sheep in sheep’s clothing

IN THE FIRST FEW SEASONS of Breaking Bad, we see a number of men dressed in sweaters. And the men we see them in are almost always middle-aged, typically fathers. But maybe more accurately, they are vulnerable, gullible, soon to be swindled. Like the father in many TV shows before, the sweater says, oh poor dad, tricked again.

S1E1 chem class 2

“Pilot” (S1E1)

The apparel sends the signal from the first episode. Walter White, still the eager, unappreciated high school teacher, begins the school year in something that looks picked out from a floor display at J.C. Penney. There’s a joyful, clueless naivete in Walt that we’ll soon miss in him.

And we see other men with dimmed vision in the same apparel. Donald Margolis, having mislaid the blame of his daughter’s death on Jesse, returns to work a sweater vest, with tragic results. Jesse Pinkman’s father, well on his way to getting had by his son, wears a tasteful v-neck. Even as Walt is losing his innocence, he receives his latest diagnosis in a hot pink pullover, a color that reminds us of his flesh-and-blood vulnerability.
S2E13 sweater at doctors ofc
In the first three seasons, sweaters signal a fear of becoming a middle-aged man:  becoming too benign,  estranged from sex, attempting a wisdom and maturity that’s bound to look postured to the kids. As a symbol, sweaters convey this effect pretty well. I think that men in their 40s like sweaters because they cover up their bulk. But sweaters tend to advertise the weight they’re supposed to hide, billowing out rather than slimming the midsection, as if to show why you can’t hide what you’ve become.

Still, sweater-wearing men are good, decent, trustworthy men, and sweaters signal that too. Even those who aren’t as innocent seem to understand their reassuring power and don’t mind playing the part.
S3E11 Fring sweater crop

introduction

I LIKE THE TELEVISION SHOW Breaking Bad for a lot of reasons, but what I’ve been continually impressed with is how the show tells, in neat compact examples, the story of middle-class life in contemporary America. Walter White’s problems, if not his solutions, aren’t much different than those of millions in the US over the last decade. He’s just another striver who feels caught running up a down escalator.

What also struck me is how well the show tells this story through single scenes, sometimes single images: a certain make of car, an inflatable pool lounger, a flat-screen TV. As objects, they’re commonplace enough that most viewers own at least one of them. But as props in a story about a man who seems to be losing his economic hold on things, they often reveal more than they say.

What these everyday objects reveal are certain basic hopes and disappointments of today’s middle class. But because these things–mid-sized cars, mall-outlet sweaters, low-fat bacon strips and so on–are so familiar to us as Americans, they often escape our notice as viewers. This weblog gives these objects a second glance and tries to get them to say something, both about the show and its characters, and about its viewers as well.