‘Breaking Bad’ and the color blue: a vehicle of sympathy

(Both in the introduction and the body, there are Breaking Bad spoilers: proceed at your own risk).

I feel the need to warn you: you are going to read about color symbolism, more specifically the symbolism of the color blue in AMC’s Breaking Bad. I am aware of the feelings of some that say, often times, English scholars interpret meaning from colors or objects that seems to be a stretch. I am reminded of the picture (to the left) that is often shared among students through social media.

I respect that opinion. Sometimes, symbolism can feel forced. I would even go as far as to say there is a certain respectability for those who refuse to dive too deeply into the bottomless pool that is symbolism. There is a certain innocence.

However, literature and, in this case, television and movies, are forms of art where no choice is made that does not serve a meaning. It is what separates novels and shows that we all love — like The Great Gatsby or Breaking Bad — from the ones that are never read, or spend a half-season on the air before being cancelled.

In fact, there are even perks to seeing these symbols. For example, the fruit oranges appeared in the Godfather as a precursor to death — the main scene being of the oranges rolling across the street when Don Corleone is shot. Some may say the connection was unintentional, but it is present and cinematically iconic nonetheless. 

In Breaking Bad, oranges are equally important as the series pays homage to the classic trilogy. When Ted Beneke tries to escape from Huell and Kuby, he trips over his rug and breaks his neck on a piece of furniture, causing a bowl of oranges to spill onto his body and roll across the floor. 

With the series setting up the same connection that the Godfather created between death/danger and oranges, when one saw the flash-forward in season 5 that showed the frightened neighbor Carol dropping oranges from her grocery bag, shocked to see a grizzly-looking, fugitive Walt, his death — or possibly Carol’s death — could have been foreseen (or predicted in the case of Carol). 

The oranges, as well as the color blue, are only two examples of deep symbolism used throughout the series.

If you still wish to proceed, do so with the caution of what is mentioned above. However, hopefully — for it is the goal — you will finish reading with a greater respect for Breaking Bad as an exemplary television series in an era with shameless, staged reality shows. Also, hopefully a greater respect is found for Vince Gilligan, as well, and the others who worked to make the show into what it eventually became. 

And remember, all opinions, when formed using reason, are valid. My interpretation of the use of color blue is just that: mine. Certainly, I do not see it as a cold, hard answer, nor do I see myself as an authority on symbolism or color interpretation. Read with an open mind.

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The relationship between color and AMC’s Breaking Bad is one that is certainly not ignored. A simple Google search will churn out plenty well-organized, well-thought and well-written analyses on every aspect of color used in the series, from the clothing of the main characters to the background hues.

That is exactly what the show’s creator/writer/producer/director Vince Gilligan intended. In an interview with GQ in August near the completion of the show’s final season, Gilligan explained the time spent on deciding colors:

I obsess a great deal more than I should over those details. I sweat the small stuff. … We would talk a lot with our costume designer – first a woman named Kathleen Detoro and now a woman named Jennifer Bryan – about colour, specifically the use of colour. At the beginning of every series we would have a meeting in which I would discuss with the production designer and the costume designer about the specific palettes we would use for any given character throughout the course of the year.

Thus, the relationship between the dominant color of a character’s wardrobe and the stage of their emotional state in the series is intentional, and not a reach to examine further.

One of the most dominant colors in the show is the color blue, of course the color of Walt’s pure meth, a result of a formula that circumvents the use of “psuedo.” The color has a deeper meaning, however, as exemplified in not just the drug, but also the wardrobe of Skyler.

With the information that wardrobe color was an important part of the series to Vince Gilligan, TDYLF.com created an impressive infographic showing the color progression of the major character’s clothing.

It is easy to make certain generalities about the colors, such as in times of death or disaster, characters are more prone to wear black. However, perhaps the most interesting wardrobe to analyze is that of Skyler’s, as an obvious shift can be seen from colors of blue to drab grays, browns and blacks.

Throughout season 1, Skyler dresses in predominantly blue. The trend stops when Walt is kidnapped by Tuco and she begins to wear gray colors, possibly a foreshadow of what is to come of her character.

