Anna Gunn speaking at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con International / Image by Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons
WARNING: Contains major Breaking Bad and El Camino spoilers.
The first time I watched Breaking Bad, I considered the Gustavo Fring ‘Two Face’ moment to be the series highlight. Or, no, maybe the train robbing. Perhaps the magnets.
Breaking Bad was high-octane appointment television. Among the reasons it worked so well was that its set pieces were explosive and unpredictable. And the primary method it used to communicate that unpredictability was the cliff-hanger. It was that rare kind of show whereupon, as a viewer, you truly could not foresee the ending. In fact, there’s barely an episode that doesn’t conclude on the edge of an emotional and/or technical cliff.
The thing about cliff-hanger television though, is that once seen, it never quite slaps the same. Assuming I don’t develop televisual amnesia, I’ll never un-see that devastating slow-zoom on a certain backdoor plant. My gut won’t drop over Hank thumbing a collection of Walt Whitman poems. And while I can appreciate all the foreshadowing (ooo, Gus’s face is in half-shadow), I’ll never be surprised by the show again.
Breaking Bad is both less and more impressive upon re-watch. While several of the major twists don’t hit the way they used to, many of the emotional through-lines sear even stronger than the first go-around.
Like just about everyone else in the world, I love Jesse Pinkman to blimmin death. I could watch three or four movies about his new life in Alaska alone. But, having now watched the full series an embarrassing number of times, it’s Skyler’s journey that I find most interesting – even if it’s Jesse’s I find most heart-wrenching. Because, when you take away the crystal meth and the box-cutters, you realise hers is a more complex, gradual, enthralling arc than most anybody else’s. In fact, I would argue that given how easy it is to root for Walt, despite the magnitude of his misdeeds, Skylar is the show’s true anti-hero. She’s the hardest character to like (despite unquestionably being a victim). And the line I just have to bide my time and to wait [...] for the cancer to come back remains disarming, where others (like say, I am the one who knocks) have long since rung hollow.
So, the question must be begged; why was Skylar a no show in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad follow-up film El Camino? The absence in glaring, given that much less significant (if delightful) characters make extended cameos.
The two-hour Netflix feature proffers an embarrassment of guest appearances, some paying off beautifully, others (including, in my opinion, the big one) bafflingly non-consequential. And yet Skylar, a character we’ve sunk hours into following, isn’t even name-checked. It’s true that, aside from a couple of memorable scenes (I’m Skylar White, yo), Jesse shares almost no screen time with his partner’s partner. But the impact these characters have on each other’s lives is enormous – and it remains charged (who is this Pinkman to you, Walt?) from Pilot through Felina.
They are two of the most emotional characters of the show (and I’m not just talking weepy, where Jesse takes the prize). It’s their emotions (as opposed to their egos) that drive their actions – and most of their actions occur in reaction to the very same man.
Gilligan claims there are characters who didn’t organically fit into El Camino but given he managed to squeeze in Mike, Badger, Skinny Pete, Todd, Old Joe the car-crusher, Kenny-the-Nazi-boss, and Walt, one has to wonder if he actually likes his women characters. I can imagine many a scenario where Skylar pops up in this story – and true to form, the characters needn’t even share a room.
I also can’t help begrudging the lack of a Marie appearance. Don’t you think Hank’s widow would have some feelings toward Jesse – the kid she took in; the kid who accompanied her husband to his death?
It still mystifies me, after many a series re-watch, why Skyler and Marie were written with such disdain. One has to really push oneself in order to squeeze out any empathy for the pair, and as Anna Gunn pointed out at the time, not a lot of viewers were interested in making the effort. At a certain point, it can’t just be put down to a failure in viewership – some of the blame must lie on the head of the writer.
To be clear, I think Vince Gilligan is a genius. But I do take umbrage with the lack of respect he shows his female characters – despite the incredible life his actresses breathe into their thankless roles.
I also think Aaron Paul is a genius. His work in El Camino is staggering, and I’m entirely grateful for this character study. But I don’t expect to watch El Camino over and over. Skylar White walking into her backdoor pool fully clothed, on the other hand? That’ll play on loop, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, for the rest of my life.Support Villainesse