Breaking Down Breaking Bad
Chemistry as metaphor. Obscure scientific principles as symbols of virtue and vice. Breaking Bad, the must-see television series on AMC, is arguably the most profound, symbolically-rich program ever presented on the small screen. Something as simple as a plateful of bacon can serve as rich fodder for a 6000-word essay. A phrase such as “Heisenberg’s Chirality” sounds like meaningless gibberish, but to a viewer-participant of Breaking Bad, the words contain such depth of significance they could serve as the basis of an hours-long discussion.
There are no good guys in Breaking Bad. Black does not indicate a “bad guy,” and white — or White —most assuredly does not indicate a “good guy.” Perpetrators of the most grisly crimes vest themselves in cheerful yellow or friendly green, and every color under the sun. Characters we might consider “heroes” dress in the same bright and happy hues. The introductory course in symbolism is of no value during this hour of television. Whether you’re new to analysis or a seasoned veteran, Breaking Bad forces you to abandon pre-conceived notions of symbol and metaphor, to ascend to new, challenging levels of relation and value, delivering a fascinating depth of insight to be found nowhere else in cinema.
Throwing Down the (Blue Nitrile) Gauntlet
The main character, Walter White, revealed an important storytelling element in the very first episode:
Chemistry is—well, technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change. Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules: Molecules change their bond. Elements: They combine and change into compounds. Well, that’s all of life, right?
We are to understand from Walter’s first classroom lecture that Breaking Bad is not static. The guiding principle is not stasis, but change. Symbolic relationships forged in Season One may have no significance a few years later in Season Four. A character’s behavior and her entire value system may change radically in the course of a season or two. Wardrobe changes, even from one scene to the next, may carry tremendous, context-relative significance and value.
But neither is it true that “the only constant is change” in the series. Certain symbolic relationships carry such weight, and have become so reliable over the course of five years, that their continued use has trumped other production values. The yellow HazMat suits, for instance, violate another hallmark of the series: industrial authenticity. The respirators (“gas masks”), blue nitrile gloves, and chemically resistant boots are all typical attire (the technical term is PPE, for “Personal Protective Equipment”) in a non-contained production setting. Prolonged respirator usage is rare in perfectly controlled production environments, but I can attest that some FDA-approved processing schemes call for respirator usage during an entire eight- or twelve-hour shift. In fact, I’ve designed such processes myself.
I speak from a position of some authority. I write for enjoyment, but in my day job I design pharmaceutical purification processes, sometimes using vessels similar or identical to the pilot-scale equipment depicted in Seasons Three and Four of the series. With some 35 years of experience in process R&D, I advise companies throughout Canada and the United States through a consulting company I started 12 years ago. Like Walter White, my area of deepest expertise is in crystallization.
The yellow chemical suits could well be worn by pharmaceutical manufacturers working in legitimate (legal!) industry, but this would not adhere to industry norms. Everyday lab or manufacturing work would typically be performed in white, off-white, gray, or possibly green or blue Class C splash suits. High-visibility yellow suits carry the same (symbolic) connotation in industry as in general application: Danger, Hazard, Warning, Keep Out, and so on. While HazMat (Hazardous Materials) suits are available in any color, yellow is the universally-recognized and most frequently employed color for HazMat teams. These teams are typically deployed to respond to a situation that is out of control; they are not sent out for routine lab or manufacturing assignments.
The writers of Breaking Bad go out of their way to use correct equipment, procedures, and processes. Why would they depart from well-established convention in something as mundane as laboratory attire? The answer, of course, is that the color bears symbolic significance. A rigorous analysis of Breaking Bad would reveal that the HazMat suits and Gustavo Fring’s button-down shirt have the very same symbolic value.
Gus Fring, after four and a half seasons, is the most “evil” character after Heisenberg (Walter White). But we are not entitled to claim that yellow is a symbol of evil.
The show’s least ethically challenged character, DEA Agent Hank Schrader, favors yellow shirts; in some episodes his wardrobe has not differed appreciably from Gus Fring’s in style or hue.
We could turn to our first assessment—that yellow indicates danger. Wouldn’t the presence of a DEA agent in almost any scenario indicate the close proximity of danger? Anyone who knew of Gus Fring’s potential for violence would sense danger in his words and manner, regardless of the feigned warmth of his smile.
