Seemingly every aspect of Breaking Bad has been praised: the acting, the writing, the direction, the character development, etc. But all great TV shows receive these accolades.
Just saying Breaking Bad does the basic components of storytelling quite well doesn’t really single out just why the show is so great — what it is uniquely doing that no other show is.
For me, what separates it from all other TV shows are the costumes.
The clothing characters wear should give a glimpse into their inner thoughts. After all, the clothing we wear — how we choose to appear — is a self-expression of how we view ourselves. Most movies and TV shows are oblivious to this, or at least, they think having someone wear a Yankees baseball cap is a brilliant artistic decision.
But with Breaking Bad, you can trace the evolution of Walter by what he wears, and specifically, how he views himself.
Right from the start clothing was an important part in understanding Walter. In the early episodes his good pair of pants gets damaged while cooking meth. The fact that he can only afford to have one good pair of pants is such an honest portrayal of his financial situation.
Pop-culture has always struggled to depict what middleclass life looks like — typically supposed middleclass people in movies and TV shows live in houses and apartments well outside their income. To some extent, Hollywood just doesn’t seem to understand what it’s practically like when you have little excess income.
This small detail of Walt’s pants helps humanizes his financial plight, as well as capture his middleclass lifestyle. It’s something that most people can identify with — I certainly remember the time when I had just one good pair of “going out” jeans, and I was extremely careful with keeping them look new because I couldn’t afford to replace them.
As the show progresses, Walt’s self-image begins to change, and so does his clothing. By the end of the first season he adopts the Heisenberg persona, sporting unstylishly large sunglasses and a pork pie hat.
Walt is just not a natural at being a drug lord; he makes mistake after mistake. He desperately wants to be leader, not a cook, but he lacks whatever it is that makes some people leaders. And his Heisenberg costume captures this. He thinks he looks cool, that people are going to look at him and respect him, but he looks utterly ridiculous, just like how he cannot see how terrible and awkward of a drug lord he is.
What I love about Walt’s clothing is that when I see him in something new, I can picture this whole backstory of him going clothes shopping because he needs to keep up appearances.
In the last season Walt was wearing lots of dark colored dress shirts that look like they came off the “premium” rack at JCPenney. I can imagine him thinking that now that he’s in charge of his own operation, he needs to be more like Gus, and this is what he thinks being like Gus is about. But the fact that he’s trying so hard to put on the proper appearance but doesn’t know better than to shop at JCPenney captures how much of a poser he is. It’s this level of attention to detail that helps bring the character alive and makes the show so great.
I really wish there was a scene with Walt shopping. I could see him lecturing a teenage sales clerk how he’s a very important person and needs the right shirt and pants to reflect that.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the extremely loud clothing Saul wears.
This is again another great example of Breaking Bad communicating a lot about a character just through their clothing. The show can get away with making Saul so comedic because he’s genuinely a very smart lawyer. There’s a deep level of manipulation with everything about Saul — he has a keen understanding of his clients and what impresses them. It’s why he has a Jewish last name despite not being Jewish, and why his suits and ties are so hideous.
Saul doesn’t want to be subtle at all about how much his clothes cost, even if it makes him look like a clown. For the types of clients he takes on, he wants them to see that he’s prosperous, that he wins enough to spend a lot on clothing.
And again, like Walt, this makes Saul such a real and fleshed out character that I can imagine these off-camera scenes of him clothes shopping, hunting for what he knows is the most repulsive tie.