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Is there symbolism in Breaking Bad?

Breaking Bad, the hit AMC show that ran from 2008-2013, is considered one of the greatest television shows of all time. The gripping story of high school chemistry teacher Walter White transforming into drug kingpin Heisenberg has resonated with audiences through its complex characters, tight plotting, and meaningful symbolism.

The Use of Color Symbolism

One of the most prominent symbolic elements in Breaking Bad is the use of color. Series creator Vince Gilligan put a lot of thought into the color schemes of characters’ clothing and environments. Here are some of the most significant examples of color symbolism in the show:

Color Meaning
Green Money, greed, envy
Yellow Caution, danger
Purple Power, nobility
Red Blood, murder, violence
Blue Purity, morality
Gray Sickness, decay

Green is associated with the money Walt makes from manufacturing meth. Yellow signals danger, whether it’s associating characters like crazy Tuco Salamanca or Walt wearing yellow when he’s in full ruthless Heisenberg mode. Purple represents Walt’s growing power as a drug kingpin. Red symbolizes the bloodshed and violence of the drug trade. Blue stands for Walt’s scientific knowledge and original moral compass. Gray conveys the moral decay as Walt slips into evil.

Vehicles as Symbols

Cars and other vehicles that characters drive also take on symbolic meaning in Breaking Bad:

  • The RV – The old RV that Walt and Jesse use as a mobile meth lab represents their enterprising spirit as they drive it around New Mexico like a small business.
  • The Pontiac Aztek – Walt’s drab, boring car in the early seasons highlights his mundane, depressing life.
  • The Dodge Challenger – The flashy sports car Walt buys when he becomes rich shows his inflated ego and recklessness with money.
  • Gus’s Volvo – Gus drives a Volvo SUV, representing his cool temperament and reliable nature.

These vehicles externalize the personalities and inner states of their owners. They act as rolling metaphors for character arcs throughout the series.

The White and Black Hat Symbolism

The most iconic symbolism of Breaking Bad comes from the black and white pork pie hats. When Heisenberg puts on the black hat, it signals his dark, sinister transformation into his alter ego. The white hat, which Walt wears in the flash forward scenes, seems to represent his inner goodness and morality returning.

Gilligan has explained the hat colors as “a visual metaphor for Walt’s growing corruption through the series.” The black represents evil and darkness, while the white signals a return to purity and light. This stark contrast visually tracks Walt’s moral decline and partial redemption.

Cooking Meth as a Central Metaphor

At the core of Breaking Bad lies a potent metaphor: a chemistry teacher “cooking” meth. This central conceit contains multilayered symbolism.

On the most basic level, it represents Walt’s scientific knowledge empowering him to cook nearly pure meth for money. But below the surface, the meth cooking takes on philosophical dimensions. Cooking meth in dangerous environments with volatile ingredients is a metaphor for playing God and seeking forbidden knowledge. Walt pushes moral boundaries through reckless ambition, like a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein.

The meth itself symbolizes instant gratification and escape through drugs. But it destroys lives while providing Walt a false sense of purpose on his power trip. Ultimately, the meth cooking metaphor explores the temptations of evil when morality becomes unmoored from universal truths.

Cancer as a Catalyst

Walt’s lung cancer diagnosis catalyzes his transformation into Heisenberg. While battling a potentially fatal disease, Walt contemplates his mortality and became determined to provide for his family no matter what before he dies. This desperation leads him down an increasingly immoral path.

Beyond just a plot device, cancer takes on symbolic meaning as an element that corrodes away Walt’s morality, ethics and identity. The cancer spreads through his soul and eats away at his humanity like a physical malignancy. Walt’s vigilantism disguises his inner decay, with Heisenberg emerging like an invasive infection or parasite taking over its host.

The Desert Landscapes

The stark, empty deserts of New Mexico form eerie backdrops throughout Breaking Bad. These barren environments symbolize both death and limitless freedom.

On one hand, the lifeless deserts echo the danger Walt courts with death lurking around every corner. Hidden corpses buried in the wasteland foreshadow his inner deterioration. The desert heat represents the rising tension as Walt enters the moral “wild west” with no boundaries.

Conversely, the open vistas provide endless open space for RV cooking sessions and isolated reflection. The desert is a blank canvas for creation and self-discovery, away from society’s rules. For Walt and Jesse, the desert incubates their entrepreneurial side hustle as they drive the open roads searching for meaning.


In conclusion, Breaking Bad employs visual motifs, metaphorical plot elements, and symbolic character choices to tell a layered story exploring the depths of morality. Color symbolism tracks characters’ inner changes. Vehicles externalize personalities. The desert setting echoes existential themes. And cooking meth condenses vice and virtue into a scientific equation, catalyzed by Walt’s cancer diagnosis.

By mining the symbolic potential in everyday items like hats and environments like the desert, Breaking Bad attains a level of sophistication rare in television. Gilligan once stated: “We use the metaphor of chemistry, science; it’s always about change. Chemistry is the study of change.” This thoughtful approach to symbolism is why the story remains a modern classic.