I think the significance of yellow goes farther than a simple “sign of danger,” but more important to our discussion, I believe the fact that yellow is worn by both good guys and bad points to another important aspect of Breaking Bad’s symbolism: Conceptual depth. Yellow cannot possibly mean “good” or “evil” but must instead reach deep to some category of virtue or perfection shared by certain good guys and certain bad guys. Jesse rarely wears yellow, for instance, though his body count is nearly as high as Walter’s. The significance is that DEA Agent Hank Schrader and drug kingpin Gustavo Fring share some virtue or perfection that has thus far eluded young Jesse Pinkman.
Yellow is a color with complex, non-intuitive significance in Breaking Bad. The meaning of other colors is obvious and more often than not, frightening.
The Wet Suit
There is only one color in Breaking Bad that will instill fear in the seasoned aficionado. When worn by a “man who means business,” orange is all business. Orange is the color of violent death in Breaking Bad. It is the color of the cleaning suit in the superlab. An orange suit is donned when the wearer knows he is going to get wet—or sprayed with several liters of blood, as will occur a few seconds later in the scene depicted above. Breaking Bad even had a “wet team” of men dressed in orange near the mid-point of Season Five, carrying out nine murders at three prisons in the space of two minutes.
Even with the obvious symbolic connotations of orange, though, we have to factor in Hank’s preference for the color. He and the other DEA agents put up a “tough guy” exterior that we might associate with the “all-business” orange frame of mind, but they also carry guns and the full weight of federal law on their side. In the Season Three episode “I See You” we learned that an assassin going toe-to-toe with a single DEA agent was taking on every federal agent and local police officer in Albuquerque. If you have dealings with the DEA you must assume they are “all business.” The take-home message from “I See You” is that anyone stupid enough to pose lethal challenge to a DEA agent will not live to see the end of the season. Orange is definitely Hank’s color, even when he’s grinning ear to ear.
The Breaking Bad Rainbow
The Breaking Bad rainbow is populated with easy and obvious colors, like orange, purple, and pink, as well as difficult colors, such as yellow, green, and white. The most challenging color in the show’s repertoire is the one initially favored by Walter’s wife, Skyler, and the same one that has become synonymous with Heisenberg’s drug product: Blue.
Pink occurs in particular scenes and is most powerfully connected to the idea of innocence and/or judgment. Vince Gilligan has made it clear that the pink teddy bear of Season Two is an homage to Steven Spielberg’s Girl in the Red Coat in Schindler’s List.
The teddy bear’s disconnected eyeball, a recurring motif throughout Season Three, is most akin to the Eye of Horus or the Eye of Judgment. The teddy bear’s eye, like the Eye of Horus, sees everything, and especially those events Walter wishes to keep secret or private. Though he can hide from the law and even from his own family, Walter cannot hide from the teddy bear’s eye.
That Walter is wearing pink in the critical teddy bear scenes does not mean he is innocent, but that innocence has seen, judged, and convicted him. The pink sweater we see Walter wearing at the end of Season Two is the signal that the full moral burden of the horrific accident is placed squarely on his shoulders.
Legality and Morality
In the scene above, DEA Agent Schrader is performing an illegal act with contraband material. We may laugh, but the penalties for possession of Cuban cigars are among the stiffest for contraband ownership that can be imposed at the federal level. Hank could be sent to prison.
It is illegal for U.S. persons to buy, sell, trade, give away, or otherwise engage in (or offer to engage in) transactions involving illegally-imported Cuban cigars. The penalties for doing so include, in addition to confiscation of the cigars, civil fines of up to $50,000 per violation and, in appropriate cases, criminal prosecution which may result in imprisonment.
Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control
United States Treasury
Hank Schrader, usually upheld as an exemplar of rare virtue and morality, is depicted enjoying a clandestine pleasure. He “did a little favor for a FBI guy” and the reward was a large box of Cuban contraband. When Walter observed, “Now I was under the impression that these were illegal,” Hank’s response was not filtered or measured in any way. “Yeah, well, sometimes forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest.”
