Understanding Breaking Bad

The Best Series on Television

Anyone who watches AMC’s hit drama Breaking Bad has to agree, it is one of the best series on television. The drama follows the story of high school chemistry teacher Walter White, Bryan Cranston, and his family. Walter, a chemistry prodigy, is stuck teaching full time at his local high school when he is suddenly diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Unable to afford his medical bills Walter turns to former student Jesse Pinkman, Aaron Paul, and enlists him in his scheme to cook crystal meth. Walter hopes that he will make enough money to cover his medical bills and leave his wife, Anna Gun, with a little extra. However, this high school chemistry teacher is soon sucked into the drug culture of Albuquerque, New Mexico and very quickly evolves into one of the best cooks in the world. In this blog post I hope to show my reader(s) how the television series Breaking Bad uses codes and signals in order to relate messages to the viewer.

Why this series?

In my last blog post I made the argument that everything place on television is buying to change your perception. Whether that program is an advertisement, government sponsored, or put out of an independent studio; they all want to influence your ideas. So “Why this series?”  you ask. The answer is that I don’t believe there is a drama on television currently that offers such an important glimpse of society. Breaking Bad has it all, sex, drugs, violence, family dynamics, power struggles, counter-cultures, cops and robbers, etc… So when I was tasked by my Media Criticism professor to use semiotics and analyze any text of my choosing, I didn’t know of a better text to use.


Semiotics is the study of how social production of meaning is constructed through a system of signs.  Simply put, Semiotics is the study of signs and their meanings. It views texts, which are basically any media, and tries to decipher them using different types of readings. You may for instance view a weekly television sitcom, which would be considered a text. Now, most people would probably consider the program a ‘closed text’ meaning, there isn’t room for a lot of analysis. However, as media critics we know that texts can have multiple symbols and signs so therefore there most be multiple messages in that one television program. Symbols can mean multiple things to many different people all based on there perception. Which is where we begin.

The Title.

Since we are going to be looking at some of the more common symbols found in Breaking Bad we might as well start with the title of the show. To “break bad‘ has been defined by the show’s writer, Vince Gilligan, as the act of raising hell. Now, to a lot of people have no idea what “breaking bad” means. In fact it is a regionalism heard throughout southern Virginia where Gilligan was raised. You see “Breaking Bad” is a sign used to convey one theme found int he series. Now if a person was to decode and understand the symbol,which is the term “Breaking Bad”, than they would be considered using the dominant reading. Even though I have spent many summers in south Virginia I didn’t understand the symbol. I read the symbol completely wrong. I thought the term “breaking bad” meant to stop bad. This could be considered an oppositional reading because my reading is the exact opposite of what the shows creator meant it. However, my oppositional reading is still extremely valid. Since meaning is determined by not only who is producing it, but also who is receiving it.

This advertisement says it all. Underwear, Gun, Gas Mask, R.V…

Advertising is a great text to use when trying to explain semiotics. So we will be looking at my favorite advertisement for the show and attempt to draw a dominant reading from it. When you see the advertisement you are immediately drawn to the visual center of the poster. From there you see a person in his underwear. By your judgment  you can tell that he is middle aged, 40’s-50’s, you than see him brandishing a gun. Guns in today’s society can be seen as symbols of power, death, cruelty, etc. For our reading we will be using the gun as a symbol of power. Than we see that Walter White is in his tighty-whiteys. This symbol can have extremely vast meanings. To me it represents the typical male of that age group.  To some it may represent what type of man Walter is. Another reading may see his lack of pants as more important than the type of underwear he is wearing. Finally we see the R.V in the distance and with it billowing plumes of red smoke. Without watching the series, I doubt you could decode this sign yourself, however with the gas mask found lying on the ground by Walter’s feet, you could probably piece together that the gas is toxic. Finally we come to the title of the series,Breaking Bad, and we see the two elements from the periodic table inside the title of the series. That is the final clue. With this you can piece together, without any prior knowledge of the show, that Breaking Bad is about Walter White in a power struggle over toxic chemicals. Not bad right?

So Semiotics. 

Semiotics is extremely useful when looking at texts critically. You can view the text from multiple readings and than draw meaning from viewing the texts differently. I view Breaking Bad as a story about a  chemistry teacher who is faced with death. Unable to avoid his fate, Walter White chooses to disregards his responsibilities set forth for him by society in order to save his family from economic downfall. In his disregard for societal responsibility, Walter embraces an alter-ego to do what Walter White would never do. Semiotics helped me critically analyze this series. It is therefore extremely important  to decode the symbols written into the script by the shows creator in order to truly understand the thoughts and ideas found in the series. After all, every show contains a message and that message can be uncovered through Semiotics.


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