This post contains spoilers through the April 5 episode of Breaking Bad.
I wrote earlier this season about the haunted greatness of Skyler White, the character who sees Walter White with a terrible clarity, and who is hated by some fans of the show for it. There are other things going on in this episode of Breaking Bad, of course, but none so important as Skyler’s confrontation with her husband, and the show’s meditation on the ways that a tyrannical man can shatter the illusion of a woman as an equal partner in a marriage.
It’s fitting for an episode about Walt as a purveyor of emotional domestic abuse that so much of this hour of television focuses on food and the rituals around it. A year ago, Walt’s request for “Chocolate cake with chocolate icing. Life is good, Skyler,” might have been the ordinary ritual of a man asking his wife to indulge him on his birthday. Now, it’s an order that Skyler both fulfill Walt’s request, and that she fall emotionally in line with him, that she celebrate his birthday not just in deed but in her heart. For the rest of the episode, food and meals will be Skyler’s way of testing her new boundaries with Walt. When she serves him his birthday breakfast but neglects to rearrange the bacon into a “51,” Walter Junior reminds her “Mom, you forgot. Dad’s bacon? Mom’s got to.” And Walt, the menacingly mild paterfamilias tells her, “Well it is sort of a tradition,” putting it on her to respond. “What’s this, Holly,” he tells their daughter as Skyler complies. “Watch what she does with bacon. What is she doing?” Their baby and her care and safety are a powerful weapon Walt holds over his wife, especially since she’s told him “A new environment might be good for them,” but shied away from telling Walt exactly why she wants their children gone.
At their subsequent family meal, Skyler resists Walt’s wishes for a party, and opts instead for a small family gathering and a simple meal, though she does serve “Chocolate cake, as requested,” the setting for her terrible act of resistance against her husband: a suicide attempt that inspires Marie to volunteer to take Holly and Walter Junior for a few days. She’s been experimenting with self-harm earlier in the episode, twisting dental floss around her finger so tightly that it looks in danger of killing flesh. And when Skyler walks into that pool, it’s not clear that it’s entirely a feint. Knowing what she knows about Walt, how deeply she has come to revile him and the things she has followed him into, hearing him wax eloquent about her may have been too sickening to endure. Walt gets credit for being both a survivor and a grateful husband when he tells Hank and Marie “And Skyler, honey, remember that first week of chemotherapy, that night on the bathroom floor, what you said to me? I was so sick. It was rough going at first. But Skyler, she was right there, of course, putting wet washcloths on my forehead, and she sang to me, and this would go on day after day. I was lying there on the floor of the bathroom because it felt nice and cool. And I was asking her, if this could all be over.” But to Skyler, this recitation of her wifely perfection is a scourge, scoring her guilt deeper into her skin.
Whatever her intentions, Skyler’s response to Walt’s interrogation of her after he pulls her out of the pool is a beautifully written, tragic illustration of the resourcefulness and limitations of women in abusive relationships, even if her circumstances are horribly unique:
“There’s blood on my hands, too. He’s in the hospital because of me, because of what I did,” Skyler told her husband, at her most vulnerable, but at her most clear in her hatred of him. ‘”I don’t need to hear any of your bullshit rationales. I’m in it now. i’m compromised. But I won’t, I will not have my children living in a house where dealing drugs, and hurting people and killing people is shrugged off as ‘shit happens.’ We’re back at it. Fine. But the kids stay away and that’s that…I said no. I swear to God I won’t have them back here…Whatever it takes. Everything in my power….My next move is maybe I hurt myself, make it clear we need more time….So maybe I show up with bruises on my neck, a black eye, say you beat me up when you found out about my lover…I could send Junior away to school…I will count every minute that the kids are away from here, away from you, a victory. But you’re right. It’s a bad plan. I don’t have any of your magic, Walt, I’m a coward. I can’t go tot he police, I can’t stop laundering your money. I can’t keep you out of the house, I can’t even keep you out of my bed. All I can do is wait. It’s the only good option…For the cancer to come back.”
What’s horrifying about Walt’s response to Skyler is not just that it’s a manifestation of his own personal monster, but that he channels generations of men in their confident efforts to control women. When Walt tells Skyler “No more like you’re still struggling. So maybe next time I have you committed, put you in an inpatient facility while I take care of the kids,” he echoes the men who had difficult wives lobotomized, or had their memories ruined with electroshock therapy, whether in pursuit of their own tranquility, in evasion of their own guilt and related emotions, or in an effort to evade responsibility for their crimes. He brandishes the prospect of their children watching Ratatouille (another evocation of food as cue back to childhood and domestic tranquility) at their aunt and uncle’s as proof of Skyler’s dereliction of her domestic duties, ignoring his own treatment of Scarface as appropriate family fare—one set of standards for Walt, another, vastly more stringent, for Skyler. At the end of the episode, Walt flaunts Jesse’s present to him, saying “I want to show you something. See that. It’s a birthday present. The person who gave me this present wanted me dead, too. Not that long ago…He changed his mind about me, Skyler. And so will you.”
But what’s immutable isn’t Walt’s greatness, as he seems to believe it is, secure in the idea that he will always be vindicated, that he can, and indeed should, make sure that “nothing stops this train,” not even his own wife. No, what lasts forever, and what rebukes Walter White’s uniqueness even as he believes he’s asserting it, is the long tradition of domestic bullies Walt has fallen in line with. He’s another angry, controlling man. And the only comfort I have is that I know Walt will be alone on his next birthday, unable to maintain by dictatorship what he couldn’t build through love. I only hope he’s alone because he’s thoroughly broken and abandoned, not because Skyler is dead, by his hand or her own, this time for real.