A SYTYCB entry
With the start of the latest season of AMC’s stellar series Breaking Bad, I continue to enjoy the meth producing adventures of Walt and Jesse. However, their male dominated business is getting more and more tiresome. So many of the great stories of ascending drug lords portrayed women as trophy wives, but they usually demonstrated a complexity, be it through complications of drug abuse or the moral dichotomy of a quick ascension to money and power. While they brush this surface in Breaking Bad, the women are even less complicated and interesting than the old stereotype of the mobster wife.
Skyler, Walt’s wife and main female character has always been tough to relate to. Since finding out what her husband does, Skyler takes on a role to protect the family, either by opening a business to launder money, by covering for Walt with stories of illegal gambling, and now by removing her kids from the home. While her guilt and disdain for the business has been evident, she has also displayed an obvious euphoria at the idea of being rich. When Walt won’t give her a divorce, she has an affair that ends poorly when she discovers he is being audited by the IRS. In season 5, all previous indications of strength and intelligence have settled. Skyler is now a suicidal chain smoker, choked by fear of her husband, and also incapable of defending herself or doing anything to remove herself from the situation. It sounds all too familiar like a classic story of domestic abuse to me.
The next female character with enough screen time to mention is Skyler’s sister Marie, for whom the writers have added superficial character layers. She supposedly works as a technician at Kleinman Radiology Center, but yet we have never seen her at work and she seems to have plenty of time in the middle of the day to appease her kleptomania at the mall. Marie is also always in purple, surrounded by purple objects, and sitting in purple chairs, but there doesn’t appear to be any greater meaning behind this.
In season 5 we meet a new female character, Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, the first to be involved in the meth business. Instead of seizing the opportunity of introducing a strong female leader, her character development is limited to being described as neurotic by three different people, ordering hot water with lemon, and getting upset over accidentally wearing two different pairs of shoes. Eventually, under threat, she comes up with a flawless plan that ensures the success of Walt’s newest business venture, but instead of being praised for her resourcefulness, she is simply spared of being killed. Her character has since disappeared.
While I am a fan of Breaking Bad, I would love to see them passing the Bechdel test. Coined from a comic strip by Alison Bechdel in 1985, the test states that a narrative worth watching has: 1) at least two women in it, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than men. While mobster movies may not have excelled at female empowerment, the flatness of these characters makes me yearn for someone as crazy and complex as Sharon Jones in Casino or Penelope Cruz in Blow. Let’s hope Breaking Bad finds space for a female drug queen to take on Walt. Or maybe it’s time to send Walt to therapy, I hear Dr. Melfi is seeing patients again.