by: Chris Thompson
Our thorough Breaking Bad coverage continues, as we further examine “Blood Money”, and the devil is in the detail…
The idiom “the devil is in the detail” finds its genesis in a much earlier phrase, “God is in the detail,” conveying the idea that whatever one does, it should be done thoroughly; i.e. details are important. In Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan takes this idea to a stratospheric level.
That there are hidden themes running throughout the five seasons of Breaking Bad is apparent. But for some of them, you have to cast your gaze wide, and take in the entirety of the show to garner appreciation. While for others, you need to only scratch the surface, peering merely within the confines of a scene to find its message. This is what Vince Gilligan does. This is what he excels at. Over the course of Breaking Bad’s rollercoaster-ride of episodes, you begin to pick-up on the subtleties of theme and homage that were not immediately apparent; a pattern of familiar colors for instance, or the repeated presence of an object at a critical juncture, or simply the look that a character gives time and time again. And then once you see it, you can never not notice it again. And the masterful aspect to this show is that it all means something. Everything matters, from the objects that permeate a scene to the vehicles a character drives to the background music playing in the lobby of a bank. Nothing is off limits to interpretation.
Show creator Vince Gilligan has made it abundantly clear on numerous occasions that things you see and hear in Breaking Bad are deliberate. It’s part of the reason why the show is so fantastic. And only when the journey has begun, and you start to pick up on its rhythms, its visual and oratory cues, can you begin to look back, peel off another layer, and find an entirely different meaning to what you may have initially experienced.
With that in mind lets dig deeper, pull back the curtain and further speculate on the meaning of the symbolism in these finals episodes of Breaking Bad, starting with Season 5, Episode 9: Blood Money…
Find an in-depth review of Blood Money here….
We find Walt catching a glimpse of himself in the cracked mirror of his bedrooms closet door. His home is in ruins, cordoned off by a DEA security fence, his neighbors are scared to death of him, and his now empty pool has become a playground for teenaged skateboarders.
Walt lingers for a moment on his reflection then looks away, unable to face himself, to face the man he has become. He has a job to do, a final mission to achieve and the ricin capsule is his only focus. Not even the realization of what he has become, and the cost to his family and home, can deter him from his quest. He has no time for such introspection. He knows what he is and who he has become, and in the acceptance of this he seems to find power.
In sharp contrast we find that Jessie can’t stop looking at his reflection in the surface of his cluttered and unkempt coffee table. His gaze is firm and resolute, unwavering, and we get the sense that Jessie is falling heavily into the darkness that consumes him. Even the appearance of a cockroach, a pest and a symbol of filth, cannot avert his gaze. He seems truly lost and consumed by what he has become, by what he has done.
But there may be a silver lining in the arrival of the roach for there is a duality to its meaning. For the lowly cockroach is also the ultimate survivor, able to adapt to any situation. Could this superimposition of a roach onto his reflection suggest that he alone will survive, that he will, like the roach, adapt? But if so, what sort of life will it be?
Hank is struggling to hold himself together in a world in which he suspects his brother-in-law, a member of his inner circle, and a man whom he thought he knew, is a drug kingpin. As he pulls the stolen copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass from his bag, there is a noticeably preset bowl of fruit filled with apples (red) and oranges (orange). Both are evocative colors in Vince Gilligan’s palette and suggestive of blood and death1. And now death has come into Hanks home, his castle, his fortress from the evil-doers that haunt the outside world.
Walt and Skyler are surrounded by a sea of employees arriving for work, all dressed in red baseball hats and shirts, the uniform of A1A Car Wash. The carwash was financed primarily with blood money and launders through it the profits from Walts meth empire, so red seems like a fitting color to surround the Whites in. However, Walt and Skyler do not wear the color red. They choose instead to dress in drab beiges and whites, the colors Walt originally wore when we first met him, when he was a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher. It is interesting to note that whenever Walt has seemed defeated (like his entire life leading up to his cancer diagnosis) or whenever the disease returns, he switches his color palette back to beige.
Over the course of the series we have seen the wardrobes of numerous characters go through color changes. Following his cancer diagnosis, Walt’s wardrobe colors changed dramatically, from the blue-colored days of his misadventures with cooking meth to his success and its eventual shifting to completely black as he sat atop the throne of his meth empire. Through these color transformations, Gilligan has given us a visual representation of the transformation of Walter White; from a quiet, nice-guy family man to a villainous anti-hero. To further the importance of color we saw Skyler wearing a lot of blue in the shows beginning, when she was a happy, expectant mother satisfied with the path of her life. But as the show’s progressed we’ve seen her too change the colors of her dress, choosing to wear black when she’s feeling crazy, rebellious and adulterous, wearing green when she’s back to work for Ted or laundering Walt’s drug money and most importantly, when she’s afraid of Walter, wearing beige as she does now.
