There are times when I think the NY Times is redeemable, and this Op-Ed by Anna Gunn is one of them. In the all-encompassing love I have seen created for Tony Soprano and Walter White over the years–two men who make loathsome choices and do reprehensible things–I’ve noticed the hatred directed at the women they have been married to, largely because, I think, these women are seen directly benefitting from their husband’s ruthless careers while failing to support them in those endeavors. The fact that Americans have so whole-heartedly embraced these two anti-heroes strikes me less, as the high art of the shows in question and more a sign that Americans love take-what-you-want-and-screw-the-rules characters. See, Batman. The Terminator. I could name a dozen more. After all, both Walter and Tony are financially successful and can get purty things for their baby-girls. What isn’t to respect there? Shouldn’t these women just be grateful their husbands aren’t dumping them for pretty young things, as it is the right of all successful men?
It’s very clear that Walter White, in particular, is read in myriad different ways among viewers–characters this complex usually are. He’s a man who starts out on the means-end rationale and discovers he’s got a taste for evil. He’s starting to like it. For some, that character trajectory is a liberation, not what many of the rest of us, who started off dubious of the means-ends rationale he used to convince himself, see when we see Walter White.
Gunn hits the nail on the head: people hate Skyler and Carmela Soprano because they are women who have agency, and that agency isn’t uniformly deployed in submission to their husband’s goals. But she misses an opportunity as well: the fact that people do not understand why women in Skyler and Carmela don’t leave instead of carrying on come down to the same reasons why women don’t leave abusive men: Walter and Tony are both violent and perfectly capable of killing to get what they want. These women have kids. That inability to empathize–worse, the hatred–directed at these characters should more than concern us. It should sicken us. Because it reflects not just the built-in misogyny and entitlement of the economically successful man/woman who should be grateful trope but also part of a cultural prison that keeps women in dangerous situations.