The transformation of Walter White from an unassuming high school chemistry teacher to a murderous drug kingpin has captivated audiences of the hit television series “Breaking Bad” for its entire five season story arc. The show is known for its meticulous attention to detail and frequent use of imagery to underline the points being made on screen. The various cars driven by the cast of “Breaking Bad” are not merely throwaway props, but are important clues for the viewers to understand the nature of the characters, and their evolution as the tale unfolds.
Walter White’s transportation choices parallel his descent into immorality and highlight the changing nature of his decision making process. In the show’s early season he can be found behind the wheel of a Pontiac Aztec, and he fits the profile of the car perfectly. The Aztec is frequently close to the top of lists detailing the worst cars ever made due to its unconventional styling and bland performance. This is the type of vehicle chosen by people who do not care what others think, and instead make their car buying choices based on data like fuel consumption and cargo capacity. By the end of the final season he is driving a blacked out Chrysler 300 SRT-8. This is an old school muscle car with a thunderous engine and no pretentions of practicality. It’s the type of car driven by people who want to tell the world that they are powerful, wealthy and don’t care who knows it.
Jessie Pinkman is first seen driving a hopped up Chevrolet Monte Carlo. This is exactly the type of car that a young man with fantasies of being a gangster would drive, and it is similar to vehicles driven by other low and mid level drug dealers in the show such as the memorable Tuco from seasons one and two. However, Jesse soon realizes that he is not cut out to be a killer and quickly ditches his pretentious ride for a far more staid Toyota Tercel wagon. One of the central themes of “Breaking Bad” is the feverish desire of Walter and Jessie to reinvent themselves, and their choice of automobile shows how they want to head in different directions as events take over and dictate their fates.
Gus Fring is introduced in season three as the mastermind behind the Albuquerque methamphetamine trade. Unlike drug lords in other popular entertainment he does not live lavishly or display his wealth and power. His cover is a fast food franchise and his choice of transportation in a Volvo station wagon. This is the car choice of thinking people who put safety and utility ahead of image and performance, and the car is a perfect reflection of Fring’s personality.
Mike Ehrmantraut is introduced as Fring’s enforcer, and former police officer is a world weary reflection of how society’s rules have changed, and not for the better. He drives a classic American sedan because in his mind that is what people drove when the world was a better place.
Even supporting characters in “Breaking Bad” tell a story with their choice of cars. Walt Jr. asks for a Dodge Challenge r because he, like most adolescents, is concerned more with looking cool than arriving at his destination in one piece. When Skylar White replaces her Jeep Grand Wagoneer she chooses an inconspicuous sedan reflecting her worries about her husband’s meth empire being exposed. Ted Beneke shows his true colors by using an unexpected windfall to lease a top of the line Mercedes instead of clearing up his tax problems, and Marie Schrader drives a VW Beetle which perfectly symbolizes her seeming satisfaction with the life of a suburban housewife.
As “Breaking Bad” takes its place among the greatest television shows of all time, the cars that have been an integral part of the story deserve their share of recognition. The automobile has become a defining part of American culture, and what we drive is often a most telling clue as to who we are. The tale of Walter White has all of the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy while remaining a classic American tale, and as it concludes the cars once again tell a story. Walter’s gleaming muscle car is put out of service by a bullet piercing the gas tank, and he finds himself behind the wheel of a beat up but reliable old pickup truck. The two vehicles serve as bookends for the American dream and the inevitable consequences of its single minded pursuit.