The Significance of Color in Breaking Bad

April 28, 2014

Although the series came to an end several months ago, I’m still obsessed with Breaking Bad. I’d never actually watched an episode until around May or June of last year, but once I got my first disc in the mail from Netflix, I was hooked.

So much has been written about the show — once I was caught up, I devoured as much as I could, and there was a ton of material to go through — but there’s one aspect that I haven’t seen discussed, and that’s color.

I recently began re-watching the show, and I’ve been struck by how much of a role color plays. Sure, some character names in reference to color are obvious, but there are many subtle examples as well.

I’m not sure if the writers intended for these colors to play such a big part, but as smart and sharp as the writing is, I’m guessing on some level they did.


Usual associations: goodness, purity, cleanliness

When we first meet Walter White, he’s working two jobs to support his family. He’s grossly overqualified and underpaid, but he goes to work everyday because he loves and cares for them. Walt seems to be a good, pure man; plus, his night job is at a carwash, so there’s the cleanliness.

At times Walt actually becomes obsessively clean. This is evident in how tidy he keeps his labs (remember the fly?), but also in other areas, such as the time he comes home to the apartment complex and notices the band-aid in the pool that he just has to scoop out.

Early on in the series, even when Walt starts doing bad things, it’s hard to really dislike him or think that deep down he’s not still good. Of course, as the show progresses, that becomes harder and harder and his surname ends up becoming rather ironic.


Usual associations: badness, evil, death

As he delves deeper into the world of drugs, he’s no longer Walter White, but “Heisenberg.” And he doesn’t just wear the proverbial black hat, he actually puts one on, and often a black jacket as well as sunglasses when he’s conducting business.

A key player in the Breaking Bad saga, though the one with probably the least amount of screen time is Elliot Schwartz. Elliot is Walt’s ex-friend and -business partner, as well as the guy who’s married to Walt’s former girlfriend. The name “Schwartz” is derived from “Schwarz,” which is German for black, and this seemed to set up the two main adversaries: white vs. black, good vs. evil.

Though, as we soon discover, things in the Breaking Bad universe constantly shift and change and are never exactly as you think they’re going to be.


Usual associations: calmness, honesty, peace

Perhaps ironically, Walt’s blue meth creates an atmosphere that’s the exact opposite of those three traits. His creation — perhaps even his masterpiece, in his eyes — elicits violence, destruction, and death.

The White’s swimming pool is frequently featured on the show, but the tranquil blue water is often juxtaposed by violent acts. The floating, torn apart stuffed animal is a particularly haunting image.

Then there’s Skyler. It’s hard not to notice this one, as “sky” is right in there. In regards to blue qualities, Sklyer is also a bit of a contradiction. Though she’s often calm, or at least tries to be, she’s definitely not the most honest person, especially when it comes to her smoking habits or her relationships.


Usual associations: neutrality, unemotional, boring

Despite its dull correlation, gray might just be the most important color in Breaking Bad and the driving force for what Walt becomes. Gray Matter got its name by combining Walt and Elliott’s last names, essentially white plus black.

The company, which Walt sold his share in for $5,000, becomes worth billions, and Walt’s deep bitterness about not only not being a part of it, but not getting the recognition he feels he deserves, is palpable.


Usual associations: nurturing, love, compassion

While Jesse Pinkman at first blush (pun intended) doesn’t appear to have any of these qualities, the more we get to know him — the more layers we peel off — we realize that he encompasses them all. Look how devoted he is to his friends. As much as they screw up, he doesn’t want them to get hurt. We see the depth of his love when the people around him start dying. He grieves for Combo. He almost doesn’t get over losing Jane.

His compassionate and nurturing sides are particularly evident with children. He protects the little boy in the drug house; he does everything he can to help Andrea’s son, Brock; he is devastated when Todd kills the boy in the desert.

Early on in the show it appears that Jesse is a bit of a coward, someone who doesn’t have the guts to really get his hands dirty in this business/life he chose. And maybe there’s some truth to that; this adorable scuzzball seems to be much more of a lover than a fighter.


Usual associations: royalty, wealth, luxury

Hank and Marie’s house is decked out in purple. From the throw pillows to the teapot, you can’t escape it. Though on some level, the vast amount of purple may just represent Marie’s obsessiveness (perhaps alluding to her other mental issues), it seems to be more than that.

Look at the differences between the Schrader house and the White’s. For one thing, the former is probably twice as big, though it’s only Hank and Marie who live there. It’s also much newer and filled with nicer things. The purple only further exhibits how luxuriously they are living compared to the Whites.


Usual associations: nature and freshness, but also envy and jealously

Here the obvious example is money. The only reason Walt starts cooking meth is to provide for his family after he’s gone. But his quest for the green soon becomes more than that. Walt has several chances to stop what he’s doing, maybe not with as much money as he wanted to make, but he could’ve left the game, gotten out with a few extra bucks and his life.

But that isn’t good enough for him. He sees how the other half lives, namely, the Schwartz’s, and just has to keep going. Walt has a love-hate relationship with money. He craves it and what it can do, but eventually he also grows to hate what it represents. At one point he starts burning stacks of it in his grill before quickly realizing what he’s doing. Eventually, though, Walt’s longing for money is only superseded by his desire for power.

There’s another, less apparent green example, and that’s Walt’s daughter, Holly. As Walt’s world is crashing down around him, the only thing he can think to do is grab her in a desperate and misguided attempt to keep things together. Though it’s too late, it’s at that moment we see how much more important family is to him than money.

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