Stop Breaking Down: What the Cars on “Breaking Bad” Tell Us About the True Nature of the Characters

Let’s be frank. I am not a big car guy, by which I mean that I have no interest in cars of any kind.  I drive infrequently, which is probably a good thing because I’m a terrible driver. Have you heard bad things about Boston drivers? That’s my fault.  I have no idea how cars work (something to do with fire, gas and accelerometers) and I’m scared of auto mechanics and their giant drooly guard dogs.

I am, however, a big television person. Unlike you with your one sad little TV, I own FOUR televisions, including one 42″ flat screen beauty and not including the old Tandy model in the attic. So, yeah, I’m kind of a TV expert (although I must confess that I have no idea how they work – something to do with tubes and accelerometers).

I enjoy many programs on television, but none more so than prestige cable dramas like Breaking Bad.  Now Breaking Bad is probably the greatest show in the history of television for many reasons (e.g. writing, acting, cinematography, sound design), none of which include my love for delicious, tasty meth. I get all a-twitchy just thinking about all of that blue sky meth*!

(* Legal note: I have no idea what meth is, but I do like Sudafed.)

Recently, while obsessively watching Breaking Bad, I realized something important. I’d go so far as to say that I’ve figured out all of Vince Gilligan’s secrets and I now know everything there is to know about the show. So what’s the big discovery?


Let’s get to it with the major characters:

WALTER WHITE famously drives a Pontiac Aztek with an oft-smashed windshield. The Aztek is a car entirely about exterior image – a shitty car in an inauthentic wrapper that was meant to re-position Pontiac as a hip brand for Gen Xers. Walt’s life was all about maintaining an image of a mild-mannered school teacher while repressing his inner rage (the Heisenberg persona). The cracked windshield represents Walt’s inability to keep his true self hidden under his exterior image.

JESSE PINKMAN goes from driving a Monte Carlo to driving a Toyota. Again, this is no accident. When we first meet Jesse he is playing at being a ‘bad guy’, so he drives a Monte Carlo, the official car of 20-something bad boys in AC/DC shirts that creep around high school parking lots looking for underage girls. Ultimately Jesse accepts that he’s not really a bad guy (regardless of what he says) and he gets a dependable, boring family sedan – a Toyota – because all that Jesse really wants is to love and be loved. He craves a normal, dependable, suburban family life.


HANK SCHRADER drives a late-model Jeep. Jeeps are macho sporty cars for adventurous people who don’t like doors or roofs (but love Dave Matthews). Hank is the moral center of the Breaking Bad universe – a solid guy with a solid car. But Hank’s Jeep does have doors and a roof, because we all know that Hank is not really as macho as he seems, suffering from PTSD and anxiety.

SKYLER WHITE also drives a Jeep, but it’s an old junky model. It’s no accident that Skyler and Hank drive variations of the same car. That’s because we initially see Skyler as a paragon of virtue (like Hank) but we ultimately come to realize that she’s bad. Bad, I tell you! (She was even mean to Sherriff Seth Bullock, and he’s just dreamy.)

GUS FRING obviously drives a Volvo because he is a cautious man, and Volvos represent safety. Plus, they have large cup holders for Los Pollos Hermanos take-out.

MIKE THE CLEANER drives a classic old man American car – probably a Lincoln – because he represents old American power and dependability, just like when Lincolns, Caddys and Buicks ruled the automotive world.

I could keep going with the minor characters (MARIE SCHRADER drives a new VW Beetle because she’s a flake; TED BENEKE drives a BMW because he’s a cheating, embezzling asshole, etc.) but I think you get the idea: the cars on Breaking Bad matter.

UPDATE: Now that WALTER JUNIOR has turned 16 he’s finally gotten his car. Well, two cars actually. The first car was a Dodge Challenger, courtesy of Walter Senior. Senior, in one of his now-patented “bad decisions spurred by a bruised ego” impulsively bought a modern muscle car to prove that he can control his own destiny. This is a manifestation of Walter Senior’s desire for power and recognition in a season where he’s seriously lost his mojo. After Skyler made Walter return the car (with a little help from Mr. Fire), Skyler buys Walter Junior a Chrysler PT Cruiser. The PT Cruiser does a nice job of illustrating Skyler’s two overriding character traits: cautiousness and obliviousness. Skyler is an extremely intelligent woman that refuses to accept some obvious facts: 1) the drug trade is violent by definition; 2) Senior can’t get out even if he wanted to; and 3) PT Cruisers – even with CD players – aren’t cool.

Please note that we don’t really learn anything about Walter Junior through these cars, aside from the confirmation that he likes pancakes.

DOUBLE UPDATE: During the cold open of the season 5 premiere a waitress at Denny’s mentions to Walter that she once lived in Swampscott, MA, which happens to be where I live. Was it a coincidence or was Vince Gilligan sending me a signal that he agrees with the theories presented in this essay? Also consider this: we ate at Denny’s yesterday morning for the first time in at least a decade. I had the western omelette. It was delicious.



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