- Home /
- Breaking Bad as Literature
Breaking Bad as Literature
Faces of Meth
On every level, Breaking Bad is about transformation and concealment. And it just so happens that those concepts are built into the very structure of classical drama. How? With the use of masks.
In ancient Greek theater, the actors' roles were defined by the masks that they wore, not the actors who played them. In other words, any actor who was wearing the Dionysus mask would be considered Dionysus. If he took off that mask and put on a peasant mask, then he'd be playing a peasant.
The appearance of the masks would also typically tell you something about the basic nature of the character: evil villains would have nasty twisted scowls, good guys would have attractive heroic visages. And if something changed about the character, the mask would change to fit it—like if a character changed from young to old, or happy to sad, or anything in between.
Well, we've obviously come a long way since ancient Greece—movie actors are happy to use their own faces, thank you very much. And a movie actor's look doesn't necessarily reflect the nature of his character; the babyfaced Michael Cera can play psychotic creepers in films like Magic Magic, for example.
But that doesn't mean that some of those classical conventions aren't still around. In fact, in a classically-influenced story like Breaking Bad, it's a core part of the story. On a symbolic level, Walt's constantly-changing appearance has everything to do with his spiritual transformation. And that's what this lesson is all about.
Zip up your hazmat suit, it's about to get a little methy in here.
Clothes Make the Maniac
Whenever Walt puts on a funky new outfit, you just know some bad is about to get broke.
And not just his clothes change—his whole body changes, from head to toe. This fan-drawn picture of Walt's changing face says it all.
Let us count the ways:
His pants. What, you don't remember? The very first image of the entire series is a pair of khaki pants sailing through the desert air. They're Walt's pants, of course—he takes them off when he cooks meth for the first time in the RV. And it's a fitting image: it perfectly captures his initial loss of decency and civility.
When we see him tearing down the road in the RV, he's stripped to his skivvies, and the car runs over the pants; when he gets out, he's half-dressed in a green plaid button-up. It suggests that his true nature is beginning to be uncovered.
But not all the way, just yet.
His hair. Walt begins with an ordinary middle-aged crop-top, wire-framed glasses, and a pushbroom moustache—basically, he's a dead-ringer for Ned Flanders.
When he loses his hair at the end of Season 1, it's for a practical, innocent reason: he shaves it all off when his chemotherapy treatments start making it fall out. But the visual effect it has is striking: with his face completely bare, it's another gesture toward revealing his true nature. And even more than that, it literally signifies the truth that the cancer has made him confront: he's got nothing to lose.
But then, in the flash-forward at the beginning of the fifth season, it's ba-ack. He's left his old life behind and gone back into hiding. And in this sense, his hair also reflects his self-possession: he loses it when he stops being the mild-mannered schoolteacher, but then he gets it back when he crosses over into full-on Heisenberg.
Oh, you know who else loses his hair over the course of the series? Jesse. And you know who else doesn't have any to begin with? Mike Ehrmantraut, The Cousins, and Hank. It's like Walt's baldness is contagious.
Or maybe it's just because the weather's really hot down in New Mexico.
The Heisenberg hat and glasses. Ah, that hat. All it takes is a black pork-pie to turn Walter White into "Say My Name" Heisenberg. This is the clearest example of his transformation, and when he puts it on, it might as well be war paint.
Walt first adopts the Heisenberg outfit in the Season 1 finale, when he meets with the unstable Tuco. And he wears it for the same reason any serious poker player does: to hide his face while he's negotiating. (Though that doesn't stop his jaw from dropping when Tuco beats the snot out of his own partner.) But once he gets in the habit of wearing it, it takes on a whole different significance altogether—it's like a cocoon of evil, and every time he puts it on, the transformation becomes a little more complete and Walt gets that much harder to read.
As you may know, Werner Heisenberg is the physicist best known for his Uncertainty Principle, which states that the more you know a particle's position, the less certain you can be about its velocity, and vice versa. It's sort of like Walt's relationship to Heisenberg: the more he wears that black hat, the less you know about the status of Walter White.
(Fun slash super-sad fact: Werner Heisenberg also taught chemistry and died of cancer.)
The hazmat suit. Walt and Jesse both wear their canary-yellow hazmat suits when they start cooking meth in earnest. This represents Walt's intellectual, technical side, the skills that give him power and enable him to do both a lot of good (his Nobel Prize-winning X-ray crystallography) and evil (self-explanatory).
The hazmat suit literally protects him from the work he's doing, the same way that his professional training allows him to convince himself that he's not really cooking meth; he's just doing chemistry. He's not really synthesizing ricin to poison a druglord; he's just doing chemistry. (For the somewhat immature Gale, it's even more of a delusion: "it's all still magic.")
And when the mask is on, it conceals him entirely.
Ultimately, the gas mask is both what begins Walt’s undoing (when the DEA find his mask in the desert in the first episode) and gives him a little final smirk of nostalgia—he walks through Uncle Jack’s laboratory and picks up a gas mask.
Still don't believe that the characters' clothes symbolize something? Well, take it from Vince Gilligan himself. He and his design team have gone on the record to say that the color of the characters' clothes match up with their motivations and actions in the show. Gilligan says:
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.
Read this Wired magazine article about the Breaking Bad "Color Theory," and once you're done, we'll rendezvous for the activity.Go to Lesson: Bad Boys