Breaking Bad Color Analysis

In my previous life as a college graphic design teacher, I taught several “Color Theory” classes. One of the exercises I would do in class is to watch movies and tell my students to study the color in the films and apply it to the theories we were learning. This was always one of my favorite tools for teaching this subject, because the students always seemed to think that it was ridiculous that someone would go through that much trouble to use the theories of color associations, emotional effects and symbolic representations in something as simple as what a character was wearing in a 2 minute scene of a TV show…but they do! After a few of these exercises, my students would often come up to me and say, “I can’t watch a movie or a TV show any more without seeing all of the color theories at work.”

My friend Sean, having chatted with me in the past about color theories, sent me this infographic: http://tdylf.com/2013/08/11/infographic-colorizing-walter-whites-decay/
Mind you, I did not visit the page or read the article, he only sent me a screenshot and asked what I thought of it. Here is what I wrote back to him:

I know of Breaking Bad and a little about the storyline; however, I find it a bit too intense for my own viewing 🙂 This chart is very interesting! With my limited knowledge of the many many story points throughout the series, I think I can make a few assertions; however as interesting as it is to look at these character arcs on their own, there is probably a great deal more revealed by looking at some screenshots of the more pivotal scenes. Looking at the play of color between the characters, how the scene is lit and how moods and colors change from one scene to the next.

So here is what I see (keeping in mind that because I know so little of the show that I may be waaaay off 🙂

  • Walter – He seems to have the most variance over the course of the show, which would make sense since he is the focus of the show. Season 1 has a lot of cool colors, grey, green and punctuated with some spots of yellow which could be illness, very little blue which represents calm. Season 2 is much darker overall and toward the end has a lot of black. Warmer colors are creeping in, this may mean the character is coming alive more and having more intense emotions, but all of the black still makes it seem like he is deeply troubled. Season 3 has more lightness to it. Some blue peace coming in and some purples which can represent healing. There is a lot of conflict in season 4, the sharp contrast and a lot of reds make me think that this season held a lot of rage for the character. Season 5 has an interesting balance, an equilibrium not seen before. Some colors from season 1 are repeated, but there are larger groups of a single color, less jumpy changes.
  • Skyler – This character’s main color is blue, which could be calmness or a lack of warmth in her personality. It looks as though there is only one time she wears a very warm bright color, so that scene must have great significance to the plot or her character arc. Over the course of the show the character becomes much darker (almost overwhelmingly so) which could be depression, or a decent in to darker themes (evil, wrongdoing, sadness). She has the greatest change in contrast over the course of the show, a long slow change.
  • Jesse – Extreme contrast and very bright vibrant color. This character has a lot of energy, unpredictability, and all of the red leads me to think he has a lot of rage and is violent. Very few cool colors, so it seems that he is rarely in control.
  • Hank – Earthtones, greys and browns throughout. This character appears to be the most grounded in the whole show. Seems very stable, and serious, nothing wild about him. Not a lot of variance in color, so he seems very even keeled.
  • Marie – A ton of purple, which makes me think she is either a very healing personality or a mystical one. She, like most of the other characters has her moments of darkness, but seems to stay fairly warm throughout the show.
  • Walter Jr. – Very light colors overall, which means there are changes, but he is not an intense personality. Interestingly, his character arc seems an almost perfect gradient from cool to warm colors. This could mean an overall change from emotionally distant to more emotionally available, or it could be a change from sad to happy. It also seems to somewhat mirror Walter Sr, but not nearly with the same intensity. Very very little black at all, so I would say this character did not spend a lot of time at “rock-bottom”. He also has some of Hank’s browns so maybe that character is a stable influence on him.

Kudos to the maker of this color chart and the makers of Breaking Bad for creating a very rich visual context for their story.

Final disclaimer: I have never watched one episode of the show and have only seen a handful of clips. I do not claim to know exactly what I am talking about, I am only using general color theories to extrapolate some meaning.

One thought on “Breaking Bad Color Analysis

  1. I’ve showed this analysis to three of my friends who are fans of the show and each of them has been nothing short of amazed!

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