Why Breaking Bad is Full of Swimming Pools

Why Breaking Bad is Full of Swimming Pools


“Hey Sky maybe it’s time
to get out now, what do you think?” Breaking Bad violates the sanctity
of the swimming pool. This classic status symbol
has long signified domestic bliss, family fun, and a badge of material success. But in Vince Gilligan’s show,
it becomes the site of harrowing events. In fact, over the course of the
show’s five seasons, it’s difficult to think of
anything *good* happening near a pool. So what does this symbol of the
swimming pool mean in Breaking Bad? And why do terrible things keep
happening around it? Let’s take a look at how the pools
in the story get at the nagging guilt and discontentment that
drives these characters, and give us a secret mirror into what they’re feeling
throughout the story. Before we go on,
if you’re new here, be sure to subscribe
and click the bell to get notified about all our new videos. When human beings attempt to interpret
the meaning of their dreams, it’s generally accepted that *water*
is connected to our emotions. Whereas the ocean might stand
for collective emotion, a swimming pool is contained, cut off,
like the emotions of an individual. And in Breaking Bad, the Whites’
swimming pool is a mirror reflecting Walter’s emotions at any given point. Most saliently,
Walter’s relationship with his pool visualizes his obsession
with contamination– “And I am not going to expose this batch
to the open air and contamination.” which is a stand-in for his guilt
over what he’s done. The incredibly fastidious Walt
takes every precaution to avoid contaminants getting into his cook– “We need to take this very seriously.” But he can’t stop his life becoming contaminated by the consequences
of his actions– “I keep the work at work, Skyler, and nothing will ever
impact you or the kids.” “You don’t know that.” And this is represented
by the detritus that invades the symbolic emotional space
of swimming pools. In season two, a charred pink teddy bear
plummets out of the sky, landing face down in Walt’s pool. He looks up to see that two planes
have collided in the sky, a tragedy that he inadvertently
set into motion when he let Jane Margolis die, sending Jane’s father into a depression
that made him unable to do his job as an air traffic controller. Thus, this teddy bear infiltrating
Walt’s pristine pool is like a rude awakening from the heavens, sending him the message
that he is responsible for the deaths of 167 innocent people. Walt avoids this truth. “–Recent air disaster in which
167 persons died was rushed to an area hospital early this morning,
apparently the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Police won’t say whether or not–” He even complains that he’s a *victim*
of this crash. “[Shouting]I told you that my house
was in the debris field. Do you have the remotest inkling
of what that means?” “Sir, calm down.” “Hellfire rained down on my house–” “Sir, I need you step back–”
“–where my children sleep!” “–I need you to step back right now.” “There were body parts in my yard!” But while this master of denial
lies to himself that he can keep his home life free
of any traces of his crimes, the figurative space of
the swimming pool subtly reveals to us
what he’s feeling under the surface of his lies. He can’t keep the poison
of what he’s done from seeping in and infecting his home life. “[Whispers]You killed Hank.” “What?!” “No no no.” “You killed him.” “[Shouting]No, no, NO!” On the deeper, subconscious level, his feelings of guilt have penetrated
his clean water and no amount of denial or striving for control
will allow him to clear the stain. That teddy bear, which haunts
the cold opens of season two episodes, has a missing eye. And some have seen this eye
as representing the “Eye of God” or of the universe judging Walt
for all he’s done. And that leads to
an intriguing question, why does Walt hold onto this eye? If he’s in such denial, why does he hang on to this reminder
that the universe is judging him? It’s clear over time
that there are two people within Walt battling for his soul, and while one of them ingeniously
evades responsibility– “I can’t be the bad guy.” the other is tortured by guilt. In the episode “Fly,” “There’s, uh, been a contamination.” Walt’s fixation on a fly
that’s penetrated the meth lab, is really about his feeling
that his life has been corrupted by his evil actions. “What about the contamination?” “It’s all contaminated.” The “good” Walt
is making a brave attempt to surface. “I’m sorry about Jane.” So by hanging onto
the teddy bear’s eye, this largely defeated better self
in Walt is trying to cling to his guilt, so that his soul
can somehow be recovered. Yet that Walt is losing the battle. At the end of Season 4,
the camera moves from the pool over to Walt’s Lily of the Valley plant, revealing that it was Walt
who poisoned the boy Brock in order to manipulate Jesse. “Who do you know who’s okay
with using children, Jesse? Who do you know who’s allowed
children to be murdered? Hmm? [Shouting]Gus!” By positioning this poisonous plant
next to the pool, the moment turns the water
into a reflection of how villainous, even evil his soul is becoming. In season five,
as Skyler sinks into the deep end, this represents the way that Walt
has dragged his family under. His wife wades into his guilty water, just as she has
become his accomplice, justifying her actions
as a necessary evil. “Someone has to protect this family
from the man who protects this family.” And the underwater image reflects
Skyler’s emotional state, despite her attempts to
manage the situation. “This has to be convincing.” Instead, she’s drowning in feelings
of despair and powerlessness. “She’s gonna come up, right? She has to.” She’s overwhelmed by emotion, as represented by
the water pulling her under, while her face is expressionless,
showing that this overload has made her numb, unable to connect
to the enormity of what she’s feeling. The visual matches the way
she has described herself as a prisoner in her own home– “I’m not your wife, I’m your hostage.” and gets at how psychologically damaged
she’s going to be in a lasting sense. “Is that what your pool stunt was about? Trying to protect my children from me?” “Not just you. There’s blood on my hands too.” The pool, which often
gives off an eerie blue glow, could also be a visual metaphor for Walt’s love affair
with his blue meth. “The special love I have for you,
my Baby Blue.” As some viewers have noticed, moments around the pool
can be interpreted as reflecting the state of affairs
