Once Upon A Time In The Old West, good guys wore white and bad guys wore black. In the modern Spaghetti Western that is ‘Breaking Bad,’ the color wheel spins infinitely beyond ‘White’ and ‘Black,’ using colors as symbols, hints and Easter eggs. But ultimately I wonder if this tale of ‘Mr. Chips-becomes-Scarface’ may spin back to non-colors, their true colors, at their most basic: White vs. Black.
Even at first blush, it’s clear that adorning the character with the bland name “Walter White’’ is purposeful. When this series opened six seasons ago, Walt is a colorless character whose lack of personal courage has kept him from becoming a wealthy scientist to instead toil as a nebbish high-school science teacher in suburban Albuquerque.
But then “Breaking Bad’’ creator Vince Gilligan’s color palette explodes into the viewers’ eyes and psyche.
It starts with characters’ names. Walter White, desperate for money and willing to cook meth to provide for his family, partners with Jesse Pinkman. Walt is married to Skyler (blue), has a son named Junior who prefers to go by “Flynn’’ (Irish translation, “son of the red-haired one’’). Walt lets Jesse’s girlfriend die in order to retain his undivided loyalty. Her name is Jane Margolis. (“Margolis’’ means “pearl’’ in Hebrew.) Walt is about to become a father again, to a baby girl who will almost always be dressed in pink. She will be named “Holly White.’’
Other color-related notes are more subtle. The Whites live on Negra Arroyo Lane. (In Spanish, “Black Stream’’ symbolizing the family’s dark path.) Multiple times in the series, the fruit that drops to the ground, out of a bowl or a grocery back, is an ominous orange. (Maybe a “Godfather’’ nod there, just as the two lead characters may be tributes to “Reservoir Dogs’’ characters Mr. White and Mr. Pink. ) The meth that makes Walt the Southwest’s most fearsome drug lord is blue in color – called “Blue Sky’’ on the streets. … and as Walt’s own “Sky’’ at home becomes increasingly aware of what hubby does in his spare time, she becomes increasingly “blue.’’
(The scene in Season 5’s “Fifty-One’’ when she wades into the family swimming pool to drown herself is shot from under the water, up towards her, and the screen fills up with a hazy Cerulean blue. Skyler is drowning in blue. And just in case the viewer doesn’t quite catch on, the episode’s music includes a 1969 song originally recorded by Tommy James and the Shondells called “Crystal Blue Persuasion.’’
Is there a meaning behind the wardrobe choices, too? Gilligan once told GQ, “In the pilot, it was intentional that Walt start off very beige and khaki-ish, very milquetoast, and he would progress through that one hour of television to green and thus show his process of evolution as a character.’’
Ah, green. The color of money? Yes, and maybe something else, too.
The darker Walt’s intentions, the darker his jackets. Eight months of the year, Albuquerque daytime temperatures hover above 70 degrees. Yet even when Walt speeds out to the desert for more malfeasance, Gilligan outfits the surely-overheated dude in jackets. As the series opens, Walt fiddles with test tubes as he begins in beige. In the finale, which we’ve seen flash-forwards of, Walt is armed with an M60 machine gun and wears a military style-jacket forest green in color.
Does pink signal death? That almost omnipresent pink teddy bear seems to suggest it – a bad sign for people named “Pinkman’’ or “Holly White.’’ The yellows jump off the screen; Gus Fring’s shirts were always yellow, and Walt and Jesse’s hazmat suits were yellow. The “Los Pollos Hermanos’’ logo is yellow. Little Brock is wearing a yellow shirt when he is poisoned by Walt’s ricin. Yellow hints at drug business being done. And what to make of Marie Schrader’s zealous infatuation with the color purple? Gilligan tells Entertainment Weekly that he once considered a storyline in which Marie would shoot an intruder with her own weapon – a purple pistol!
As Gilligan has also noted, “Your appreciation of the show doesn’t in any way rely on noticing these things. But they are there to be noticed, nonetheless, which is up to the viewer to pick up on it or not.”
And maybe among the Easter eggs – and the elbow-to-the-ribs nudges to The Bible, Greek mythology and Shakespeare — there are also false alarms and misdirections.
I’m having fun interpreting and deciphering the true colors of “Breaking Bad.’’ Same with Gilligan’s penchant for wordplay. (The series finale is called “Felina.’’ Is the meaning a self-evident anagram? Or do you prefer the theory that Fe, Li and Na = Blood, Meth and Tears?
Or another: Marcia and I spent way too much time the other night dissecting the old Marty Robbins song “El Paso’’ because the “wicked woman in that New Mexico tale is named “Feleena.’’)
But I’m banging my head against The Berlin Wall on all the German surnames dotting “Breaking Bad.’’ “Heisenberg,’’ we’re supposed to research and understand. It’s science! But add up all the others: World-weary hitman Mike Ehrmantraut. Chemist Gale Boetticher. Skyler’s lover Ted Beneke. Fring lawyer Dan Wachsberger. Most prominently, of course, DEA agent/Walt’s brother-in-law Hank Schrader. (That surname means “tailor’’ in German, but I see no connection.). Is Albuquerque a hotbed of German-in-America settlers? (Actually, maybe a little more that we might think. Check out this 1980 Census map.)
There is one German surname, though, that struck me as notable from the very start of the series. Back before becoming a suburban schlub, Walter White was a wizard. He and his partner founded “Gray Matter Technologies.’’ They crossed wires with each other over a woman (by the Germanic name of Gretchen) and split. Walt lost the company by selling his shares to his partner for $5,000. He lost the girl, too, who remains married to the old partner, and now Grey Matter is worth $2 billion.
Mild-mannered Walt’s private bitterness regarding that cruel fate causes him to angrily decline Gretchen’s offer to pay for his cancer treatment – a gesture that, if accepted, would have steered “family man’’ Walt safely from a bloody path of destruction of everything he professed to love.
What does it mean? Another German name … and another twist back to the palette.
Walter White’s old partner is named Elliott Schwartz. White and Schwartz. “Schwartz’’ is German for “black.’’
Grey Matter is an equal combination of White and Black.
But in his long-tortured mind, the color wheel didn’t treat Walter equally.
None of us yet know how “Breaking Bad’’ ends. But I watch it now with a working theory of how it started: Walter White wasn’t motivated to act for love of family, wasn’t motivated to cook for need for money for cancer treatments, wasn’t motivated to kill to protect his heinous “Heisenberg’’ crimes. He became evil as because he was wronged 25 years before this show begins.
And his true color of “green’’ doesn’t just symbolize Walter White’s desire for money.
It also symbolizes the real cancer that has consumed Walter White well before the doctor’s death-sentence diagnosis: Envy.
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