Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White -- the swaggering, self-destructive men of prestige TV. Audiences can't get enough of these audacious antiheroes.
But their wives? Not so much. Somehow the women have been left to bear the brunt of the hatred that slides so easily off the backs of their manipulative, sometimes murderous spouses.
That's the way it is on Breaking Bad, where Walter White is considered complex and compulsively watchable as he kills people and cooks meth. Meanwhile, his wife, Skyler White, is attacked and despised. Her unforgivable sins? Mostly being shrill and naggy.
Skyler-bashing has become such a blood sport on fan sites and online comment boards that the phenomenon of hating the antihero's wife is termed "The Skyler White Effect." One commentator slyly defines this as what happens "when a female character is presented by the narrative as absolutely correct in her judgment of a male character, and yet the viewers assume she's the bitch."
The hostility directed at Skyler has recently become so intense that it extends to the actress who plays her. Last weekend, Anna Gunn took the unprecedented step of writing a New York Times op-ed piece about an Internet onslaught that has included death threats.
So what has Skyler done that makes viewers hate her so? (Besides smoking those three-and-a-half cigarettes when she was pregnant, of course.)
There are a few issues in play. First of all, there's momentum. Breaking Bad show creator Vince Gilligan has famously said that he wanted to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface. There is an unstoppable narrative drive in the series that encourages viewers to identify with Walt as he fulfils his destiny, no matter how horrific that destiny is starting to look. Many fans see Skyler as at least a hindrance, at worst an obstacle to Walt's monstrous rise.
The identification effect is amped up by the fact that Walt, like many recent TV antiheroes, is a suburbanite who lives dangerously. Meanwhile, most of the show's viewers are suburbanites who totally DO NOT live dangerously.
From comfy couches, they're rooting for Walt as he transforms from a cautious, minivan-driving chemistry teacher to a scary, dead-eyed drug lord. Walter blowing up somebody's car or mowing down two street-level dealers? That's a vicarious thrill. Skyler worrying about a $15.88 charge on the MasterCard bill? That's just a bringdown.
Then there's LA FAMILIA. Family is everything, as any psychopathic cartel assassin will tell you. But many fans don't like Breaking Bad's domestic subplots. They would prefer more of those desert drug deals gone bad and fewer of those family breakfasts, where the Whites all pick at their eggs and silently stare at each other.
You can argue that it's Walt's increasingly hollow facade as a family man and straight-up citizen that gives the show its moral depth and dramatic tension, as well as its moments of bizarre comic juxtaposition. (Drug money in the diaper box. Blood on Walt's wallabees.) But a lot of viewers don't want to hear of it. For them, exploding DEA-informant heads are fun. The home front, represented by Skyler, is a drag.
Then there's simple old-school misogyny. Gunn suggests many people who have a problem with Skyler have a problem with "strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women." She believes "most people's hatred of Skyler (has) little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives."
Maybe the best evidence for misogyny is the fact that Skyler simply can't win. When she opposes Walt's desires, she's viewed as a harpie and a hypocrite. When she becomes his reluctant collaborator, she's considered an emasculating meddler. (Saul Goodman calls her "Yoko Ono.")
Then there's the strange conflation of the actress with the character, as if Skyler is such a bitch that she must be a bitch through and through. No one thinks Bryan Cranston actually peddles drugs to schoolkids, but many seem to believe that Anna Gunn is a strident, self-righteous shrew.
And what about the criticisms of Skyler's weight? That's right: According to an online "Periodic Table of Death," Walt can be connected, directly or indirectly, to 247 deaths. (And that was before the murderous new season kicked off.) But for some reason, we're worrying about Skyler's dress size.
Gender also factors into the likeability issue. Audiences have embraced the concept of the male antihero, the man who is dark, difficult, pressed in by circumstances and moral compromise. Within this paradigm, these guys aren't jerky; they're just manifestations of the tragic modern condition. Meanwhile, most female protagonists, especially wives and mothers, are still expected to be sunny and likeable.
So Skyler isn't likeable. Who on Breaking Bad is? Walt has long since gone to some terrible place where likeability isn't even an issue. Arguably, the only likeable person on the show is little Holly, the world's most convenient baby.
For Team Skyler, the solution wouldn't be to make Skyler good. In fact, the worse Skyler gets, the better a character she is. In the last two seasons, Skyler has been breaking fairly bad herself, whether she's sleeping with Ted, looking up "money laundering" on Wikipedia or just struggling with a tightening knot of actions and consequences, means and ends.
The show's writers have to take some responsibility for the problems many viewers have with Skyler. Her descent from happy suburbanite to complicit criminal hasn't always been believable, her motivations haven't always been fully rounded out and she has often ping-ponged inconsistently between nice and nasty.
Still, good or bad, Skyler seems destined to bear the weight of viewers' hatred.
There's a moment in the third season when the alarming, non-blinking Gus Fring says to Walt, "What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family." A crucial subtext in Breaking Bad is the new reality of the 21st-century American economy, in which it is hard for a regular guy with a regular job to be the sole support of his family.
Walt's solution to this common problem is a bit extreme. Most men worried about their children's college funds don't end up dissolving bodies in hydrofluoric acid. But like many of TV's recent antiheroes, Walt is a man having to redefine his role in a world of rapidly shifting economic and social conditions. And it's a sad and ugly truth, seen not just in The Skyler White Effect but in our culture as a whole: When masculinity is in crisis, women better watch out.
Walt will tell you he does what he does to provide for his family. You could take Walt at his word -- and a lot of the Skyler-haters do -- but you should maybe keep in mind what happens to people who take Walt at his word.
Breaking Bad becomes a much more interesting show if you see Walt as a master manipulator whose actual motivations are murky, especially as he increasingly doubles down on some mythic idea of masculinity. Skyler probably understands this better than most, which might be why some viewers choose to hate her. Walt has faced off against some real criminal bad-asses, but his final challenger might be his wife. As she memorably tells her husband: "Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family."
You go, girl.