In this week’s article, Thomas Woods explores hit show ‘Breaking Bad’ and the utilisation of colour in its wardrobe, and more specifically how colour can transcend simply acting as a visual aid.
As a recent media studies graduate, I have spent a lot of time undertaking various types of textual analysis, with these visual analyses often being based in film and TV. From Stranger Things to Only Fools and Horses in the world of TV, to rom-com Bridget Jones’ Diary and psychological thriller mother! in film, I spent much of my time searching for the little details. I found that after taking a step back from the screen, some of the most intricate of details were right there in front of me.
After rewatching Breaking Bad for the third time, the show’s detailed focus on colour became very apparent to me. Even showrunner Vince Gilligan widely acknowledges his infatuation with the little details, and specifically 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”.
Avid fans took this theory and ran with it, with the infamous ‘colour wheel’ concept being a big discussion point within the fandom.
Before I begin, you don’t have to have seen the show to give this a read, it’s for everyone! But do be warned, there may be a spoiler or two…
The show’s overarching storyline is this: ex-chemistry teacher Walter White, the show’s protagonist, is diagnosed with lung cancer. After receiving this news, he realises that he will be leaving his family without any money to survive. In a turn of events, he reunites with his former pupil Jesse Pinkman, who is a low-level methamphetamine cook, to create the best methamphetamine on the market. This all takes place as Walter’s DEA (Drug Enforcement Agent) brother in-law, Hank Schrader, hunts down the mastermind behind the market’s newest drug.
THE ‘COLOUR WHEEL’ THEORY
In essence, this concept defines each character as having a colour that represents their current situation or mental state within a certain point in the series, with most of the characters having relatively consistent colour palettes. Most interestingly though, many of the characters’ colour palettes contrast each other, creating a visual tension between two characters that underlines their personalities and how they might clash throughout certain points in the show. While it is almost impossible to track every single colour in the series, the following looks at the overarching trends of each central character and how their wardrobe colours either stay the same, or change.
At the beginning of the series, Walter is placed in very drab neutral colours, with lighter beiges, yellows, and greens being the standouts. In the beginning, his yellow wardrobe is often concealed by layers of beige and this suggests that the emerging acts of danger and criminality Walt gets involved in are starting to rise to the surface. Most of the time, the colour yellow in the show is associated to any person or part of the meth business, ranging from meth kingpin, and Walt’s boss, Gustavo Fring’s chicken shop business ‘Los Pollos Hermanos’, which has yellow uniforms, to Walt’s hazmat suit that is donned during meth cooking. Overall, yellow is an instrumental colour throughout and has several connotations, ranging from cowardice, pleasure, and caution, to ultimately danger and criminality. When watching the show, you may not even notice the relevance of colour all too much if you’re not looking for it, but it undoubtedly exists. It subconsciously places indicators in the minds of the viewers, subtly signifying how certain characters should be perceived.
As the show progresses, Walt’s wardrobe trends darker as he progresses further and further into the criminal underbelly of the meth business, moving away from the drab earth tones of beige and grey and into blacks, blues, and greens. Despite prior discussion around the colour yellow, green is Walt’s most prominent colour and it represents greed, money, growth, and envy – being very much in line with how Walt’s character merges into a meth tyrant that will stop at nothing to get his way. Green is also a combination of colours blue and yellow, both represented predominantly by Skyler and Jesse, respectively.
Skyler White is the wife of Walter, being a key component of Breaking Bad in how she acts as a pure, loyal, and ultimately sad character that characterises the colour blue, often donning royal blue blouses and shirts. Walt’s colour of green sits directly in-between Skyler’s blue and Jesse’s yellow on the colour wheel, being torn between the pure nature of his old family life and the dangerous existence that Jesse represents. Blue is also the colour of Walt’s signature meth, which is the purest on the market. This represents the pure intentions of Walt at the beginning of this process, which was to ultimately provide for his family come his inevitable death, whilst highlighting the duality of these pure intentions and how they have become mared by Walt’s decision making.
As a character, Skyler is somebody with a deep and underlying sadness in relation to Walt’s business dealings, as seen in one scene where she descends into the family pool in a suicide attempt, submerging herself in the blue. Her wardrobe often involves darker shades of blue, potentially representing her deep-rooted loyalty to her family’s well-being as she continues to hide Walt’s big secret.
Jesse Pinkman’s character probably has the most eye-popping of wardrobes throughout the series, with reds and yellows being the mainstays. These brash tones potentially translate into his allure to Walter in the beginning of the show, as he was already involved in the meth business. He is directly opposite to Walter’s wife Skyler in every aspect of their respective characters. This contrast is directly shown in a scene where Skyler confronts Jesse at his property, instructing him to stay away from Walter; she is wearing a light blue top over her pregnant belly whilst Jesse wears a bright red baggy hoodie as he drags a dead body into his home. The purity of Skyler’s blue is set in direct contrast with Jesse’s red, and the fact that Walter sits between the two heavily reflects how his character is multifaceted in so many ways, with his actions dragging his pure (blue) family into the dangerous (red) world of drug-dealing.
The visual tension and contrast that these colours create perfectly encapsulates how Breaking Bad uses simple colours and wardrobe pieces to form profound and meaningful effects across the entire series, overarchingly translating a variety of character developments and dynamics that draws you even further into the show.
Probably the most obvious contrast in colour throughout the entire show, Walter’s DEA brother in-law Hank Schrader sits directly across from green in the colour wheel, with orange being his most consistent colour. He often wears orange and brown button-up shirts or a tighter fitting t-shirt. The standout connotations of the various shades or orange, and sometimes brown, include humour, action, and most importantly, humility. As a part of law enforcement, Hank is obviously in direct opposition to Walt in how he is always trying to track him and his product down, without even knowing it. He stands for the justice and order in the world, a grounded occupation that looks to ‘do good’, whereas Walt represents the greed and selfishness of illegal activities. Hank’s orange clothing often reflects his humorous and warm personality, with this making him even more likeable. Orange also represents fire and at times anger, as Hank often becomes so irate with the constant cat and mouse of chasing Walt’s drug that he snaps and takes it out on those around him, such as his wife Marie. In turn, we are shown how Walt’s actions of greed impact those around him and thus how colour can advance narratives, direct the audience, and carry an abundance of intricate meaning.
HOW YOU CAN USE COLOUR
While this article has been based in the boundaries of Breaking Bad and its characters, the underlying takeaway is that colour in your wardrobe can be an influential tool in translating certain feelings, showing how clothes are not just simply redundant commodities. They can instead be a part of you that tells your own personal story or translates how you’re feeling on a particular day, the possibilities are endless!
Whether you want to replicate Breaking Bad and its use of colour in a script for TV or film, or if you want to take its meanings away to your own personal wardrobe, I believe that this show and its use of a colourful wardrobe is a fantastic example of how colour can be an adaptable technique in reflecting a person’s own sense of self. In essence, be who you want to be… and use colour to express that!
If you enjoyed this article, you can follow more of Thomas’ work on his Twitter @iamthomaswoods_ .