We are made to understand in short order that Breaking Bad does not concern itself with the legality or illegality of drugs, or even situational ethics or morality. Thus the teddy bear’s eye accuses and convicts Walter of a crime for which any competent court in any fair-minded legal system would find no evidence, and would therefore be forced to move for acquittal. On the other hand, Hank’s “forbidden fruit” is depicted as a pleasure devoid of moral repercussions.
While characters’ mindsets and viewpoints change, morality in Breaking Bad is incorruptible, the same in Season One as in Season Five, unchanging from place to place and time to time. Hank will never face significant consequences for enjoying Cuban cigars, even if he smokes them in his DEA office. Walter, though, will not be able to escape the full measure of damnation that is his due, even for crimes for which no legal remedies apply.
Bringin’ Home the Texturized Artificial Vegetable Protein Strips
The first two minutes of the Breaking Bad pilot episode after the title sequence are a tour de force of multi-layered storytelling. In fact, my analysis of the 90-second breakfast scene consumes most of the 6000 words I devote to my first prologue, “Walter,” in Breaking Blue, my companion book to Breaking Bad.
We see Walter’s wife, Skyler, bring him a special plate containing scrambled eggs topped with what looks like bacon spelling out his age, fifty. It is his birthday, and the White family tradition specifies bacon formed into the birthday boy’s age.
The scene superficially appears to be a throw-away domestic tableau intended to establish the bland, ordinary life of a nondescript man. The scene certainly accomplishes this minimal goal, but much more is going on in these precious first seconds of the show.
Breaking Bad poses many fundamental questions. One such question is the responsibility of a man toward his family. Gustavo Fring poses the question in simple, eloquent language in the Season Three episode, “Mas”:
When you have children, you always have a family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man—a man provides. And he does it, even when he is not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up, and he does it. Because he’s a man.
The unyielding force of the philosophy underlying these words is keenly felt in virtually every episode. A man provides for his family because he is a man. This is what men do. In Breaking Bad, this call to provide is the most essential definition of man as husband and father.
The breakfast scene in the pilot episode depicts the complete subversion of every necessary element of Walter’s status as husband and father. A man’s place, in the Breaking Bad scheme, is to provide, to “bring home the bacon,” which is a valid textual translation of the visual imagery in the scene. But we see the wife, not the husband, providing the bacon. Worse, it’s not bacon at all. When Walter unobtrusively notes his surprise, Skyler informs him that it’s veggie bacon and it will reduce Walter’s cholesterol. “Oh,” is about as much as Walter says. Seconds later, when Walter Junior hobbles to the table (he has cerebral palsy), the boy doesn't hide his disdain. “What the hell is this?” and then “I want real bacon, not this fake crap…. This smells like Band-Aids.”
Walter accepts Skyler’s symbolic intrusion into masculine responsibility, but in doing so he relinquishes his position as husband and father. His acceptance of artificial bacon is an indication of his artificiality as husband and father. As Gus Fring would say, Walter is no man. He cannot be a man because he does not meet the definition of a man. Later in the pilot episode we will hear Hank, Walter’s brother in law, emphasize the message: Walter is not a real man.
One of the delicious ironies of the first breakfast scene is that Walter is superficially whole but inwardly fragmented and incomplete. Walter Junior, on the other hand, is superficially handicapped (by cerebral palsy), but inside he is whole — even as a boy he is all man, never willing to surrender masculine prerogative, even to his own mother.
Breaking Bad is only the second television program that has so captured my interest and imagination that I have written a guidebook for the entire series. Breaking Blue doesn't mean “going blue” but “explaining blue,” or “expatiating on blue,” in the same vein as “breaking a story.”
While I certainly break (explain) my understanding of the colors white, yellow, and blue, I consider the primary objective to be the unveiling of my interpretation of Breaking Bad’s core meaning. I call the book Breaking Blue because I believe the color blue is the visual and symbolic focal point of the thesis of the show. There is no valid chemical reason for Heisenberg’s methamphetamine to have an azure tint, just as there is no valid processing reason for putting Heisenberg and Jesse into yellow HazMat suits. The rationale is strictly symbolic.
