This Sunday, AMC’s Breaking Bad begins a final run of eight episodes, bringing the tale of Walter White to its inexorable conclusion. The show has become one of the great running masterpieces of the last half-decade of television, bringing the post-Sopranos model of anti-heroic TV drama to new critical highs (and terrifying new moral lows). What makes it even more impressive is that — in an era defined by ever-more-gigantic ensembles — Breaking Bad has unfurled its epic American tale with a relatively small cast of characters. While other shows opt for cast breadth, Bad has explored each character’s depth, sending them on fascinating byzantine journeys into the interior of their souls. This week, we’ll be taking a close look at all the show’s main characters and presenting a suggested viewing list for the five episodes that best define their arc. We started with alpha-male DEA agent Hank yesterday. Today: Skyler White (Anna Gunn), Walter’s wife and sometime accomplice, who went from unwitting victim to money-laundering queenpin — and is now seriously reconsidering that choice.
“ABQ” (season 2, episode 13): While Skyler had some great moments in season 1 — “Gray Matter” is the honorary No. 6 on this list for that intervention scene alone — she didn’t truly come into her own until the season 2 finale, when she stopped believing everything Walt told her and started calling him on his increasingly hard-to-swallow B.S. It all starts to unravel when Walt groggily admits to having two cell phones before his surgery, and from there, Skyler questions every strange event from the previous months, especially her husband’s “fugue state” story (“I had to believe that, didn’t I?”). While Walt offers to tell her the full truth to keep her from leaving him, she says she’s “afraid to know” — for now, at least.
“Kafkaesque” (season 3, episode 9): Skyler is now fully aware of her husband’s double-life, and in this episode, she shows her own flashes of criminal genius. Hank is in the hospital after The Cousins’ not-so-surprise attack, and the medical bills are mounting. The Whites have the money to help out, but not without raising the suspicion of their DEA-agent brother-in-law. Enter Skyler, who concocts a complicated-but-believable story about Walt using a black jack card-counting system to make millions in underground games and offers to cover Hank’s medical costs with the winnings. When Walt marvels at the brilliance of Skyler’s lie, she replies, “I learned from the best.”
“Open House” (season 4, episode 3): The gambling story was just the start of Skyler’s schemes. As an accountant, she realizes Walt’s earnings are not going to go unnoticed and decides the perfect cover story would be to buy the car wash her husband used to work at. The only problem? The car-wash owner is not so fond of his former employee and hikes up the asking price out of spite. So Skyler comes up with yet another devious plan: With Saul’s help, she stages a fake environmental inspection that turns up contaminated water samples, and all of a sudden the owner is pleading with her to buy the car wash. Is this really the same woman from season 1?
“Bug” (season 4, episode 9): We’ve seen the hapless wife. We’ve seen the gifted fabulist. We’ve seen the underhanded negotiator. But in this episode, we meet Skyler’s most amusing alter ego yet: The dumb blonde. When Ted, Skyler’s former boss (and lover), informs her that his business is being audited, she realizes this will bring unwanted attention her way. So she busts out the Aqua Net and her lowest-cut dress for a meeting with the IRS and makes them believe Ted fell victim to a clueless lady accountant. This was hardly the end of the audit saga (Ted really should have taken Skyler’s advice that day), but we got to see yet another shade of, well, shadiness from Mrs. White.
“Fifty-One” (season 5, episode 4): In the end, Skyler might not be cut out for the underworld. The death of Gus Fring — at her husband’s hands — really drove home how dangerous Walt’s business is, and she’s beginning to realize how deeply that could affect her family. In Anna Gunn’s best episode yet, Skyler begins to break down, but the line is blurred between how much she’s really losing it and how much is an act to protect herself and her children. Her blank facial expression as she walks into the pool (video below) is especially chilling. But the episode’s real kicker is when Walt asks Skyler what her big plan is to keep him from their kids. “All I can do is wait. That’s it. That’s the only good option. Hold on. Bide my time and wait.” Walt wonders: Wait for what? “For the cancer to come back.” Possibly the most ice-cold line ever uttered on TV, but it perfectly displays how desperate Skyler’s situation has become.
The final eight episodes of Breaking Bad begin Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.