Breaking Bad unspools the tale of a cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who became a terrifying meth lord, all in the supposed name of leaving a nest egg for his family. It is a story of transformation, of hubris, of ego, of the underdog. But as viewers followed Walter White (Bryan Cranston) on his jagged journey to hell, a strange thing happened: They didn’t exactly stop rooting for the monster that was materializing before their eyes. And instead of seeing him as the enemy — even after that death toll ratcheted up — they bestowed that title on anyone in his path.
That included his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), who was understandably unsupportive of Walt’s budding operation. And although it was logical for this protective mother of two to object to Walt’s murderous, meth-making ways — and, yes, she would compromise her own moral code as she was sucked into his world — Skyler was viewed with contempt by some fans. Sexist words like “bitch” and “shrill” were thrown around to describe the character, and the online vitriol was vicious enough to prompt Gunn to pen a 2013 op-ed piece in The New York Times about the backlash, and about how Skyler “had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender.” (Members of the Television Academy clearly disagreed with the Skyler loathing, as Gunn was nominated for three Supporting Actress Emmys, winning twice.)
For the record, Gunn says that she has extremely fond memories of her Bad experience. “It was transformative and incredible,” she tells EW. “From the get-go, we thought, ‘This is the kind of writing and the kind of story that doesn’t come along very often, so let’s really be present in it and let’s really savor it.’ And we did. All those years, we really stayed in that gift and were present in it.”
That said, the backlash that the character — and she herself — received was “very tough” on her, she shares. “It shook me. As an actor, my job is not to always play characters who make everybody happy. That’s not interesting. In fact, characters that are more difficult in a way are more interesting. But when you are on a show that has become that big and people are identifying you so much with somebody that they dislike, you can’t help but feel like you get folded into it.”
And that Skyler skunking was as puzzling as it was hurtful. “It was very bizarre and confusing to us all,” she says. “It was a combination of sexism, ideas about gender roles, and then honestly, it was the brilliance of the construct of the show. People did find a hero in Walt, but they wanted so much to connect with him so viscerally that to see the person who often was his antagonist — therefore the show’s antagonist in a way — they felt like she was in the way of him doing whatever he wanted to do, and that he should be allowed to do what he wanted to do.”
Gunn recalls first coming face-to-face with this criticism at Q&A panels that the cast participated in. “Sometimes there would be one person [in the audience] who’d stand up and say something,” she says. “It was fairly early on that a guy stood up and said, ‘Why is your character such a bitch? I mean, Walt is working and he’s doing this for his family.’ He was so clearly firmly with Walt, and thought Skyler was just this awful, nagging person. That was one of the first moments where it came right to me and it was shocking. I think we were all kind of shocked. I think what I said at that time was, ‘Let me get this straight. He’s cooking drugs…’ I laid out everything Walt was involved in, and everything he’d done up to that point, which was already pretty intense, and then said, ‘She’s trying to keep the children safe. And because she’s telling him to stop doing that, you have a problem with her? That makes her a bitch?’ It drew a round of applause from the audience. But there it was. I thought, ‘That’s so interesting.’”
“There was a lot of questioning: ‘Am I doing something wrong? Am I not serving the character? Am I not serving the story?,'” she continues. “It was extremely important for me to go through, and very powerful for me to learn that people will always have their opinions — and it can be for varied reasons, and that’s fine.”
Gunn’s co-stars were surprised and dismayed by such fan response. “Why did our audience not sympathize with this poor woman?” Aaron Paul (Jesse) says to EW. “Granted, she is the thorn in Walter White’s side, and everyone’s rooting for Walter to succeed, but my God. You wake up one day you find out your husband is a meth kingpin, you know, you’re going to have something to say about that. I really felt for Anna, because she’s just such a beautiful human inside and out, and she played Skyler in such a fierce way, and people just dragged her character the most.”
“We didn’t see this happening,” seconds Cranston. “As Aaron said, if you look at the elements that were involved in this — husband she finds out is lying, husband she finds out is doing something illegal, is doing something that puts her family in lethal danger, and she’s being chastised — it’s like, ‘Wait a minute.’ It baffled me from an objective standpoint.” (And Cranston remembers that hostility taking its toll on Gunn. “It affected her deeply,” he says. “She’s a very emotional person and lovely — and [she] brought that emotion into her work and was being hammered by that.”)
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan was among those thrown for a distressing loop; if anything, he’d braced himself for the idea that fans would have a hard time siding with a different character. “I figured Walt would be the one that’d be hard for people to sympathize with,” he says. “Suddenly, lo and behold, we’re hearing this animus toward Skyler White. To this day, it confounds me. Anna Gunn gave such a brilliant performance. We never tried for sympathy or lack of sympathy, we let the chips fall where they may. I would change that if I had a magic wand.”
Gunn, who currently stars in the indie film You Can Choose Your Family, says she has managed to mine positives from the experience. “It wasn’t a pleasant thing to go through, necessarily, but it was fascinating,” she offers. “It created a seismic shift and change in my life. I was really glad that I went through it and that I learned what I learned and that ultimately I realized, this is not about me. This is not about me, Anna Gunn, and it’s really not about Skyler. It’s about the way people are connecting to him. It’s also about the way that people still hold on to, perhaps, older ideas of what a woman or a wife should be or how she should act or how she should behave. In the end, change isn’t always comfortable and isn’t always pleasant, but it’s good that it was brought to people’s attention and consciousness.”
The conversational tide had begun to turn more favorably by the finale, one in which Walt confessed why he truly built his meth empire. When Skyler said, “If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family,” Walt interrupted her by admitting, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it.” It was another damning message about the “protagonist” of this story — his motives were far from 99.1 percent pure. “When he makes that admission, I think that really did shift things enormously,” says Gunn. “It was a way for the audience that had connected so strongly with him, perhaps, to be shaken out of that. That’s the brilliance of his journey.” Cranston was also pleased with that revelation, which all but told those Heisenberg devotees that they had placed their loyalties with the wrong person: “I think eventually [fans] did come around and realize — certainly by the end — ‘Oh my God, this guy is monstrous and she is just trying to hold onto her family,'” he says.
The passing of time — not to mention, general wokeness — has also deepened and evolved perspective. “Now that the show’s done, it’s kind of amazing how much it’s shifted,” says Gunn. “In particular, women will say — I mean, it still gets me kind of emotional — ‘The journey that she went through…’ They may or may not be aware of the Skyler backlash. That’s incredibly gratifying. It’s men and women who connect with that. There’s been such a shift happening in society and in our consciousness that it’s really landing much more strongly now.”
You can read more from Gunn about Skyler right here — and from the rest of the ABQ crew about their characters — in the new issue of EW, which reunited the cast of Breaking Bad.
Also: tread not-so-lightly over here to see the gallery from the big Bad photo shoot.