Complex TV

p. 152-153: BREAKING BAD

Indeed the pilot’s opening moments evoke the Malcolm intertext, as we first see Walt recklessly driving an RV through the desert, wearing nothing but “tighty whitey” underpants and a gas mask. It is not hard to imagine Hal in such a manic situation, albeit without the dead body in the back of the van, as Cranston was hailed on Malcolm for his outlandish physicality and no-shame style of physical comedy— Malcolm’s writers used to play a game called “what won’t Bryan do?” as they created outlandish and humiliating stunts for which the actor always was game. The underwear is an unintended intertextual connection that Cranston initially resisted, pushing back against Gilligan’s scripted call for Walt to wear the same style of underwear as Hal. After further consideration, the actor embraced how the wardrobe choice says something different about each character: for Hal, it indicates his boyish immaturity, as “he always wore them and it never occurred to him to wear anything else,” while Walt wears them as a sign of “stunted growth” and a depressive lack of caring about himself. For viewers who knew Cranston from Malcolm, this opening moment taps into positive sentiments toward Hal and extends them to this still-unknown figure of Walter White. Beyond this shared taste in undergarments, the two characters are both motivated largely by fear, which Cranston suggests manifests itself differently: an outlandish cartoonish cowardice in Hal and a closed-down emotional and physical absence for Walt.

We get our first indication that Walt is not Hal when we first see Cranston’s face upon removing the gas mask, as Walt has what the actor calls “an impotent mustache” that Hal never featured. Physical appearance is crucial to creating characters, and Cranston, as a producer as well as a star (as well as an occasional director starting in the second sea- son), had an active hand in creating Walt’s look: “I told Vince, he should be overweight, he should wear glasses, he should have a mustache that makes people go, ‘Why bother?’ His hair should be undefined; he always needs a trim. He doesn’t care. His clothes should blend in with the wall, no color in his skin. As he changes, color palettes will change, his attitude, everything.” These exterior traits clearly reflect on Walt’s internal psyche, and Cranston has noted that physicality is crucial to his performance, both in how Walt feels and in how that interiority is conveyed to the audience. As the series progresses, Walt’s changes are externalized through his appearance, as the impotent mustache and undefined haircut shift to a shaved head with a goatee, a look that Cranston calls “badass, . . . the most intimidating look there can be,” both signaling his changing psychology and allowing Walt to help rationalize his behavior because he “doesn’t recognize the man in the mirror.” Similarly, Walt adopts a black porkpie hat to wear in his persona of “Heisenberg” within the drug business, an iconic marker that transforms both our perception of the character and his interior sense of self. By the second season, it is hard to imagine a viewer looking at Cranston and thinking about Malcolm’s Hal, but at the start of Walt’s journey, that association was crucial to forge allegiance and a positive emotional connection with the character.

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