From "Negra y Azul" -- appropriately translated to black and blue -- when Skyler first visits Beneke to ask for a job.
From “Negra y Azul” — appropriately translated to “black and blue” — when Skyler first visits Beneke to ask for a job.

But, after Walt returns, she goes back to wearing shades of blue in her clothing until she begins to work for Beneke again. Of course, this can be credited to the fact that she is now wearing business clothes, but, knowing the importance of the color of clothes, the transition is deeper.

When Skyler begins to work with Beneke, her characters goes through a moral change; her innocence is lost as she sleeps with him a little later. In fact, the first color she is seen wearing when working for Ted is black, a color she does not wear again until a few episode into the following season, a strong, ominous suggestion as to what is to come.

It is the first step her character takes away from vulnerability. She is now an active, aggressive character as opposed to a passive, sympathetic housewife at the show’s beginning.

There is a maxim that one always wins in court when they wear blue. Of course, that is not true. However, the idea does stem from a belief that the color blue evokes feelings of sympathy (in the case of court, one would of course want sympathy from judges and jurors). In addition, for women, light blue colors can also elicit feelings of vulnerability from others.

For Skyler, her blue clothing seemingly disappears once she gets involved with Ted, as shown in the infographic. It is not until around the time she stands up to Walt and kicks him out of the house that blue finds its way back into her clothing. The resurgence of the blue — though not as strong as in Season 1 — seems to suggest an attempt to move Skyler back to her once-vulnerable self.

Once Walt comes back, Skyler’s clothing is not blue at all, but in fact has an overwhelming darkness, most especially in the emergence of more black. She wears black when she calmly tells Walt, “I f****d Ted,” and it becomes her dominant color with the purchase of the car wash and consequently, as TDYLF notes, her increased role in Walt’s empire. (There is also a shift to green prior to the purchase of the car wash which can be seen as her growing greed as she realizes the amount of money Walt is earning. It occurs immediately after she finds Walt’s stash of money).

From "Fifty-one" where Skyler tries to cleanse herself in the pool.
From “Fifty-one” where Skyler tries to cleanse herself in the pool.

In the rest of the infographic, which covers through the mid-season finale of season 5, Skyler wears blue only once more: when she takes her swim in the pool. With the obvious representation of water throughout literature and film as purifying, echoing the Catholic belief in the sacrament of baptism, Skyler takes her swim in an attempt to cleanse herself of her sins in helping Walt to break the law. While underwater, her blue skirt is visually overpowering, a clear reference to — and a longing to return to — her pre-Walt’s-cancer, pre-marital-issues wardrobe.

Within the final eight episodes of the series, outside of the range of the infographic, Skyler’s is wearing blue once again, this time in a flashback to the first season. While Walt is in the desert cooking with Jesse, he calls Skyler to tell her he will be home late because he is being held at the car wash. She, while packing a ceramic clown she recently sold, believes him. Her blue sweater almost startles the eyes, making it very noticeable after episodes of seeing her in only dark, black/grey clothing.

From “Ozymandias” in season 5. (Screengrab Courtesy: Entertainment Weekly).

This scene is also important because of the knifes in the foreground, foreshadowing the later struggle between her and Walt.

The nature of the scene as a flashback displaying her season 1 naivety, as well as the foreshadowing of the ultimate confrontation between her and Walt, greatly contrasts not just her wardrobe change, but also her character change and the change of her family and life.

It is also important to make notice of her name and its blue connection: Skyler.

Aside from the clothes Skyler wears, blue also plays a role in scenes that she is involved in. As noted by another blog, there is a scene in the mid-season finale of Season 5, “Gliding Over All,” where blue quite literally illuminates the characters.

From "Gliding Over All" in Season 5, where the pool's blue reflection is dominating.
From “Gliding Over All” in season 5 where the pool’s blue reflection is dominating.

As a pensive Walt sits by the pool, most likely thinking about the fact that because of him, his children — the reason why he began cooking meth — are no longer living in his house (he had visited Holly at Hank and Marie’s earlier in the episode).

