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.
“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.”
Thank you for THIS section alone, I had to stop and say kudos before I even finished the post. This is what I need to say to people who think that regulating sex work isn’t ok because it’s sex work. Work is work.
Now back to the article!
Aw, thanks! I feel like we say it so often to ourselves, but it’s still a big shocker (“sex work, wait – you mean it’s not like just hooking up a lot?”) when we say it to the uninformed. And it has to be said a lot louder for street-based workers, because they get pushed into the desperate/coerced category even more often than we indoor workers do.
I should be up front and say that I’m not a sex worker, just an ally.
I posted that choice quote on my tumblr and was glad to see it has legs there too. It seems like such a simple concept, that people given a choice will make the choice that seems best to them.
Wendy is such a great character, I hope we see more of her!
Thank you. I wish she had been featured in more episodes too.
However, any odes to Game of Thrones prostitutes?
The show treats them as humans, especially with the main lady, Roz/Ros(?). And they are spotted in almost each episode.
Oh man, good idea! Alas, from what I remember of the books the harlots are a little less enthralling than they are when there are awesome actresses fleshing them out.
Shae, was it? Her name? Maybe it was Shae. Hm.
I would love for us to do one post on prostitutes in the book, and another on prostitutes in the show (where they figure far more prominently…. Hmm, I wonder why that is? Could it be their luscious whore boobs???)
Still can’t get over Wendy only being in three episodes. If you asked me to name characters on the show, she would be right after Jesse and Walt. Or certainly way before Skylar and Hank and Pollos Hermanos guy. I do love me some Skinny, he might beat her out.
You know what! I’m gonna write one.
Alas, I’m only 2 1/2 seasons in, I started during the last part of my pregnancy but stopped watching it because I was afraid Skyler would have a traumatic birth experience and that it would freak me out. I gotta finish em. And I haven’t read the books, I’ll volunteer to write about the show….
I was planning on re-reading them anyway. I’ll take a tally of the number of times whores are mentioned casually and extraneously. And then another tally for the number of times Cersei Lannister gets called a whore. But I will die of surprise if there’s a female PoV chapter from a non-virgin/non-mother. I seem to remember a lot of White Knight Tyrion Lannister crap.
I never really considered the character-building aspect of that “live PSA” before. I honestly thought they were just opening the episode with a little grim sensationalism, but you’re RIGHT. It really served to establish Wendy as a strong supporting character whose fibre was crucial to the plot. This was a fascinating read, thank you.
I’m an idiot, Breaking Bad deserves more credit than I gave it. Yes, I am aware of the parallel between this realization and my ever-evolving understanding for the real world of sex work.
It was definitely sensationalistic, and maybe I was a little too optimistic about how the audience at large might read it. Probably a lot of the bits that are ironic or funny or true to sex workers were just part of the popcorn-munching for everyone else. But then, I still have to give credit to the show for getting it so right that it can work both ways.
The Wendy/Jesse relationship is actually interesting. They know each other pretty well, Jesse trusts her with his life, basically, on two separate occasions. Jesse has sex with her, when we know that Jesse has a knack for getting sex from nice looking women (who don’t have Meth damaged teeth).
I think you shouldn’t underestimate the audience for Breaking Bad, in many ways it’s a “crime procedural” show. It gets into the small details of crimes that other shows don’t deal with, like money laundering, avoiding the cops through elaborate fronts and such. (Compare it to The Sopranos, for example, which I always considered to be more of a comedy of manners that focused on violent criminals.)
One of the things that comes up on this show is class. Jesse is in a lower class, socially, than Walt. Up until he started to get big in the meth trade, with Walt’s help, he was basically on Wendy’s level. They’ve shown this a lot. Also, they’ve shown Walt’s contempt for the other people in Jesse’s life who are closer to his level like Wendy. When Jesse talks about including Wendy in his vigilante plot, Walt is contemptuous of her as a “meth whore” and then Jesse points out that that “meth whore” stood up to hours of tough questioning by the DEA without cracking.
[…] Support Hos: Breaking Bad‘s Wendy […]
I want to hear so much more from you, Violet.