of Walt’s drug empire. We see Jesse throw money into it,
just as the product is a cash cow. When Skyler has
her breakdown in the pool, surrounded by the blue water
and even wearing a blue skirt, it’s as if her broken mind
has chosen to submerge itself in the blue poison
Walt has forced upon her. Later when the pool is empty
and being used by skateboarders, this corresponds to the period
when his business has run dry. Like Walt’s “baby blue,” the swimming pool appears beautiful and appealing, but it attracts trouble and drags people under. The blue meth casts an ominous shadow
over the Whites’ home life, visualized by the deceptively ethereal
and entrancing waters of the swimming pool lit up at night. And in this way,
the pool is a great use of visual storytelling
to get at the theme of temptation. It shows the way Walt falls in love with this siren which fuels his ego and makes him feel like a big man. “Say my name.” Even if he doesn’t actually use drugs, he gets hooked on
the high of tasting power, to the detriment of
everything else in his life. “[Shouting]You,
and your pride and your ego! You just had to be the man!” The most memorable pool scenes
in the series revolve around Gustavo Fring, and the pool is a clever mirror
of his emotional makeup, too. In a flashback, Hector Salamanca kills
Gus’ business partner, and possible lover, Max
at Don Eladio’s pool. And in this moment, we’re shown Max’s blood
dripping into the pool. While it’s often hard to read what Gus feels underneath
his composed exterior, this blood in the water offers us
the key clue to his secret emotional life. The bottled-up Gus we know
in the present was formed by this moment. After his loved one’s blood seeps into the clean water
of his feelings, revenge becomes his
entire emotional life. “Now the Salamanca names
dies with you.” We never see him express
a genuine emotion unless it’s centered around Hector
and his burning desire for vengeance. “This is what comes of
blood for blood, Hector.” This all-consuming need for revenge leads to his elaborate plot
to poison the Cartel around the same swimming pool, even though his plan is
uncharacteristically risky and even irrational as it relies
on a number of variables and close calls. And in the end,
Gus’ emotionally driven insistence on going to see Hector
in person, one last time– “It’s better if I–
if I do this myself.” “I do this.” is what gets him killed. The most striking thing about
the swimming pools in Breaking Bad is that almost nobody ever swims in them. The pool is a fixture
of the well-off American suburban home. A stand-in for the American dream, a symbol of happy times
of togetherness in the sun, and the holy grail of material comfort. While the White family is in dire
financial straits at the start of the show– “Walt, the Mastercard’s
the one we don’t use.” their house with the swimming pool
in the backyard tells us they’re still projecting
the outward appearance of the comfortable American life. Yet it’s no accident that,
apart from Skyler’s breakdown, nobody is actually shown
using the Whites’ pool. Walter Junior vomits in it. Hank emasculates Walt near it
at family barbecues. “Jesus, Walt, you’re burning
the shit out of them.” But we don’t get a single warm, fun swim. The swimming pool, devoid of people
using it to frolic and have fun, represents what’s lacking
in the Whites’ home life. These people aren’t connecting,
and there is little genuine joy here. “Veggie bacon. We’re watching
our cholesterol.” In his society, Walt is encouraged
to provide his family with comforts like a swimming pool, as if this will magically
yield contentment. And it’s exactly this kind of flawed,
materialistic narrative of “family,” with its implied expectations
of the masculine breadwinner, that fuels his self-deception that he’s doing all this
for his wife and kids. “Skyler, it’s charity.” “Why do you say that like
it’s some sort of dirty word?” But when see other houses
with much bigger pools, nobody is actually
swimming in those, either. The size of one’s pool is
a clear marker of social status. Walt’s former business partners
Gretchen and Elliott flaunt their wealth during a pool party. They even make their guests watch them publicly open gifts
to be judged by the crowd, underlining that this is
a kind of materialistic ritual to make everyone feel reassured
by how much money they all have. “It’s a Stratocaster!” “N-N-Not just any Strat. That’s one of Clapton’s.” The cartel leader Don Eladio’s pool
is even larger and grander. But it was bought with blood money, so it’s a corrupt image of what material wealth costs
on the spiritual level. In fact, the swimming pool symbolism zeroes in on why Walt breaks bad
in the first place. Countless scenes show Walt
staring vacantly into his pool, giving the distinct impression
of being greatly disappointed. We know why the Walt
we meet at the start is unfulfilled. Yet even when he has more cash hidden away
than he can ever use, he’s still staring into the depths
of that pool in discontentment. For such a brilliant man, Walt is disconnected from
the state of his inner pool. He doesn’t understand the real source of his unhappiness. The siren of the ever-larger swimming pool
embodies the lie Walt believes: that money buys domestic happiness. He and others chase
that bigger, empty swimming pool, and it’s this materialistic
view of the world, in which no pool will
ever be big enough, that leaves them dissatisfied. “How much is enough? How big does this pile have to be?” For all his rhetoric of family, he doesn’t truly understand
what makes a good family man. “[Softly]I got dipping sticks.” Just as duffel bags of drug money
won’t really help your loved ones, recreating the picture of
a perfect American family doesn’t make it so, not unless you make the time
to swim in the pool together. Water is associated with life. We drink it, we bathe in it, we’re baptized in it,
and we need it to survive. But in Breaking Bad,
the pool is most often a conduit for death, destruction, emotional voids
and dark feelings. The clever visual symbolism of the dirty water
and empty swimming pools plaguing Walt adds another layer to the show’s exploration of morality and the effects of our actions
on our inner, spiritual selves. Once Walt’s soul has been corrupted, the water of his life has gone bad
and it destroys everything it touches. In Breaking Bad, the water
is anything but fine. Hey, guys, it’s Susannah. And Debrah. And we are The Take. So some of you support us
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