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Breaking Bad and the Antihero in Me

TV’s leading ladies remind us that women can be just as messed up as men.

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From its first episode in 2008 to its dramatic conclusion Sunday night, Breaking Bad was the story of Walter White, a chronicle of how a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher became a major player in the New Mexico meth scene. Like so many of the TV protagonists of the last 10 years, Walt was an "antihero," a man who rejected traditional morality and increasingly embraced his worst qualities. The thing about antiheroes: when we live inside their stories, we often find ourselves embracing their twisted logic, rationalizing their despicable actions, and rooting for their success over foes who try to get in their way.

And this is exactly what makes them so compelling. We can see in an antihero the parts of ourselves we'd rather ignore, and we confront the reality that given a particular set of circumstances maybe we, too, would do things of which we would never believe ourselves capable.

Skyler White: lady in waiting

This was especially obvious in the character of Skyler, Walt's wife, in Breaking Bad. The story of Walt is also the story of Skyler, the woman he loves and built a life with, the woman whose continued financial security he works to secure. At first he keeps her in the dark about his secret criminal life, and her constant demands to know where he has been and why he has been acting so strange—questions the audience already knows the answer to—made her seem naive at best, and ignorant at worst.

When she finally finds out what her husband has been up to and demands a divorce, she becomes another obstacle in Walt's way. Why can't she see, Walt continually grumbles, that everything I've done has been to provide for and protect my family?

Skyler is strong, but strength is not always triumphant. She is a woman who is forced to react to things that happen to her, things that are out of her control and yet yank away what safety and stability she has in her life. She finds herself in impossible situations: in which doing the "right" thing by turning her husband into the feds would result in more suffering for those she loves, while sticking with him and making herself complicit in his crimes—even becoming his business partner—means having to live with her decisions and someday deal with having to explain them to her children.

In a pivotal scene, she tells Walt, "I don't know what to do. I'm a coward. I—I can't go to the police, I can't stop laundering your money, I can't keep you out of this house, I can't even keep you out of my bed. All I can do is wait. That's it, that's the only good option. Hold on. Bide my time. And wait."

Laura Leonard

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Breaking Bad and the Antihero in Me