Acting Spotlight: Anna Gunn in Breaking Bad

*Breaking Bad is an acclaimed television show that ran from 2008-2013 starring Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with lung cancer. Realizing his death would leave behind his pregnant wife and handicapped son with no finances, he teams up with a former student (Aaron Paul) to create and sell crystal meth. What begins as a secret effort to make money for his family soon turns into a descent into the drug world that affects everyone around Walter.* Effective television acting within a series is a unique, often difficult, achievement for an actor. The difficultly stems in that they are dependent upon the script and usually are left unaware of the Breaking Bad Poster 01fate of their character. In an effort for a show to avoid spoilers from their cast and crew to the general public, a script typically is released days before filming, which leaves the actors with only a handful of time to further develop their characters. That is the true challenge for a television actor, which is why the recent trend of big-name Hollywood actors starring in television series was short-lived. Such actors that were used to movie filming expected the script to be secondary to their own acting because Hollywood has created the illusion that acting trumps over writing. This isn’t the scenario with television acting, to which its actors are secondary to the show’s writing. Without effective writing that shows a progression within a show, the actors are relegated to limited performances that even the best of acting cannot escape from. It is only when the writing provides the perfect foundation for a show that its actors truly are allowed to shine. AMC’s Breaking Bad and Vince Gilligan are the best examples of truly effective writing for a show. This goes beyond the concept of plot, which was groundbreaking for Breaking Bad, but by showing a clear progression with each script that drove the plotline, and its characters, forward. The scriptwriters created a linear line that Breaking Bad Poster 2was seamless when they transitioned from one script, or from one season, to another. This is an achievement that many shows have failed to accomplish, such AMC’s Mad Men, which is a show that hinges on a progression of time. The fundamental flaw of Mad Men, despite the show’s brilliance, is its writers failing to truly utilize the progression of the era to influence its characters directly. While style and social trends fluctuate within the show, the characters of Mad Men still act as their own entities and aren’t directly, least not often, influenced by the era. It is the opposite concerning Breaking Bad with its characters reacting to the plots events, but also using these character experiences to provide a progression-of-character for themselves; a sort of roadmap that chronicles their progression from point A to point B. The only other show that came close to showing a genuine progression-of-character was HBO’s Six Feet Under, which chronicled 2001-2005 and centered around a family who ran a funeral home. Yet while this show provided a tremendous shift in character progression, and it could be argued the show’s writing set a standard for future shows, Six Feet Under’s characters occasionally fell victim to regression, which emphasized the  Anna Gunn 04internalization of their flaws. Breaking Bad, in contrast, pushed its characters forward and left its actors to establish the details with their progression. The most effective of the cast showing a true progression with the character is the grossly underrated Anna Gunn, who starred as Skyler White, the wife of Walter White (Bryan Cranston). The argument can be made that both Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul also conveyed character progression, but while they do, both actors’ method of acting stems from situational and reactionary acting. The situations their characters endure force them to embark on a specific path, thus their acting is still somewhat dependent upon the show’s scripts. Anna Gunn was the only actor from the main cast who had the opportunity, and given the flexibility, to provide detail and emphasis on the change her character endures. Gunn used this to her advantage, which resulted in one of the most profound progression-of-character examples in television history. Gunn’s Skyler White was merely a foil character when she was first introduced to Breaking Bad in its first season. It is evident in the show’s first season that Gunn wasn’t given much time to provide detail to her character other than establish her character’s foundation. It is important to note though that while Gunn’s Anna Gunn 03performance is not a standout in the first season, while unfortunate, was absolutely necessary to the eventual formation of the character. Gunn placed emphasis on both her character’s pregnancy and her insistence of being in control. This set the groundwork, the mapping of her character, which was supposed to show the contrast, the old world, that Walter White was leaving. Part of this limitation of acting, and plot, partially was due to the Writer’s Strike of 2007 that cut the season short and nearly caused Breaking Bad to be canceled. However in the first season’s seven episodes, Gunn was able to break her character outside of being simply a foil character. She especially does this with a singular scene in the season finale. Earlier in the season during her baby shower, Skyler’s eccentric sister gives her a diamond-studded tiara for the baby. Knowing the present is not viable to her, Skyler goes to return it only to learn that her sister had shoplifted the tiara. Skyler is promptly Anna Gunn 06brought to the manager’s office to await the authorities. In this particular scene, rather than remain a foil character, Gunn began to infuse comedy through her character. She satirized her character’s pregnancy and was able to provide evidence that Skyler White was more than a mere controlling wife, but also someone who could improvise whenever a situation arose. Very easily Gunn could have played off this scene with her character behaving in a incredulous demeanor, thus maintaining the status of being a foil character. She doesn’t. This scene set off Anna Gunn’s work of showing a progression with her character. She used the final scene in season one to establish a new dimension to her character; as someone who refuses to be lied