“I started reading and the first page is a pair of trousers falling from the sky over red clay dirt, an RV runs over them. And I’m going, ‘What? An RV? Huh?’ It drives recklessly down an empty dirt road—and inside the RV, a man dressed in tighty-whitey underwear and a respirator drives frantically. Next to him is another man passed out with a respirator. Behind him are two dead men sliding up and back in a sea of chemicals and glass.
That was the first page. It was the best drama script I’d ever read.”
—Bryan Cranston, aka Breaking Bad’s Walter White, to WSJ in July 2011.
Bryan Cranston has told this story dozens of times: from Sundance Channel’s The Writers’ Room to the Paley Center for Media (let’s hope he can avoid the money-grab that is Talking Bad before it’s all said and done). But the first image he got of modern pop culture’s greatest villain genuinely shocked him—frantic, possibly murderous and definitely pantless.
Creator Vince Gilligan hoped this moment would go on to be “one of those iconic images that sums up the show.” Retroactively, Gilligan said he wanted to convey a feeling of purity with the clothing choice. Cranston was better known as the fun-loving, equally Fruit of the Loom-wearing father on the family-friendly comedy Malcolm in the Middle. The undies here represented the same kind of innocence. And White’s were incredibly pristine, especially considering all the meth and desert, on the show’s promotional poster. It’s practically Pantone 11-0601.
In those same hundreds of interviewers, Cranston has a different interpretation—one that feels closer to reality. When Cranston brought up his character’s briefs brethren, Gilligan said the actor could find something else to wear. But then Cranston went all award-winning thespian on the situation, really trying to get at the core of why Walter White would stick with the plainest of placeholders:
“I had to ask, why would a grown man wear a boy’s underwear? Hal [Malcolm in the Middle] wore them because he always wore them and it never occurred to him to wear anything else. He’s still a boy. Walter White wore them because he stopped growing.“ (To IFC.com, 2011)
Let’s take it a bit further. Clearly, Walter White stopped growing as a 50-year-old facing a cancer as a simultaneously down on his luck chemistry teacher working a second job as a carwash peon. From that starting point, his evolution over five seasons has veered more toward decay than anything in the other direction. But these now famous tighty-whities don’t represent stagnation alone. They encompass a type of lurking, inevitable and dangerous desire that 1) was always there (thus was not grown into) but 2) was repressed for awhile by an everyman villain’s desire for normalcy.
This, the ideology of the intimates, is Breaking Bad. As Grantland TV Critic Andy Greenwald put it, “Gilligan wanted to make a show about contemporary men, the evil that lurks within them, and the potential for evil in all of them even in seemingly the most mundane suburban settings.”
Walter White gave us many things, but his legacy will be the mainstreaming of unrelenting, unpredictable evil as an undergarment choice. His full-on black hat lifestyle only blossomed when a limit on his life was imposed, but it’s symbolically been tucked safely beneath slacks forever.
White’s not the first character to build this association. Randle McMurphy’s boxers in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest get famously over analyzed with one literary interpretation being they represent his own pervasive badness. But those are technically a different type of long john and Jack Nicholson apparently passed on being out there onscreen. In the last 10 years, films about seemingly mild-mannered serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy both feature extended scenes with the villains in the absolute minimal. Sure, there’s also Matt Damon in The Talented (and trouserless) Mr. Ripley, but perhaps the best modern example is American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale). He opens the film by proudly trotting around in his tighty-whities perfecting his exterior physique while bat-shit madness simultaneously boils within and bulges to the forefront.
But if Bateman is the Dr. J of unfettered crazy in unspeakables, White is the Jordan who took this budding trope to new heights. He is the one who knocks and whose knickers literally hang in a museum. So expect more future psychos to show a little thigh because of it. Within the time of this last Breaking Bad season alone, other shows have either consciously or subconsciously borrowed the visual cue. On The Bridge, a marble-mouthed, deadly iron-wielding weirdo named Steven Linder has been seen making Walter White wardrobe choices. And in the promo for the coming season of Sons of Anarchy, we see that loose cannon former US Marshall Lee Toric will seek his unkind revenge with snug-fitting man support too.
Here’s hoping the White-approach to bad guys will extend beyond itself. Villainous women in underwear are rarely anything besides characters who can use sex as a weapon (see virtually any femme-fatale from the Bond franchise or the character of Molotov Cocktease who drives the point home on Venture Bros.). And if a male villain isn’t white but dons the briefs, it typically nods to some type of stereotypical brute-strength savagery (say, the silky skivvies of Chong Li in Bloodsport).
This last season of Breaking Bad, we already had another glimpse of Walter White’s whities. It’s not a spoiler to say he was off again in the desert doing something diabolical, and when he came home this time he immediately strips down to the familiar briefs hoping to shower. It’s not all Pantone 11-0601 anymore. At this stage of the game, all those outside forces finally sullied the White’s to dusty desert beige. Gilligan’s purity spiel fits because the clean cotton’s long gone. Cranston’s fits because the character certainly isn’t growing either.
However, this moment is the most physically spent Walter White has looked in quite some time. He collapses on the bathroom floor before the last shower obstacle could ever be removed. It’s well known Gilligan wanted to make Mr. Chips into Scarface, and here White’s actions have finally overwhelmed whatever shell of a citizen used to exist. He’s truly entered that whole Heart of Darkness area. You can tell because the physical being has failed, and the privates-covering instrument of insanity is all that remains.
Off the harddrive features pieces officially written for outlets that ultimately got cut (usually for issues of spacing, I swear). In honor of the in progress 2014 content, this post was written for the 2013 McSweeney’s Column Contest—the premise being a series about famous images of men in their underwear. (Future installments would’ve focused on Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Moonrise Kingdom.) It was pitched elsewhere but never published.