As Breaking Bad comes to a close (AHHHH!), hopefully cultural critics will be examining viewers' vitriol against Walter White's complex, long-suffering wife — which has been so severe it's been termed "the Skyler White" effect and applied to other TV wives — at length. [Spoilers to follow.]
Just as it's hard to pin down at what precise point that Cranston's character became more Heisenberg than Walt, it's impossible to say when in the series Skyler became the most hated female character on television. When she devised, businesslike, the elaborate gambling-addiction cover-up to tell Hank and Marie? When she bought the car wash and became complicit in Walt's crime? The infamous "I fucked Ted" line, basically the only way she could assert her autonomy? The latter would be my guess.
Anna Gunn, who has watched the criticism of her character become criticism of her as a person, even to the point of death threats, writes for the New York Times:
A typical online post complained that Skyler was a “shrieking, hypocritical harpy” and didn’t “deserve the great life she has.” “I have never hated a TV-show character as much as I hate her,” one poster wrote. The consensus among the haters was clear: Skyler was a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an “annoying bitch wife.”
She points out that other wives of antiheroes on popular TV shows have elicited similar feelings, e.g. Carmela Soprano and Betty Draper. But unlike Mad Men or The Sopranos, in the last few seasons, for better or worse, Breaking Bad has indulged in a certain fan-boy attitude towards its leading man (during an old-school Western standoff: "You're Heisenberg." "You're damn right.") that might attract the kind of male viewers who actually root for "badass" Walt — and detest Skylar for being a buzzkill, fucking someone else and giving the guy all of Walt's money, even changing physically. Maybe a viable explanation for the phenomenon is that the type of audience has changed.
Could it be that they can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or “stand by her man”? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, Walter’s equal?
Because Walter is the show’s protagonist, there is a natural tendency to empathize with and root for him, despite his moral failings. (That viewers can identify with this antihero is also a testament to how deftly his character is written and acted.) As the one character who consistently opposes Walter and calls him on his lies, Skyler is, in a sense, his antagonist.
Vince Gilligan, the creator of “Breaking Bad,” wanted Skyler to be a woman with a backbone of steel who would stand up to whatever came her way, who wouldn’t just collapse in the corner or wring her hands in despair. He and the show’s writers made Skyler multilayered and, in her own way, morally compromised. But at the end of the day, she hasn’t been judged by the same set of standards as Walter.