Wendy starts her run on AMC’s Breaking Bad playing the lead in a live scared-straight PSA. Hank Schrader, the loudmouth DEA agent, pulls up to her motel’s parking lot while she’s grabbing a root beer from the vending machine. He’s got his nephew in tow, and it’s pretty clear what show he wants to see: the junkie hooker whose life is so godawful that Walt Junior will be terrified right off the gateway drugs.
Hank’s an asshole. He calls Wendy “princess.” “Don’t make me get out of this car,” he hollers out the window, in a tone that would make me and my touchy indoor pride and nervous indoor instincts bolt the other way. But Wendy’s not what you’d expect, and she’s barely what Hank’s expecting, either. She wanders over, apathetic but dutiful. She pegs him straight away as a cop, then as a cop who wants to buy pot, then as a cop who wants to buy pot and have her blow the teenager in the car with him. She’s pretty okay with all of those things, except the teenager part, and checks to see if she can instead score some weed off of him. She barely answers any of his leading questions and eventually Hank gives up and dismisses her. She saunters away, unfazed.
The problem for Hank, whose dickhead ways give voice to an anti-sex-work public, is that Wendy isn’t scary. Nothing about the whole scene is scary, except maybe her gruesome teeth. The scene illustrates the gulf between public perception of the horrors of sex work (and drug use) and the banal realities of both choices. After the conversation, when Hank turns to Walt Junior and says, “So, what do you think?” Walt Junior, bless his heart, gives voice to a kindlier, dudelier, segment of the public, and just grins: “Cool.”
On paper, Wendy’s the stereotype Hank wants her to be. She lives in a motel, she’s a meth user, she has a son (Patrick, whom we never see), and she gives blowjobs to drive-through customers. She’s the worst-case scenario, and she’s very near the bottom of the classist ho hierarchy we all know and hate. She is, as one of my ignorant civilian acquaintances might say, “a crack whore, not a sex worker.” As a whore of privilege, I’m not qualified to present an opinion on the truthiness of the depiction of Wendy’s day-to-day—the frustrations, the dangers and the rewards that make it worthwhile—but still, watching Wendy, I recognize myself.
It’s her montage in season three that really sticks with me. We’re with her through most of her day as she chats with neighbors, blows clients, drinks a soda, counts cash, smokes meth, smokes cigarettes, talks to cops, throws a soda can at a short-changing customer, eats some takeout, fights with another sex worker and, at the end of the day, spends her cash. It’s a matter-of-fact three minutes that’s not even particularly judgmental. Yeah, there are the stereotypes—she has a poolside altercation over a coat with Elton John in a purple miniskirt?—but the deep pleasure she gets out of her afternoon can of root beer, and her sheer banshee rage at the fucker who paid her with an envelope full of scrap paper were dead on. And I don’t think I sympathized only as a sex worker. I think anyone who watches those three minutes gets it. Sex workers are people, and sex work is work. It’s exasperating, routine work that we do because we’ve calculated the risks versus the rewards, just like every other worker on the planet.
What I love most about the way Breaking Bad treats Wendy, though, is that we get to go past the shock value, and then past the realities (blow jobs, meth) and then into the interesting bit: her personal life. Wendy’s defining feature is her reliability, particularly as a friend to Jesse Pinkman, who is himself a perpetual fuck-up, yet half-decent person. Right after Wendy leaves Hank and Walt Junior in the parking lot, she retreats to her room where she fucks Jesse in a chair in shot that’s both perfunctory and, yeah, kinda hot, not gonna lie. Their relationship lives along blurred lines. He’s a client/dealer who pays in meth but she goes above and beyond for him. She agrees to be Jesse’s alibi (which involves having her door busted open, a SWAT team ransack her home, and a seriously ungentle arrest) and later we find out she sat through Hank’s vile, five-hour-long interrogation. (When Wendy mentions her “medical issues,” Hank laughs, “penis withdrawal? Schlongus interruptus?”) Based on her solid performance there, Jesse wants her to help him out again, this time with a vigilante murder he’s planning. It’s a role she eventually agrees to, after decent payment and an explanation as to the morality of the act, which she evidently takes at face value.
When it comes to Jesse and Wendy, we never see evidence that he’s lied to her, or she to him. He asks for desperate, pushy, over-the-top favors, but he compensates her for them. Sometimes he’s rude, and maybe he doesn’t have the greatest hygiene, but he’s not a bad client or even a bad friend. And it is undeniable that he needs her more than she needs him. Right after they’re released from Hank’s interrogation, Wendy lingers silent and non-judgmental as Jesse calls his folks, and lies and begs and gets rejected. Then, when all his other options are exhausted, he turns back to her and they head out for breakfast. At that point, I think it’s a safe bet Wendy’s buying.
I was shocked to learn that Wendy’s only in three episodes, a fact I discovered when I went to write this ode to her, and found Julia Minesci, the actress who portrays her, listed as “meth whore” on IMDB. She’s so central to the show’s plotlines and emotional beats that I thought I’d be re-watching at least a dozen episodes. Regardless, as sex worker portrayals go, Wendy’s at the top of my list: she’s principled, smart, and she puts up with no shit. The next time someone stiffs me a 20, I will be pitching soda cans like a quarterback.