In theology, atonement is a doctrine that describes how a sinner can reconcile themselves with God. In a very distressing scene we find Jessie sitting in the always crowded waiting room of Saul Goodman’s office, surrounded by other likely sinners, seeking out his version of atonement. Behind his office door, Saul is getting “serviced” by an older woman2. As Jessie grows impatient with waiting for Saul, he lights up a joint. As we watch him smoke, an intrepid ear can pick up on the music being piped into the “sinners” waiting room. It is an instrumental version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, whose famous lyrics begin:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Jessie’s antics finally secure a meeting with Saul Goodman, wherein he tells his lawyer, a man who “loves to serve” that the money in the two duffel bags is earmarked for one Kaylee Ehrmantraut, and one Drew Sharp, a young, inquisitive child and unfortunate victim of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Jessie, the new moral compass of the show, is consumed with guilt, believing in the innocence of children and is desperate to atone for the pain and suffering he has caused. However Saul tells Jessie that his actions are misguided, for what’s done is done and that even if he does give away the five million dollars at the end of the day he’s still “two miracles short of sainthood.” A very religious scene dealing with a sinners desire to absolve his sins.
Saul’s desk drawer full of burner phones. Who does the white Hello Kitty phone belong to? Is it a woman? Is she young? It appears to be a newer smartphone, very sophisticated and uncharacteristic in a drawer full of simple burner “dumb” phones. Walt’s phone is the blue one below the Hello Kitty phone. Is the phone Skylers? Remember, there is a deliberateness to Vince Gilligan’s visual style, and there is meaning behind a lot of what he shows you visually. It’s sort of like an unspoken script running throughout the show. An ivory white smartphone in a drawer full of dull looking burner flip phones seems to me like another one of these visual cues.
Unable to sleep, and suspicious of Hank’s sudden cutting off of contact with the White’s, Walt wanders out into his driveway in his bathrobe. He has some misgivings about Hank’s actions and begins to examine the underside of his car for the presence of a GPS tracker. As we watch Walt, we catch a glimpse of the license plate affixed to the rear of his new vehicle. It very plainly reads: 5BB920X. This appears to be an obvious reference to Blood Money’s position in the Breaking Bad cannon for this episode is Season 5 of Breaking Bad Episode 9, part 2.
In Breaking Bad yellow is a powerful color. It seems to symbolize when a character is deeply embedded in the nastier side of the drug world or when death is lurking around the corner. And whenever we seem to encounter a criminal, or the death of a character, the color makes an appearance. Gustavo wore yellow. His restaurants Los Pollos Hermanos hid in plain sight with the color yellow. Crazy 8 wore yellow and was trying to kill Walt with a fragment of a broken yellow plate. Gale was wearing a yellow shirt when he was killed by Jessie. Jessie’s girlfriend Jane died from an overdose in a bed that was yellow. Drew Sharp was wearing a black motorcycle helmet with yellow stripes and a yellow shirt when he was killed by Todd during the methylamine heist. Walt wears yellow during the two minutes that the prison murders took place. The command of power that this color has in the show is enthralling.
So it’s seems entirely fitting that as we watch Walt drive up to Hank’s house to confront him about the GPS tracker installed on his vehicle that we see a miniature yellow, radio-controlled car pull up besides him and follow his progress. Shivers…
Jessie is troubled, wracked with guilt, and feeling very much alone. He finds himself suddenly awakened in the parking lot of the Dog House by a homeless man asking for money. Jessie, still very much desirous to atone for his sins, hands the homeless man a stack of cash from his duffel bag full of millions pleading “take it.” The homeless man takes the money under the watchful eye of the neon wiener dog, who consumes hot dogs endlessly while wagging his tail.
In the episode Problem Dog, one of the most dramatic and powerful scenes of the entire series enfolds. In it a remorseful and obviously guilt-wracked Jessie confesses to his drug abuse anonymous support group that he recently killed something, substituting the word dog for Gale Boetticher, the man he had just killed in cold blood. And here once again, in Blood Money, we find Jessie confronted with the word “dog,” yet this time it is neon green and adjacent to the word “house” in neon red. Red and green, and dog. Jessie seems to be haunted by his past and hounded by the present for red speaks highly of blood and green of money in Breaking Bad.
- When Ted trips and falls, breaking his neck, oranges plummet to the ground and surround his crumpled body, a possible reference to The Godfather for oranges represent violence and death. In another more recent example, when Walt says hello to his neighbor Carol in Blood Money, she drops her grocery bag, spilling oranges across the street [↩]
- Her single line as she carries out her massage table “Barn door open!” pointing to Saul’s open fly is hilarious and at the same time sad. [↩]