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.
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.
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.