Skyler’s Story: A Videographic Miniseries

07Feb22

From the earliest conception of my audiovisual book, “The Chemistry of Character in Breaking Bad,” I imagined that I would do a video on Skyler White, with the goal of situating her story at the narrative center of the series. In the first project proposal back in 2018, I wrote this chapter summary: “Skyler’s Story: Walt’s wife is central to the unfolding narrative, serving as his goal (to provide for his family), his foil (obstructing his criminal plans), and his collaborator; this video retells Skyler’s story via her experiences of his actions, and considers her often-hated persona in a new light.”

Today I’m excited to share the results of many months of work with the debut of “Skyler’s Story: A Videographic Miniseries.” Beneath the fold, I share both the first video in the series, and a draft of the textual component that will accompany the videos in the audiovisual book. Today is Monday, and thus I’m posting the first episode; each morning (EST) for the rest of this week, I will add another episode to the post, with the entire five-episode series posted by Friday, February 11. It is up to you whether you space out your viewing via a serialized daily ritual (purposely evoking the norms of the American daytime soap opera), or wait to watch all the episodes back-to-back in a deep dive into Skyler’s story.

However you choose to watch (although I do recommend using headphones and watching on a large monitor), I thank you for your time, and welcome all feedback on the videos and/or written component. Enjoy a healthy dose of Skyler!

Probably the most controversial and volatile case study of characterization in Breaking Bad is Skyler White, who is maligned and mistreated by both Walt within the narrative, and many of the program’s fans outside of it. Viewer disdain for Skyler crossed over into abusive social media, and even into misogynist threats against actress Anna Gunn herself. The situation rose to such a fevered pitch that Gunn took to the opinion pages of the New York Times during the show’s final season to declare “I Have a Character Issue.”

In Complex TV, I analyzed how Breaking Bad’s anti-hero characterization helped foster a legion of “bad fans,” following Emily Nussbaum’s framing, who channeled their toxic masculinity toward Skyler. I also offered a narrative experiment: what would Breaking Bad’s story look like told from Skyler’s perspective?

We perceive Skyler mostly from Walt’s point of view, which starts as loving affection tempered with growing frustration as she serves as an obstacle to his self-realization as a “real man” via his criminal alter ego Heisenberg. If we regard the series as a gangster drama in which Walt’s success in the drug enterprise is the purported goal, then Skyler may be an obstacle. But complex serials feature multiple story threads that invite us to follow and shift character connections; thus if we retell the series focusing primarily on Skyler’s character’s arc, Breaking Bad becomes a very different type of gendered tale, offering a melodramatic account of deception, adultery, and ultimately an abusive, dangerous marriage.

From Jason Mittell, Complex TV (NYU Press, 2015), 254

I played out this experiment via the written word, summarizing five seasons of narrative events and character developments within a few pages. I found that section of my book intellectually provocative, but ultimately unsatisfactory, lacking what I find most compelling about Skyler as a character, and not capturing what I love about watching her story. Yes—I love Skyler White, and want to express that affection as a fan and scholar.

Videographic criticism can harness the emotional power of sounds and images, of performances and pacing, all to offer a more immersive and aesthetically engaging narrative experiment. In my earliest conceptualization of this book, a videographic version of this experiment was one of the first chapter ideas I had. Thus, I present “Skyler’s Story: A Videographic Miniseries” to express my love for and fascination with Skyler White.

“Skyler’s Story” – episode 1, released February 7, 2022
“Skyler’s Story” – episode 2, released February 8, 2022
“Skyler’s Story” – episode 3, released February 9, 2022
“Skyler’s Story” – episode 4, released February 10, 2022
“Skyler’s Story” – episode 5, released February 11, 2022

Retelling Skyler’s story videographically is certainly more emotionally and aesthetically rich than a verbal recounting, but it faces the distinct limits posed by the original footage. Breaking Bad is undoubtedly Walter White’s story, and thus our experience of Skyler is nearly exclusively defined by her relationship to him, responding to her husband’s many secrets and betrayals, and making choices in reaction to his actions. Skyler has a life outside of Walt’s shadow, but we only get brief hints about her ambitions as a writer or her side-hustle on eBay before Walt’s diagnosis and behavioral shifts come to define our entire experience of her character. In comparison, the series portrays Jesse as having more agency and independent relationships outside of his connection to Walt, while what we see of Skyler is nearly exclusively as “Walt’s wife.” Thus even as I re-edited the series to focus on Skyler’s story, we still experience her actions as reactions to Walt, as that is what the footage offers. The crucial difference with this edit is that our focus is on Skyler, even in scenes with Walt, and we are immersed solely in what she knows, rather than aligned with him in keeping secrets from her.

