I’m new to Breaking Bad. Part of me wants to binge and watch ever episode in a week and another part of me wants to slowly watch them and let each episode soak in. I finished watching Game of Thrones this summer and wished that I didn’t rush through it so quickly. Although I try to stay away from spoilers and make a point not to read articles or tweets, I felt compelled to read Anna Gunn’s guest editorial in the New York Times, ” I Have a Character Issue.” I thought her opinion piece was very interesting and says a lot about the state of strong, complex and tormented television wives.
At this point, I’ve just seen the first season of Breaking Bad and have only a few hints on what happens in seasons 2 through 5. I don’t hate her character, Skyler White. I sympathize with her dealing with her husband’s cancer diagnosis and pregnancy hormones. Now I’m wondering what happens to her and Walt that breeds so much hate for Skyler.
I tried to figure out additional factors why audiences might not enjoy or appreciate the character of the antihero’s wife. It isn’t just about the females themselves, but about the men. I came to a conclusion that it is all about male choice and the desire for male autonomy.
The wives of antihero characters are put in a particularly tough spot in any show. They want what is best for their families, but that is different than what the husbands want. Since the male is the protagonist in the show, his point of view is better articulated. This tension in the relationship brings drama, but often the woman feel like a killjoy, since they are trying to ruin the premise which these shows are based on. They are always reacting to situations instead of being proactive and usually don’t have an interesting storyline away from the husband or the family. They fight for their husbands and children and that should be commended.
If these were not television shows and real life, everyone would be in the corner of the wives. If I had a husband and he was cooking meth or killing people, popular opinion would be on my side if I tried to stop his behavior or would just call the cops. I would be the one that had everyone’s sympathies. The wife would be the heroine and would be commended for putting up with so much and taking actions to make changes.
These shows are written to advance the case of men who are morally gray and find themselves in sticky situations. We cheer for characters like Walter White, Dexter Morgan, Tony Soprano, Jax Teller and Ray Donovan who usually are put in a crappy situation. The audience wants them to find a way out of a tight spot or moral dilemma. These men will do anything to survive or maintain a way of life. We want these guys to “get away with it.” These men do bad things, but to some extent they are doing it for the right or justifiable reasons or that is how these shows portray it.
I find it fascinating that these wives get so much hate in a world that loves the “beauty and the beast” trope. That is where a bad guy changes or works on changing to be worthy of love. You see this a lot in vampire stories. You have Spike who changes for Buffy and gets his soul for her. Damon on the Vampire Diaries also tries to be better for his woman, Elena. These trips from bad to good are bumpy, but it is different because these men choose to be good or at least socially acceptable. Thus men changing for possibility of sex and love is seen as a better reason to stop killing people than being “nagged” at by someone who already is committed to them. Since these wives already love the husbands and give them sex (for the most part), they have little motivation to change in the context of the story. The wife could leave, but they struggle to find another solution.
For the most part, these wives married these men under the premise that they were nice/okay/better guys. The most horrible behavior was hidden or did not occur until after they were married. These men have made a choice to be bad.
These televised relationships illustrate the importance of male agency in many narratives. Thus making HIS choice about reform the determining factor of how an audience feels about it.