There is a sense that the blue is a reminder of why Walt began to cook in the first place.

Other cases of blue items– aside from Skyler — where the color is used to evoke sympathy is following the crash of the Wayfarer 515. In support of the victims, the community of Albuquerque wears blue ribbons, a more direct case of blue being used to elicit sympathy.

Of course, these meaningful blue items culminate in Walt’s meth which, of course, is unique not just because of its purity, but because of its identifiable, signature blue color. By using methylamine instead of the hard-to-acquire pseudophedrine, Walt creates a 99.1% pure crystal with a light blue coloring, known by the street name “Blue Sky.”

Walt and Gale watch as the liquid version of Blue Sky is poured onto a pan, from "Sunset" in Season 3.
Walt and Gale watch as the liquid version of Blue Sky is poured onto a pan, from “Sunset” in season 3.

The series revolves around Blue Sky, making it just as important as Walt. It is hard to imagine that the color of blue was simply chosen because of the chemical reactions. For example, instead of developing creative ways to steal methylamine, there could have as easily been creative ways to acquire more pseudo.

The significance of the Blue Sky reflects that of the significance of Skyler’s wardrobe, or the Wayfarer ribbons later in the series.

One must recall why in the first place Walt began to cook the meth. He was a struggling school teacher who left a now-billion-dollar company while it was its infancy, accepting an insignificantly low but-out, and was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. Not able to provide adequately for his family on his teacher salary, Walt also worked at a car wash. With the cancer diagnosis leaving him uncertain for his future, he was forced to consider the financial stability of his family — which consisted of a pregnant wife and a teenage son with cerebral palsy  — in the event of his death.

Walt’s situation is supposed to elicit sympathy from the viewers through the first couple seasons; he is put into a situation that could happen to any middle-class father.

Thus, it is appropriate that the product, both literally and figuratively, of Walt’s unfortunate situation is blue meth.

To strengthen the connection between the blue color of the meth and the sympathy that is supposed to felt towards Walt, one must take into account the character of Gale.

Numerous people describe Gale as a genius, and rightfully so. When Hank is explaining to Gale to Walt and Walter Jr., he sincerely refers to him as a genius, “plain and simple:”

Uh, he was a meth chef. I mean we’re talking 5-stars, candles, and white tablecloth. I can’t believe these words are coming out of my mouth, but he was a genius, plain and simple. I mean, uh, boy, if he had applied that big brain of his to something good, I dunno, who knows? He could’ve helped humanity or something like that. I mean, how many actual geniuses are there in the world? If he’d have taken his life in a different direction, who knows?

With a MS in organic chemistry from the University of Colorado, Gale is certainly every bit as smart as Walt, possibly even smarter. Yet, as revealed in a conversation with Gus when the chicken entrepreneur first shows the super-lab to Gale, the “genius” can not understand why Heisenberg’s meth is blue:

Is that our competition? … It really is quite good. The purity, of course, I’m speaking of, speaking strictly on chemical terms.  And I can’t as of yet account for the blue color.

One would imagine that an organic chemist with a specialty in X-ray crystallography would know the ability of methylamine to create a blue color in certain reactions.

It is possible that the character of Gale Boetticher, without the instruction of Walt, cannot “account for the blue color” because his reasons for becoming a meth cook are not as sympathetic as those of the cancer-stricken family man. In episode 6 of season 3, “Sunset,” when Gale is first introduced to Walt as his new lab partner, he explains his reasons for becoming a cook: “Consenting adults want what they want, and if I’m not supplying it, they will get it somewhere else.”

Gale is not a victim of an uncontrollable affliction such as cancer, but is breaking the law simply through his own beliefs, possibly a reason for his inability to initially understand how Walt made his meth blue: there is not supposed to be the same “blue sympathy” felt towards Gale as a meth cook.

There is no arguing that the color blue plays an important role throughout Breaking Bad, from Skyler’s early-series wardrobe, to the Wayfarer support ribbons to Walt’s infamous meth. However, the blue potentially could serve as a reminder as to why Walt began to cook in the first place, evoking sympathy as is characteristic of the color.

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