Like little stars.
Things are pretty bleak for “Breaking Bad’s” Skyler White, played by Anna Gunn. Trapped in her marriage to Walt, her increasingly malevolent, manipulative meth-lord husband, she’s terrified for the safety or her children, but unable to see a way out. With just two episodes left in the first half of “Breaking Bad’s” fifth season, it is simultaneously hard to imagine how things could get much worse for Skyler, and even more difficult to think that they could get better.
Gunn spoke to Salon about Skyler, her predicament, her depression and the possibility of her killing Walter White.
I’m extremely worried about Skyler. It’s getting really stressful to watch her. Was it stressful to be her?
It was. It really was. There were days on set where it was like, “Wow, it’s hard to live in this place.” And thank God for Bryan Cranston being so hilarious and great, and pretty much our whole cast and crew, so we have a lot of levity. But I had to dig deep into some pretty black stuff this year. As an actor you wait for this kind of material, but it can also be very emotionally exhausting.
There have been a number of scenes that have been totally skin crawling. Every time Walt touches Skyler, I get the most serious heebie-jeebies.
I know, I know. We did our job then. Those moments, like when he gets into bed and touches her, when I read that even I went “oooh.” There is that moment at the end of the first episode where he approaches her and you don’t know what he’s going to do, and he’s become such a dangerous person that she’s pretty terrified all the time. We screened that at our premiere, and you could hear the audience when he approached her. There was this intake of breath, collectively, and then when he said, “I forgive you,” you heard people actually go “ugh.”
Like, he is really missing the point.
[Laughing] Well, Walt, that’s not quite it. She’s in a very tight place.
In the show, Skyler has talked through a lot of her options, or lack of options, when it comes to leaving Walt. Have you thought them through as well?
Yeah, absolutely. And we would talk about that sometimes, like what if she did this or that. But she has exhausted her options. She tried to turn him in to the police once, way back. That didn’t work. She tried to keep him out of the house. She tried to run away with the baby and just wasn’t able to bring herself to follow through with it. The fear with this season, I think, is that she’s in such a bleak, dark, emotional place, is she actually OK? There’s a huge element of depression and desperation in her.
There was the scene earlier this season where she walked into the pool. Do you think she’s suicidal?
We talked about that a lot. I did ask Sam Catlin, who wrote the episode, when she goes into the pool is there a part of her that does actually mean to hurt herself? Or is there a part of her that wants to make it all end? And he said, “I don’t think so.” I think that moment is just very, very calculated, because really what she’s thinking is “how do I get these kids out of the house?” And I think for her, she’s in a place where she’s culpable. She’s part of it. She’s given up. She doesn’t really care so much about her safety, she just wants to protect the kids. She means it when she says, “I’ll do anything.”
But there are some things she won’t do, one of which is she won’t have Walt Jr. think ill of his father.
She’s been willing to take on the role of the villain in Walt Jr.’s eyes in order for him not to lose his idolizing and deep love for his dad. And I know she knows she probably should have done something different way back, but she didn’t. She made the choice she did, and she can’t bear to remove that veil from his eyes.
And she could tell Hank or Marie.
She’s not there. I think she’s really desperate to tell somebody and to confess it to somebody. The only person through the whole thing that she’s been able to tell any of it to was her divorce lawyer who was like, “I don’t want to hear it necessarily.” I think that there’s a huge part of her that wishes she could just open her mouth and speak it to somebody. But I think she knows exactly what would happen, that it could result in Walt and Skyler going to jail, and then what happens to the kids?
And, sadly for her, she can’t have a therapist, because that feels a little too “Sopranos.”
Yeah, I think Vince [Gilligan, the creator of the show] is too smart to do that. I don’t think Skyler has ever probably gone to therapy. She’s pretending to right now, but I don’t think she’s ever really actually gone in her life, quite frankly, poor thing. She’s just really backed up against the wall.
Do you think that Walt can get any lower in Skyler’s estimation?
I don’t know. The only thing I think that could make him any lower is if she knew that he had actually put a child in harm’s way, and I don’t even know what that would do to her. There’s no lower that he could go, but if she found that out, then that might turn her to … I wonder sometimes if she’s getting to a point where she’s getting past the terror of him and she’s going to get into a position of, I have to make sure that he doesn’t do these things anymore. I’m not trying to foreshadow anything that’s coming, because I really don’t know if that’s coming or not, but I wonder if that’s something in her mind.
