Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dry Decadence: Breaking Bad and Art

Frida Kahlo, Without Hope, 1945

I started watching Breaking Bad recently. I don't watch many TV series. Sopranos, Mad Men, Game of Thrones...I know of them and what generally has happened through word of mouth (that Red Wedding was brutal, right?), but have never actually watched them. Breaking Bad was one of those for me. But then I saw the "I am the one who knocks!" monologue on YouTube. Now it's taking all my self control to not completely drive my friends and family insane with talking about my new obsession, which is pretty much why I started this blog in the first place.

I love just about everything about the series, but one aspect I really appreciate is the visual. Its frames are art, and the show and art have intersected quite a bit. Art - from stock hospital wall watercolors to Walt Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" - has been important in the series. (Update 8/7: Kara Bolonik's "Leaves of Glass" further explores the Walter White/Walt Whitman connection, and a recent Breaking Bad teaser is Bryan Cranston reading Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias."Gallery 1988 did a Breaking Bad themed show, more of the work from which can be seen here. And FaceoftheEarth on Etsy made the news with her Breaking Bad terrarium.

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

While watching the show's breathtaking shots of the New Mexico skyline and its smaller, tenser, human scenes, different art pieces came to mind, and I decided to start putting them together. For example, the above Frida Kahlo painting, with its desert, Dia de los Muertos imagery, physical suffering, and inner sickness, seems to me a perfect fit for Breaking Bad.


I admire how at one with its setting the show is. While many shows' sense of place is tenuous (Monk's supposed San Francisco, with its front yards and ample street parking, could have been any suburb), Breaking Bad could not happen anyplace else - no more than Twin Peaks could have happened in Orange County or Arrested Development could have happened in the Pacific Northwest. Breaking Bad is firmly in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a sweltering city surrounded by endless desert. The ruggedness of the desert that stretches across the state and into northern Mexico is beautiful, but dangerous. Its vastness allows for cooking meth and testing nuclear weapons far from prying eyes.

This landscape famously captivated and inspired longtime New Mexico resident Georgia O'Keeffe - she of the "vagina paintings" Jane showed Jesse at Santa Fe's Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (maybe Jesse would've preferred this one). Her paintings of New Mexican landscapes and animal skulls bring to mind the beauty, heat-induced confusion, and sense of foreboding of the desert.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Ram's Head with White Hollyhock and Little Hills, 1935

The desert also inspired O'Keeffe contemporary Ansel Adams, whose famous photographs capture the dramatic place where people are dwarfed by land and land is dwarfed by sky.

Ansel Adams, Clouds, New Mexico, 1933

But nature, while powerful, is not untouched in New Mexico. The suburbs and desolate fringes of Albuquerque bring to my mind the sparse paintings of Chris Ballantyne. The dull houses, parking lots, and swimming pools in his work feel intrusive, but precarious. It's easy to imagine the land casually swallowing them up.

Chris Ballantyne, Plateau, 2009

Breaking Bad's interior spaces have their drama too. For me, the show's quiet scenes echo those moody tableaux of Edward Hopper. Skyler, often left to her thoughts and loneliness, especially comes to mind. Her working late to avoid Walt reminded me of Hopper's Office at Night.

Edward Hopper, Office at Night, 1940


And you can't have Breaking Bad without drugs! Specifically: blue sky, the blue-tinted ultra-pure meth that is Walter and Jesse's specialty. But there are plenty of other drugs to be had - and not just heroin, cigarettes, and alcohol, but money and power.

This scene takes place in the outskirts of Paris in the late 1800s, not Albuquerque in the early 2000s, and the drug of choice is absinthe, not meth or heroin, but there are definite similarities between it and scenes of addiction in Breaking Bad. The two addicts haven't reached the zombie-like state of the denizens of the rancid flophouse from which Walt rescued Jesse, but they're certainly not doing well. Self-exiled to the sparse city borderlands, only the absinthe matters now.

Jean-Francois Raffaelli, The Absinthe Drinkers, 1881

This painting by Camille Rose Garcia from her Ambien Somnambulants series, with its horror, childishness, and offbeat beauty, reminds me Jane and Jesse's drug-induced downfall. Add a little meth and heroin, and their superhero-creating playfulness turns to petulant beaker-throwing, pissy blackmail attempts, and feverish plans to paint castles in New Zealand. You are not bien, here, Jesse. You are not bien at all.

Camille Rose Garcia, Animals Talk at Midnight, 2008


With superb writing and superb acting, Breaking Bad's cast of characters is one of TV's finest. Before watching the show, I knew Bryan Cranston had won a lot of Emmys. After watching the pilot, I was like, "damn, give him all the Emmys." Now that I'm almost caught up, I want to pelt the entire cast with Emmys (and, in fact, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Jonathan Banks, and Anna Gunn were just nominated today).This is by no means a complete list, as it would otherwise become way too long and nebulous (though I totally want to show Marie this dress), but just whatever art most came to mind with a character. I'd love to know what art has a Breaking Bad character connection for others.

