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What Breaking Bad Owes to The Shining

Photo: Warner Bros, AMC

Remember when Walter White was a chemistry teacher? Oh, just barely. Over Breaking Bad’s five seasons, we’ve watched Walt become a different person, and in last Sunday’s episode, “Say My Name,” the transfer became complete. He is Heisenberg now, and the doting family man who made a heartbreaking video out in the desert is no more; “Skyler, you are the love of my life” is a pretty far cry from “I am the one who knocks.” Walt’s not the first guy to let his dark side take over, to go from regular dude to terrifying murderer. Heck, before he was the caretaker for the Overlook Hotel, Jack Torrance was a schoolteacher, too.

Breaking Bad has had a Shining-infused setup since the get-go. The major theme shared by the movie and the show, of course, is how much sympathy we have for these devils. How thrilled we are by their violence, and how much we relate to it, even at its most despicable. When Jack Nicholson’s axe chops through the bathroom wall in The Shining, it’s supposed to be scary — and it is, kind of, but not because we’re afraid he’s going to kill Wendy. It’s scary because we’re hoping he’ll kill her. Wendy is the worst! We all want to axe murder her, with her dopey gazes and constant sighing and oppressive mouth-breathing. Jack goes crazy, and there are ghosts and stuff, but we get his claustrophobia. We get how trapped he is. And we only have to spend two hours with her. It’s the same way with Skyler. Walt’s home life is a quiet suburban nightmare of blandness and collective disempowerment. Cook more meth, we want to tell him. Live more grandly. Don’t we kind of get why Walt might want to be a different person all of the sudden? Might we all be driven to the edge by Skyler’s genteel naïveté? When it’s that easy to lie to someone, don’t you just want to? Skyler’s nowhere near as irritating as Wendy, but they drive at the same idea: If this was your normal, wouldn’t you want something else? (Also, they both make a lot of breakfasts.)

And then there are the many visual cues (and occasional cute shout-out) Breaking Bad uses to nod to The Shining. For example, Jack Torrance and Walter White both spend a lot of time looking at their reflections — but where Walt sees the tough bald guy he’s becoming, Jack sees ghosts and distortions. We see Walt’s reflection in mirrors, car doors, glasses; we see Jack’s in silver freezer walls, super-polished floors, shiny bar-tops, and the occasional bathroom mirror, where suddenly he sees that the beautiful naked woman in his embrace is actually a rotting, foul corpse. How accurately can we see ourselves outside ourselves? For both Jack and Walt, the answer is not very accurately.

But how could those reflections be accurate, when Jack and Walt live in perplexing, unstable worlds? BB uses unusual POV shots to show us just how baffling it is to be where we don’t belong, to see the things we’re not designed to or supposed to see. Stanley Kubrick is famous for his disorienting aesthetics, and The Shining is a prime example — the patterns on the rugs blur into optical illusions, all the long lines of the hotel eventually converging at the horizon, the endless Steadicam shots. While we’re in these worlds, they seem coherent and consistent. But then BB and The Shining both break in with news segments, and suddenly it’s clear that, even though the characters are watching the news and ostensibly listening to the information, they’re not really internalizing any of it. Skyler sees a news segment about Gus’s death, but she doesn’t fully grasp Walt’s role in the bombing. Wendy watches a report about a child who disappeared on a hunting trip with her father and a weather bulletin about a brewing storm. But she’s totally ignorant of the, er, brewing storm right in her living room, and her husband is putting their son in similar grave danger.

Skyler and Wendy both lobby their increasingly evil husbands to at least consider removing their children from the dangerous environs — and unsurprisingly, Walt and Jack balk at the suggestion. “I could really write my own ticket if I went back to Boulder now, couldn’t I?” Jack spits. “Shoveling driveways, work at a car wash!” A car wash. Like the one Walt and Sklyer own as a cover.

In terms of iconic imagery, it’s hard to get more iconic than the spooky axe-murdered Grady twins in The Shining, unless you think of the spooky axe-murdering Salamanca twins on Breaking Bad. And their connection isn’t a coincidence: At the beginning of season three’s “Sunset,” the Salamancas kill a police officer with an axe right to the head. Just before, we hear the officer on his radio. “KDK-12 to dispatch,” he says. KDK-12 should sound familiar, because Wendy says it about fifteen times in The Shining — it’s the call letters for the Overlook Hotel.

What Breaking Bad Owes to The Shining