And also, as in that hilarious scene last week with Jesse at the dinner table, she does have a real capacity for anger, to be like, “Screw it, Walt, you’re the worst. I’m going to embarrass you, I’m so pissed I’m not even afraid.”
She is so over it. And the writers and the director and I all talked very specifically about the fact that she is in this place where she’s almost numb to Walt and what he’s doing. Nothing really surprises her. She’s like, “Oh, great, so Jesse is in our house now. Terrific.” And Walt keeps doing these nasty things like, “Why don’t you stay for dinner?” And she’s just like, “Fine, let him stay for dinner.” She’s just not going to play that game with him anymore. I just think that scene at the table with Jesse, her and Walt was one of the best scenes of the show, I really do. I mean Aaron eating those green beans, over and over. He had to eat them like 72 times. And I was drinking white grape juice, and I had to drink about seven gallons of white grape juice. By the end of it we were both like “ughhhh.” But the fact that poor Jesse is trying to make small talk, god, that killed me. It was very hard to keep a straight face. “Gosh, You make them like my mom.” Poor kid. He’s doing his best.
Do you think Skyler could get to the point where she might think about killing Walt?
Yeah, I think that’s what I was getting at. This is not me foreshadowing anything that I know is to come, because I don’t know past this eight episodes. I won’t know until the next eight what Vince has got planned. But I think there’s a part of Skyler that’s been activated and awakened in a similar way to how Walt has his Heisenberg side awakened and activated. One instance of which is when she goes into the hospital to see Ted and she is absolutely, genuinely mortified and absolutely gutted to see him in that condition. But when she realizes that he’s saying to her, “I’m not going to say anything to anyone” and he’s actually scared of her, that little beat she takes after that, when she regards him and then she says “good,” that’s one of those moments for her where a little bit of power starts to be awakened. And it’s a power that she’s certainly never known before. And I think that those little things are becoming alive in her. I think there’s a feeling of, after having gone as far into it as she has and as deeply as she has, well, I’ll do whatever I have to do. I’ll do whatever it takes. And I think that perhaps that includes … that.
There was that scene earlier this season where Skyler said to Walt, you’re smarter than me at this game, so all I can do is wait for the cancer to come back. But she’s smart too.
Yeah, it was always my thinking that Walt and Skyler, one of the major things that attracted them to each other and made them fall in love, was the fact that they were both so smart. And that they really loved each other’s minds and intelligence. So she is very smart, but I think that what she’s saying is true. She’s saying, “You are so accomplished at this game, and you are such a good player, and I don’t have your skill.” She’s shown some pretty mad skills herself, but I think she still feels that she’s not even in his league. And she also knows that there are some things she knows, but there’s a lot she doesn’t. And when she looks at Walt she feels she’s looking at a person that has no conscience anymore. I think what she means when she says, “You’re better at this”— she still feels. She still feels guilt and remorse. She feels that genuinely when she goes to see Ted. But Walt doesn’t seem to have any of that.
When you signed on for this part, did you know how dark it was going to get?
I didn’t. Vince gave me an idea that she would be involved to some degree, but no, I had no idea that the show was going to get this dark and that Walt was going to get so dark. Because when you read the pilot, he’s just sort of nice. He’s just an Everyman faced with a huge challenge, and when he first goes down this road he’s kind of hapless and he’s bumbling. I had no idea that it was going to get as black as it’s gotten. But what I think they still do brilliantly, our writers and Vince, is that as black as it gets, a few minutes later you can be laughing hysterically at something, like with Jesse at dinner. I’m in awe of that, actually.
You’ve talked previously about how reaction to Skyler has been fairly gendered, that some male fans of the show have really hated on her, because she’s the one nagging on Walt.