Very little in Breaking Bad is extraneous or unconnected. The pink teddy bear is Innocence, the teddy bear’s disembodied eye is Judgment, and its disfigured face is a kind of “face-off,” drug-related Destiny, since the teddy bear and Gus Fring both end up with exactly the same but chirally (or stereochemically) distinct faces. Gus Fring’s “face-off,” then, is connected not only to the teddy bear of Season Two but also to Walter’s “chirality” lecture of Season One (Episode 1.02, “Cat’s in the Bag”). Virtually all of it is connected, re-connected, marvelously inter-connected at multiple levels, with symbols signifying other symbols that image self-referential themes and become grand metaphors for life well lived and existence that can only end in death. Gus picks up a box cutter, but it cannot simply be a box cutter. No, it must be a green box cutter, therefore bearing symbolic weight that will have to be assessed in the context of the cutter’s gruesome application in the next scene. We might believe that Skyler could wear just about any color underwear, but even by the first episode of the second season we should have known—everything in the show told us—we must have known, subconsciously at least—that she could only be wearing blue underwear. No other color was possible, not because this was her choice, but because blue was the symbolic, thematic statement of who she was at that time (and the green avocado mask smeared on her face was the first indication of her movement into a new symbolic phase, her breaking into a new psychological state).
“Blue and yellow make green.” This is the self-evident yet confusing statement I used to begin what has become the #1 Bestselling companion guide to Lost, LOST Humanity. I never explained the significance of the statement. But I would imagine just about anyone who has seen all 121 episodes of Lost and has read LOST Humanity could explain it quite succinctly. “Blue represents science and especially the Dharma Initiative, yellow represents faith and especially the yellow light at the Heart of the Island, and green represents the two-edged sword that is Dogen’s green pill. Green, in Lost, is the idea that science and faith are correlative and subordinate to the will of the Island.” Or something along those lines. I did not explain the significance of “blue and yellow make green” because the Science/Faith struggle is at the core of Lost’s thesis and a simple explanation would not do the subject justice. The explanation I provided above is superficial. Anyone schooled in Lost thought could tell you there are a number of distinct yet related ways of looking at the three-color statement of LOST Humanity, and all of them are valid. Simply put, you cannot get a handle on the rich meaning of Lost mythology simply by reading two sentences, even from a so-called “Lost expert.”
In the same way, the central image of Breaking Blue is the photograph of a yellow nitrile gloved hand holding fifty grams of Heisenberg’s Blue Sky methamphetamine (actually raspberry flavored rock candy, which is itself quite addictive), titled “Crystal Blue Perfusion.” The title is not just a reference to the late 1960s song (“Crystal Blue Persuasion”), but a statement of my understanding of blue’s significance to Breaking Bad. I will never define the meaning. However, anyone familiar with Breaking Bad who has also read Breaking Blue will be able to distill the essential meaning into a sentence or two. Any such distillation will not do the subject justice, but it will serve as a fine starting point for a more interesting discussion of the best show currently on television.
By now, if you have not seen the show you have many questions. But if you have seen the show you have even more questions. And if you have seen the show and have gained some fluency in the periodic table you will be downright confused. “This guy says he’s a chemist, pharmaceutical expert of some kind, yet he says D is a chemical element. I've looked all over, don’t see any ‘D’ on my periodic table.” No, indeed, you do not. But I am a chemist — a professional chemist, no less! — and, believe it or not, I made proper use of the symbol D in the image introducing this essay. There’s no easy explanation, unfortunately — not one amenable to a 3000-word essay, anyway. But once I do explain it, you will have a keener appreciation of chemistry.
In a way, my use of the symbol D is a metaphor for Breaking Bad. There’s no easy way to get to the crux of the show’s symbolism, but in making the effort we will all gain a far deeper appreciation of some of the best cinematic art of the 21st century.
Breaking Bad is possibly the darkest drama on television, darker than even the R-rated fare on HBO and Showtime. It is not a show for children, or even for young teens. But if you are an adult, and you can stomach the decidedly mature themes and subject matter, I urge you to give the show a try. If you find the pilot episode a little too crazy, you will not be alone in your distress. I found myself repulsed by the first two episodes, but I stayed with it on a friend’s recommendation. I was glad I did, and you will be, too. The show is a metaphor, after all, for the chirality in all of us.
Pearson Moore’s Breaking Bad guidebook, Breaking Blue, will be published in December, 2012.
coming in December from Pearson Moore