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Breaking Bad: A paragon of pure cinema

Updated on June 16, 2020
Samuel Brookes profile image

Samuel studies Classics at the University of Oxford. When he's not reading Greek Tragedies he's probably watching a Pixar film.

This topic is widely commented on the web, so I have no intention of recycling old information. This is more of an appreciation-piece about certain moments in the series which I think are masterful examples of pure cinema.

Is Skyler wearing green?

The colour green – money and greed – is the most immediate colour in the series what with Walter White donning a green shirt in the teaser of the first episode, the opening credits being green and even the digitalised alarm clock glowing green. We get it… it’s an important colour. Whenever Walter says that everything that he has done he did for his family (the very first thing he says in fact), we glare at the green and thing “pull the other one”. The visual transcends the spoken. We are invited to another level of interpretation. This is exactly the case with Skyler, the popularly-hated character and wife of Walter, who as her name suggests is profusely depicted in blue… until season 3 episode 5. She enters Holly’s room wearing blue trousers and a white top. And in the next scene for the very first time she is wearing… green! Why? Because in Holly’s room she found for the very first time the big bag of money. The visual contrast is so strong that it doesn’t matter an iota what Skyler says or does not say. We know exactly what’s on her mind. As the next scene goes, she rambles on for a while to her divorce councillor, fingering a strange green plant, until she stands up and drops the line: “he keeps the money in the house…” The audience know it. Even the divorce councillor knows it. The drug money has turned Skyler’s head. From that moment on, Skyler’s trajectory has shifted. She involves herself in Walter’s business. She starts laundering money. She tries to patch things up with Walt. She starts spending Walt’s money for this and that. And it’s all there, visually, in the green.

Jesse and the colourful spectrum of trauma

So many great colour moments grace us in this series: the blue of power and repression, the green of money and greed, the yellow of meth and cowardice, the pink of innocence, the purple of self-deception. Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that one of the greatest moments is when all these colours come together… in season 4. Between a rock and a hard place, Jesse Pinkman commits murder. The pink in Pinkman should say a lot about Jesse’s character. He is, as the creator Vince Gilligan said, the criminal who shouldn’t be. Running up to the murder, Jesse’s colour coding came under two categories as I see it. (1) Either red (aggression / blood) or yellow (cowardice / fear) and (2) either crazy, multi-coloured, baggy clothing (instability / vulnerability) or monochrome, dark, smart-fitting clothing (stability, usually off the meth). And then… there’s post-murder. As well as Jesse’s need to surround himself with noise in season 4, colour is the primary entrance to his soul… which is lucky because Jesse does just about everything he can not to talk about how he feels. Season 4 episode 2: Jesse stands dumbly in front of the stereo system he has just bought. The music: “Money, money, money, money, fast money”. The colours: flashes of red, blue, yellow, green, orange, and pink light up his face in the dark. The entire spectrum of colour and their array of symbolism creates an exhausting and dizzying effect. The colours are confused. And so is Jesse. We feel his internal struggle to reconcile the heinous act with his better self. He is like a broken machine. Again, colours shout louder than words what Jesse is suffering… “TRAUMA”.

White goes black: Bad to the bone

The culmination of all this good work with colour coding, and I come to my final example: The Black of Heisenberg. I said beforehand that it’s not surprising that one of the greatest moments is when all these colours come together. Well, in the case of the colour black it is quite literally so since black is the absorption of all colours in the visible spectrum. In cinema, black is often considered to represent cinematic death. This is not incorrect in Breaking Bad, but it would be more appropriate to think of it as the negation of the emotions as symbolised by the colours. Not only the negation of emotions but the negation of Walter White himself, the man, the human. On the one extreme of the spectrum we find Walter White and on the other extreme we find Heisenberg. And Heisenberg is always black. In the scene leading up to the first time we hear of Heisenberg (Season 1 episode 6), Walter uncharacteristically wears a black jacket. Bit by bit we watch the white of Walter White turn into the black of Heisenberg and bit by bit we watch the legend stand head and shoulders above the man.

© 2020 Samuel Brookes


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