The character of Walt was fashioned so brilliantly both in the writing and in Bryan’s portrayal of it because you were rooting for him. And I think a lot of people felt like, “Well, what if I were that guy and what if this happened to me? I can imagine myself doing these things.” And I think a lot of people, especially men, bought into the idea that if you had to provide for your family, well you would do anything, and there was a lot of investing in that character. But there was a very specific way that Vince saw Skyler and physically told me to play her. He didn’t want her to be a hand-wringing, weak sort of person who sat and cried all the time. He would really caution me, because, personally, I’m a big crier and I’m emotional, so he really had to remind me a lot, “She’s not that, she’s not as in touch with her emotions and she’s not able to necessarily access that.” She’s got more steel inside of her, quite frankly. And having Skyler be that way was really smart because if you had been watching, like in Season 2, and thinking, “Oh my god this poor woman. I can’t believe he’s doing this stuff to her and to this family,” then how would the show be able to carry on? Because if you lose your sympathy for Walt that early what are you going to do with the show? Much too early you would have been thinking, “This guy’s horrible, look what he’s doing to this poor woman.”
Has the reaction to Skyler changed now that Walt has turned so irredeemably bad?
Well, now that he’s turned completely to the dark side, finally you get to see what ramification and repercussions it has had for her personally. She did hold her emotions so tight inside herself and didn’t release any of it. I feel like if she had been able to go into the bathroom and close the door and have a moment when she broke down and cried that she probably would never have been able to pull herself back together again. So the writers always had her trying to control the situation and trying to take action and figure out what the next best thing to do was. But at the end of the last season she realized, “This is beyond my control and I can’t even pretend that’s possible anymore.” And then at that point all the emotional stuff that she held so tightly started to crack apart. It was at that time that we were able to see that more human, emotional side to her. And I do think it’s actually changed audience perception a lot.
People have said stuff to you about this?
No, the people who have come up to me, from the beginning, were Skyler fans. I’ve never been approached by someone who said, “Hey, I hate you!” But I’ve read some articles that have been really interesting about, not just Skyler, but a lot of female characters on television who often are the partners or wives to antiheroes and the same kind of bashing often happens with them. For instance, I didn’t realize that happened with the Carmela Soprano character. People apparently had the same kind of feeling of, “Oh she’s such a whiner, they should whack her, she should shut up.”
It’s interesting because in the case of both “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad,” the show’s creators don’t have any confusion about how bad a guy the leading man is, only the audiences do.
It’s interesting that people still continue to feel like, “Oh poor guy, he’s doing the best he can, why doesn’t she stop giving him a hard time?” It’s funny to us because we’ve been scratching our heads and saying, “You do know that he’s cooking crystal meth, and you do know that he’s been killing people, and you do know that he’s endangering his whole family, right?”
I saw recently someone wrote a blog post essentially apologizing for having hated Skyler.
That’s great! Again, it was really clever on the part of Vince and the writers to keep her as the one who was in Walt’s way. She wasn’t going to say, “OK, well, that sounds great. You’re going to go and do this thing. Enjoy! See you later!” She was the one who was always taking him to task and calling him on things, and there wasn’t really another character doing that. She is a very tough, strong woman, not someone to say, “Oh dear, oh dear, this is terrible.” That would have made a very different show. It’s been challenging at times to play somebody who is so emotionally held back, so as much as this was a very dark emotional season to play, it was extremely relieving. Thank god the lid gets to finally come off, and you get to peek inside.
How do you hope the show ends?
I basically feel like whatever way Vince comes up with is going to be amazing.There have been so many times I’ve gotten a script and thought, “I never saw that coming.” I never could have predicted the way Gus was gonna go. The whole plane crash thing and the way they foreshadowed it and pieced it together. Whatever genius way Vince brings it together is going to be right. I have a romantic notion of how I’d like to see things end, because I care about these characters, that somehow they would be able to extricate themselves from this business, and the family could be a unit again. But I think that’s impossible, because they’ve turned a corner that can never be unturned. Certainly, Walt and Skyler can’t reach back toward each and forge anything that could be remotely healthy and OK, but there’s a part of me that wishes it could be OK.
But a romantic ending would be so twisted! He’s such a bad guy, I feel like he doesn’t deserve his family — and they deserve better than him. There should be some comeuppance.
I also agree with that. And who knows what that would even look like. I’ve never been able to predict, so I feel like anything could happen. I’m kind of on the edge of my seat as well. I hope I survive at least through the last eight episodes. That’s what I hope. And what’s going to happen to those poor kids? And that baby Holly, who’s the only innocent in the whole show? Well, I guess Walt Jr. is innocent as well, but that’s the other question, How long is he going to be innocent? I’ve grown so close to the people, I really worry — what’s going to happen to that poor kid, when he finds out about his dad?
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.More Willa Paskin.
Like little stars.
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