to and can clearly see she is being lied to. By building onto her character in such a manner, Gunn walked the Anna Gunn 10line with her character being despised by viewers. Yet Gunn realized a dramatic shift in her character was essential to officially break her character away from being a foil to Walter White, while also establishing that her character has been indirectly affected by her husband’s actions. For the entirety of season two Gunn’s acting stayed consistent to this demeanor, which complemented and offered believability with where the plot went with her character. This demeanor, while it didn’t show too much acting range for Gunn, was necessary with her character when the show shifted into its third season. It ought to be further acknowledged that Anna Gunn’s patience with the show, establishing her character, and waiting for the scriptwriting to give her character more development, is Anna Gunn 02tremendous given the level of maturity she gave to her character in its conception phase. Her acting indicates she resisted the temptation of having Skyler White be a spiteful woman. Instead she sought to provide the underlying details that her character’s anger was justified, because as an intelligent woman, she wasn’t going to allow someone to lie to her face. What is also worth noting with Anna Gunn’s first three seasons with Breaking Bad was the fan hatred towards her. Anna Gunn, herself, acknowledged the loathing brought towards her in the op-ed she wrote for The New York times, entitled I Have a Character Issue. Within her op-ed, Gunn acknowledges being Anna Gunn Carunprepared for the level of hate her character, and herself, would experience. She further wrote that despite Walter White’s “moral failings,” viewers still identified with him as an anti-hero, while she was antagonized for simply taking a moral stand against him. Gunn concludes by deducing, ” I finally realized that most people’s hatred of Skyler had little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives. Because Skyler didn’t conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender.” While there was immense fan pressure for her to appeal to the viewers, Gunn did not allow for it to influence her character progression and maintained a realm of believability with her performance. Gunn realized that in order for her character to become complicit with Walter’s doings, it had to be in the context Anna Gunn 12that worked for her. When the scriptwriters ultimately had the character launder her husband’s drug money through their business, Gunn was sure to convey reluctance with her character. Her aim was to convey Skyler as being an innocent who still possessed a moral compass. Gunn was able to maintain a smooth progression from Skyler being vindictive to being reluctantly acceptant of her circumstance. Her complicity is not because she sought to break bad, but because she felt she has no choice, which Gunn effectively conveys in her acting. She mixes reluctance with anger, clearly showing emotional progression in her acting. In effect, this new character dimension still functioned as a foil to Walter, but the greater emphasis was Gunn showing the emotional toll her character endured even after she chose to be complicit on her own accord. The reluctance and the hesitation Gunn showed in Breaking Bad’s fourth season offered her most profound and extraordinary progression within the show. Her character’s slow, and eventual, mental breakdown is perhaps one of the greatest dynamics ever put on television. This is because Gunn, who established strength and a sense of morality, is stripped away of all her character Anna Gunn 08foundation and is left as a shell of a woman. Gunn’s acting is tremendous in the show’s fifth season because the dissolution of her inner strength functions firstly as a metaphor that morality has been defeated within the show’s plot, it also gave Gunn the chance portray her character as being submissive for the first time. This added a level of sadness to the show, not just with her character’s demeanor, but also with her providing an adverse attitude towards the husband she once loved. Her performance in the show’s fifth season functioned as an indicator that Walter had already lost his family. The ultimate tragedy of Breaking Bad is entirely represented through and rested upon the shoulders of Anna Gunn in the show’s last season. Skyler is the heart of the last season not because Walter is beyond redemption, but because Gunn’s performance represents the unintentional ramifications of Walter’s actions. The threat of jail and losing her family is the entirety of Anna Gunn 07Gunn’s final season on the show. Her final character progression shifts from defeat to desperation and fear. Gunn is sure to maintain that Skyler is a shell of a woman, but she reminds viewers that she still is a mother. Gunn dramatically emphasizes the maternal nature Skyler still possess even after everything she has gone through. Her actions in the final season are only rooted in the motivation of keeping her children with her. When the threat of this becomes a reality, Gunn’s acting is nothing short of heartbreaking. Gunn is able to link her character’s desperation as someone who truly has no control of the situation. She has lost everything as result of her husband’s actions. Anna Gunn’s true achievement in Breaking Bad is providing a type of acting that is rarely seen. She understood the necessity to build upon her character and not let it be relegated to what the scripts or the fans demanded of her. Instead, she used the circumstances of each season to propel her character upwards. It Anna Gunnis the argument of this author that Anna Gunn provided not only one of the greatest examples of character progression in a show, but also gave a complex performance that was on the same level as her co-stars, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. Gunn was first nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for her performance in Breaking Bad’s fourth season. She didn’t win. However, in the subsequent two years, she won the Primetime Emmy Award back-to-back for the show’s fifth and sixth seasons. *If you’ve enjoyed this post, please “like” my Facebook page here for updates and article postings or follow my twitter page here This acting spotlight is now feared on seroword.com here

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