Breaking Bad and The Spaghetti Western

11 Oct

Vince Gilligan creator of "Breaking Bad"

This season, Walt was particularly alienated. It isn’t as if Walt (Bryan Cranston) hasn’t been distanced from everyone else through the entire series, after all, the man started out with cancer and became a powerful meth cook who battled evil personalities he came up against one by one. With Walt and the individuals he encounters because of the line of his work (drugs) the punishment for transgression tends to be death. While yes, all of this is obvious, I realized this series was a prime example of noir on TV. Something you don’t actually get very often. While yes, you could say any of the detective shows are noir, I would argue, no they are not. Because the thing about noir is that it is usually a hybrid genre and there tends to be a mood of overwhelming doom. If you are not familiar with critical studies terms, that’s ok, I’ll explain it simply: a hybrid genre is a combination of one or more genres mixed together. What is a genre? A genre is a literary term or a way to categorize or classify a group of work (film, literature, music, even tv) that holds the same elements in the scope of the narrative. In plain talk that means: if you are watching a romantic comedy, there are certain things that you as a viewer expect to happen: you expect to laugh a lot at the fiobles of the two main characters, you expect that you will be introduced to your two main protagonists in a story and they are secretly perfect for each other, but their own stubborn personalities somehow keep them apart, they will come together but something will go wrong and they will have to go on some symbolic learning journey together to discover they are really soul mates and meant for each other. There will always be a comic relief best friend of one sex or the other, depending on the protagonist in the story (think of Sandy Lyle (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in Along Came Polly), and there will always be some sort of embarrassing, self-effacing moment the protagonist suffers (think of the many embarrassing things that happen to Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) in the beginning of Romancing the Stone).

In noir you get two genres that mix; they tends to be things like the crime drama and melodrama (Mildred Pierce or Shadow of a Doubt) or the gangster film and melodrama (The Big Heat, White Heat, Out of the Past).  Sometimes it can be a strange combination like Fritz Lang‘s musical noir, You and Me.  Finally, there is one combination that is sometimes neglected or forgotten:  the western noir.   Anthony Mann is a prime example of a director who made Hollywood studio western noirs with such classics as The Naked Spur and Winchester ’73.  But there are other western noirs as well including two of my favorites, Johnny Guitar and Rancho Notorious.    What is so important about the western and noir is that, according to Vince Gilligan, in an interview after the final episode of this season of Breaking Bad, he credits not only noir as his influence, but the western, specifically, the spaghetti western.  The spaghetti western was made famous by Clint Eastwood in the mid 1960s, with a group of films directed by Sergio Leone in Spain for low budgets (many other spaghetti westerns were shot in Italy).  The Eastwood character tended to be a lone hero, alienated by all and would stop at nothing to get what he needed to accomplish with little dialogue and a lot of riding around the desert.

Gilligan explains that he actually had the potential directors this season watch Once Upon A Time in the West which now makes all of the strange openings and extreme alienation of Walt something that makes even more sense.  In noir as in the western, your protagonist is always going to be an antihero, someone who usually did his best to play by the rules and work within the system but something happens, something dramatic (in Walt’s case, he got cancer and needed money for bills and to provide for his family) and our antihero decides to throw caution to the wind and make his own rules.  Hence, why Walt has evolved so much in the past 4 seasons.  It makes even more sense, this hybridity of the western and noir, to remember the locale Breaking Bad takes place in:  New Mexico.  The Old West.  Where laws are broken constantly and lawmen are scrambling to keep some sort of barrier between civility and lawlessness.  If the protagonist is a true anti-hero and cannot live within the system any longer and function as a human being, there are only two options for him, to live somewhere, usually alone or with other outlaws or to die.  In true noir, as well, our protagonist/anti-hero tends to die at the end of all great noir films, since their lives are doomed from the start.  I just don’t see a happy ending for Walt.  All I know is that so far it has been a great ride.

One Response to “Breaking Bad and The Spaghetti Western”


  1. Reviews by Romi: “Breaking Bad and The Spaghetti Western” | Django Rising Podcast - September 7, 2014

    […] at Film & TV Reviews by Romi there was an excellent, if somewhat old, post titled “Breaking Bad and the Spaghetti Western.” At the start of the post, Romi described the influence of Film Noir and the movies of Fritz Lang […]

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