First of all, if you’re midway through the Breaking Bad hype or intend to be in the future, please stop reading now. There’s no ground-breaking plot outline, but I’d hate to be told I ruined it for someone. SPOILERS BE HERE.
Over the weekend, me and Dan finished our 5 month long Breaking Bad marathon. Because I’m at uni, we haven’t motored through it as fast as those people who live together, so it did have a tendency to be a bit dragged out. However, because of that, I almost feel like it’s become a much bigger part of my life than it might have done otherwise.
Now, Walter White is, for those who have never seen the series and by some incredible turn of fate avoided all of the hype, a chemistry teacher turned meth-cook when he discovers he has lung cancer and no insurance. He starts off the series as a character who has turned to desperate measures to fend for his family, but ends the final fifth season as something arguably darker. In fact, as he says at the end of the season, he didn’t do it for the family. He did it for him. He liked it.
Now Breaking Bad, aside from being really gripping television, has got me thinking. Can we, as writers, make our readers or viewers love a bad character? Well the answer to that is obviously, in my eyes, yes. I, at the start and even as his choices became more and more questionable, loved Walter White and found myself pining over bad decisions and talking away superfluous murders and threats. To put it bluntly, I excused inexcusable actions. That isn’t to say at the end I didn’t lose some of my sympathy, but that’s the point I think.
For me though, that’s not just good writing. That’s fantastic writing. That’s the ability to take a whole host of crimes I look down on in everyday life, including drug manufacture, murder, torture, blackmail – the whole kaboodle – and to make me like, care for, a man who takes part in all of those acts. I can only wish that one day I will be that talented.
The flip side of this is Skyler. It gives me no pleasure, and in fact provides me with a great deal of embarrassment to admit that I, like a lot of people, found her immensely annoying and even at one point declared I hated her. After I’d finished watching the series I indulged in a bit of a research around the show, happy that I now couldn’t come across any spoilers, and I found that Vince Gilligan, the writer of Breaking Bad, was immensely surprised by the hatred that Skyler’s character attracted, because in his eyes, she was a good, strong woman only doing the best for her family. And she did. But I still found her annoying.
This brings up deeper issues than just writing, and Anna Gunn, the actress who plays Skyler has addressed these in an article she wrote for The NY Times, called ‘I Have A Character Issue’ which is well worth a read (she too, also praises the writing of the show to make us empathise with Walt, who she calls, an ‘antihero’) Why do we hate strong female characters? Why do I, as a woman, hate a female character like herself, who only tried to do the best for her family. She had an affair yes, but so do many other women around the world who I don’t hate. She also fiercely protected her children at the expense of her own sanity, safety and general well-being on many occasions. That’s something in everyday life I’d consider to be tragically admirable.
I must admit, her article did make me think. It made me think of the troubling problem that strong independent women bring up – our hatred of a woman who refuses to be a victim. People call her a ‘bitch’ – a ‘bitch’ because she tried to defend her family from the crime. And it’s not just men (though gender should make no difference). It’s women. It’s me, and it could be you.
Anna sums it up succinctly in her article – ‘she hasn’t been judged by the same set of standards as Walter’. And it’s certainly made me think. Next time, I’ll be sure I’m using the same set of standards, no matter what gender, and no matter protagonist or not.