One character might even be getting his own spinoff: lawyer Saul Goodman, whose slime is only matched by his unflappability. The sleazy lawyer character is hardly new (even a cat can do it), but Bob Odenkirk nails it. His Goodman is the Thenardier of this story - incredibly entertaining despite the fact/due to the fact that you'd hate him in real life.  Sure, this painting is of a politician, not a lawyer, but the man's overeager facial expression and calculated lean-in and hand gestures - as well as the two constituents' varying levels of skepticism - remind me of Goodman. If the new show doesn't work out for him, he should consider starting up Goodman, Loblaw & Flynn LLP.

George Caleb Bingham, Country Politician, 1849

The figures in this piece by David Choe might sport boobs, but it feels very Jesse-ish to me. Looking at it, you can imagine the sort of life - sometimes boring, sometimes desperate, sometimes happy - he might have had with pals Badger, Combo, and Skinny Pete had Mr. White never come back into his life.

David Choe, 99 Cent Store

And while we're gender-bending, how about Tuco's vicious, stylish, quietly determined assassin cousins? They'd be worthy opponents for Hellen Jo's trademark badass ladies. (Sorry, bros, but I'm putting my money on Jo's girls. I bet they never even had a "tepidly shoving at your uncle while he drowns your sibling" phase before ascending to ruthlessness.)

Hellen Jo, Shit Twins, 2013

It's hard not to see Walter Jr. in this painting by Manet. He's often at the breakfast table, caught between his two parents: an earnest but strained mother and a manipulative father. Here, the mother looks at the son with concern. The somewhat shady-looking father looks away. The son turns from both of them for the moment.

Edouard Manet, Luncheon in the Studio, 1868

Of course, the driving force of Breaking Bad is its protagonist, Walter White. Greed, fueled by long-standing jealousies and the frustration of powerlessness, has twisted him. This odd painting by James Whistler depicts a wealthy client who stiffed him, and it reminds me of the growing ugliness in Walt - all the sadder when you remember the video he made for his family in the pilot episode.

James Whistler, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre, 1879

But while that revenge painting highlights the pathetic side of greed, it can be terrifying as well. Bit by bit, we've seen Walt's transformation from a man who would sacrifice anything for his family to a man who might sacrifice his family. His obsession with his vicious, powerful Heisenberg persona has taken him a long way away from Mr. White, caring father and teacher. He's going down, but will he take his family with him? Will he even care if he does?

Eugene Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827


There are a lot of sandwiches in Breaking Bad, and they're quietly emotional affairs. Walt thoughtfully cuts the crusts of a sandwich he has made for Krazy-8, the drug dealer he has imprisoned in the basement and whom he must kill. Walt seethes while making himself a sandwich in his apartment's kitchen during his and Skylar's separation. Later, Walt cheerfully makes a sandwich and puts it in a brown paper bag labeled "Walt" to take with him to work at his shiny new meth lab. When Walt returns (forcefully) to his family, he treats Walter Jr. to a delicious-looking grilled cheese sandwich. We see Jesse, too, make a sandwich for the neglected toddler who has interrupted Jesse's attempted intimidation of the boy's drug-stealing parents. Making a sandwich in the Breaking Bad universe can be a symbol of survival or a sign - even if faint - of the continued existence of parental love in a vicious world.

This Thiebaud painting seems like the perfect way to end this post. A humble peanut butter sandwich on American white bread. Unfinished, or perhaps just open-faced, against a stark white background.

Wayne Thiebaud, Peanut Butter Sandwich, 2009

Kahlo: WikiPaintings
Terrarium: Etsy
O'Keeffe: Wikipedia, Brooklyn Museum
Ballantyne: ArtSlant, Hosfelt Gallery
Hopper: iBiblio, Walker Art Center
Raffaelli: Legion of Honor
Garcia: Camille Rose Garcia, Adam Levine Gallery
Bingham: WikiMedia Commons, de Young
Choe: David Choe
Manet: WikiPaintings, Neue Pinakothek
Whistler: de Young
Delacroix: Wikipedia, Louvre
Thiebaud: SFGate, Paul Thiebaud Gallery


  1. That's such an amazing selection of paintings. By the way, just like you I'm also a huge fan of Young Avengers, and I'm glad to see Gillen and McKelvie are doing such an extraordinary work. If you read issue # 4 check the letters section (mine got published under my real name Arcadio Bolaños).

    1. Thanks, Arcadio! I've got them all saved, so I'll have to check it out.

  2. Oh, and if you want to read my opinions about Young Avengers please visit my blog: