn’s performance as Walt’s wife, Skyler. But her journey from a surface cheerfulness to the interior of her own dark heart was just as complex, and much more challenging to audiences than Walt’s enthusiastic embrace of his own badness.
The genius of “Breaking Bad” was often in its ability to balance the baroque details of Walt’s evolution into a criminal kingpin with the more routine tensions and dramas of family life without the former sapping the emotional weight of the latter.
Early in the series, the terrible secret Walt was keeping from Skyler — that he was cooking and selling methamphetamine — generated a great deal of tension between them. But even if “Breaking Bad” did not have its intriguing central conceit, Gunn’s performance as a woman recognizing her own vulnerability could have carried the show.
When we meet her, Skyler is pregnant and underemployed, making little eBay sales to give herself the illusion that she was making a financial contribution to her family’s well-being. Her son, Walter Jr. (R.J. Mitte), has cerebral palsy. Walt’s initial job as a high school chemistry teacher may not promise them prosperity, but it preserves their stability.
After Skyler learns not just that her husband has cancer, but that he seems determined not to get treatment or accept financial help to make that treatment more viable, Skyler’s placidity is shattered. Gunn does a beautiful job of bringing out ugly emotions in expressing Skyler’s fear that Walt wants to leave her. As Walt’s personality continues to change and his behavior becomes more erratic, Gunn gives a performance worthy of a Hitchcock heroine. She senses that the world has changed around her, but worries about the consequences of seeking confirmation for her feelings. The only possible answers are that she is going crazy or that something unimaginably bad is happening to her family.
Walt’s behavior is not the only thing that makes Skyler feel like the little nuts and bolts that hold the world together are coming loose. Skyler is humiliated when her sister, Marie (Betsy Brandt), turns out to have shoplifted an expensive gift for Skyler’s daughter, Holly. Walter Jr. is drawn to the sort of behavior in Walt that Skyler finds so disturbing: his shaved head, his newly acquired swagger, the new cars Walt purchases on a whim.
Walt is a powerful vortex, and inevitably, Skyler is drawn into it. Just as inevitably, her dabbling in darkness turns out to be much less cool than many viewers found Walt’s construction of his criminal empire to be.
Where Walt has brain waves that lead him to blow up drug dealers or escape when he is handcuffed to a radiator, Gunn brings a fussiness to Skyler’s big idea: the acquisition of a car wash that will let the Whites launder their money. Walt’s growing self-confidence leads him to force himself on Skyler in a series of encounters that sharply divided viewers. Skyler responded with an ill-considered affair with her boss that some audiences treated as an action more reprehensible than marital rape.
And where Walt ultimately went out in a hail of bullets, Skyler’s desperate actions to extricate herself from Walt’s enterprise were a reflection of a different kind of intelligence and a different level of resources. She feigned mental illness to get her children out of the house and grappled with Walt on the floor of their kitchen, knife in hand.
Gunn’s performance was not that of an action heroine or a television genius, and it was not meant to be. Skyler carries the weight of Walt’s actions. Plenty of people hated her for it, Walt sometimes included. But Gunn’s performance pushed both Walt and the people who wanted to see him as a hero to increasingly contrived and ludicrous justifications for treating Skyler like she was a worse person than Walt.
Gunn’s drawn face in the last two seasons of “Breaking Bad” might not have brought about the end of the anti-hero era in television. But Gunn’s performance marked the end of a time when the creators of such shows could get away with writing anti-heroes’ wives as flat, cartoonish characters, or when audiences could get away with worshiping difficult men without encountering strong opposition.