What do we make of these limits and choices? Skyler’s characterization is shaped by Breaking Bad’s gendered focus on a man descending into the hyper-masculine world of crime, standing in tension with the feminized domestic family life that she represents. While I do believe that Vince Gilligan and the other creators intended Skyler to be, in Anna Gunn’s words, “a woman with a backbone of steel who would stand up to whatever came her way,” the very design of the protagonist-driven narrative necessitated that her reactions to Walt defined her—it’s about whatever comes her way, rather than her independent choices. We could imagine a version of Skyler’s story that presented her life beyond what we see in Breaking Bad, with more footage of her professional life, friendships, creative work, parenting, and even her marriage as experienced outside of Walt’s transformations. But videographic criticism cannot create such footage, and thus my editing is limited to the raw materials that the series gives us—the alternative is the realm of fan fiction, a possibility via writing that videographic work does not offer (yet). Personally, I find Gunn’s performance, the visual compositions, and vivid dramatic writing sufficient to make Skyler a compelling character in her own right, but certainly we need to acknowledge Breaking Bad’s omissions.

My videographic process strived to create as striking a version of Skyler’s story as I could. My first instinct was to recut the entire series into a feature-length “woman’s film” version focused on Skyler, emphasizing the melodrama by foregrounding her sacrifices, constrained agency, and the abuse she suffers at Walt’s hands. To that end, I evoked an intertextual link by using the opening theme music to 1937’s Stella Dallas, a quintessential maternal melodrama, as well as shifting to black-and-white as the music swells. But simply cutting together some of Skyler’s key scenes would have beeen too challenging to fit within the confines of a two-hour timeframe in any way that provided her character the nuances she deserves, as well as being unlikely to create a narratively-compelling aesthetic experience. (Case in point: the 2-hour fan edit version of the series that functions mostly as a celebration of Walt’s badassery, while marginalizing Skyler even further.)

Given that this is an experiment, I decided to work in the domain of the experimental. To distinguish it from a fan edit, as well as offering temporal efficiency, I employed a dual-screen format that creates a much more disorienting and challenging viewing experience. In working on this project for many weeks, I’ve found that the dual-screen format does take a bit of time to adjust to, but can become a comprehensible and rich viewing experience. Hard panning the audio rewards listening on headphones or separated desktop speakers as well. But I fully anticipate that the viewing experience might be too alienating and confusing for some—this chapter probably appeals to a narrower slice of viewers than most! Despite the challenges of dual-screen viewing, I do find that the video captures the aesthetic and emotional dimensions of Skyler’s story much better than my written synopsis did, and I found myself quite moved and enraptured repeatedly reliving this story during the editing process.

I shared early drafts of this project with some trusted colleagues who helped me push forward, tweak key moments, and rethink the structure. Most importantly, Ariel Avissar noted that the feature-length scope might be an impediment to viewing, and suggested I embrace the televisual by breaking them up into episodes. I followed his brilliant advice, creating one episode for each of the five seasons of Breaking Bad, mimicking television episodes by starting with teasers that lie outside the story’s chronology. As is typical of serialized television, the episodes grow more complex, intense, and lengthy as they proceed, from 13 minutes to distill Breaking Bad’s shortened seven-episode first season, to an epic 50 minutes to wrap-up the 16-episode final fifth season. Hopefully the compelling narrative and character depth warrants the increasing length as the series proceeds.

Another suggestion from Will DiGravio pointed toward another televisual feature: using previously-on recaps starting in the second episode. I took that opportunity to lean into even more videographic experimentation rather than strive for maximizing comprehension—hopefully viewers will not need many reminders of preceding story information, as much of the experience of watching “Skyler’s Story” requires viewers to relive the character’s moments as originally experienced during Breaking Bad. I’ve decided to initially release these episode on a daily basis across one week, evoking American television’s original site of serialized melodrama: daytime soap operas. Once published in my book, the episodes will be available to be watched in quick succession, but I hope viewers will still pause between entries to experience the five videos as separate episodes in an overarching miniseries.

Within the larger project, “Skyler’s Story” has a parallel video in “Poor Jesse”: both retell the entire narrative arc of a central character (whom I love). While I pushed away from conventions of the fan edit for “Skyler’s Story,” “Poor Jesse” embraces the fannish genre of the fan music video. Taken together, these videos speak to different ways that viewers can remix a series to create a tribute to a character, evoke compelling affective responses, and unlock aspects of the original series (as well as shining a light on its limitations). While I doubt I will ever again undertake such labor to retell a character’s story as I have done with Skyler, I hope the experience of viewing the resulting miniseries offers a fraction of the satisfaction I have taken from immersing myself in her story.

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2 Responses to “Skyler’s Story: A Videographic Miniseries”

  1. 1 Tim Dawson

    Interesting approach and will definitely check out future installments. I definitely recommend using headphones to watch for a better experience. The editing is well done.


  1. 1 Skyler’s Nightmare | Just TV

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