In Breaking Bad, why do terrible things keep happening around the swimming pools? Today let’s take a look at the secret symbolism of the pool and find out how this all-American fixture has been offering us a secret window into the story - and characters like Walter White and Gus Fring - all along.
Breaking Bad violates the sanctity of the swimming pool.
This classic status symbol has long signified domestic bliss, family fun, and a badge of material success, but in Vince Gilligan’s show, it becomes the site of harrowing events. In fact, over the course of the show’s five seasons, it’s difficult to think of anything good happening near a pool.
So what does this symbol of the swimming pool mean in Breaking Bad, and why do terrible things keep happening around it?
Let’s take a look at how the pools in the story get at the nagging guilt and discontentment that drives these characters, and give us a secret mirror into what they’re feeling throughout the story.
When human beings attempt to interpret the meaning of their dreams, it’s generally accepted that water is connected to our emotions. Whereas the ocean might stand for collective emotion, a swimming pool is contained, cut off, like the emotions of an individual. And in Breaking Bad, the Whites’ swimming pool is a mirror reflecting Walter’s emotions at any given point.
Most saliently, Walter’s relationship with his pool visualizes his obsession with contamination which is a stand-in for his guilt over what he’s done.
The incredibly fastidious Walt takes every precaution to avoid contaminants getting into his cook, but he can’t stop his life becoming contaminated by the consequences of his actions.
Walt: I keep the work at work, Skyler, and nothing will ever impact you or the kids.
Skyler: You don’t know that.—in Season 5, Episode 4 “Fifty-One”
And this is represented by the detritus that invades the symbolic emotional space of swimming pools.
In season two, a charred pink teddy bear plummets out of the sky, landing face down in Walt’s pool. He looks up to see that two planes have collided in the sky, a tragedy that he inadvertently set into motion when he let Jane Margolis die, sending Jane’s father into a depression that made him unable to do his job as an air traffic controller.
Thus, this teddy bear infiltrating Walt’s pristine pool is like a rude awakening from the heavens, sending him the message that he is responsible for the deaths of one hundred and sixty-seven innocent people.
Walt avoids this truth. He even complains that he’s a victim of this crash.
“Hellfire rained down on my house where my children sleep! There were body parts in my yard!” –Walt in Season 3, Episode 2 “Caballo Sin Nombre”
But while this master of denial lies to himself that he can keep his home life free of any traces of his crimes—the figurative space of the swimming pool subtly reveals to us what he’s feeling under the surface of his lies… He can’t keep the poison of what he’s done from seeping in and infecting his home life.
“You killed Hank.”—Skyler, Season 5, Episode 14 “Ozymandias”
On the deeper, subconscious level, his feelings of guilt have penetrated his clean water and no amount of denial or striving for control will allow him to clear the stain.
That teddy bear, which haunts the cold opens of season two episodes, has a missing eye—and some have seen this eye as representing the “Eye of God” or of the universe judging Walt for all he’s done. And that leads to an intriguing question—why does Walt hold onto this eye? If he’s in such denial, why does he hang on to this reminder that the universe is judging him? It’s clear over time that there are two people within Walt battling for his soul, and while one of them ingeniously evades responsibility the other is tortured by guilt.
In the episode “Fly,” Walt’s fixation on a fly that’s penetrated the meth lab, is really about his feeling that his life has been corrupted by his evil actions.
Jesse: What about the contamination?
Walt: It’s all contaminated.—in Season 3, Episode 10 “Fly”
The “good” Walt is making a brave attempt to surface.
“I’m sorry about Jane.”—Walt in Season 3, Episode 10 “Fly”
So by hanging onto the teddy bear’s eye, this largely defeated better self in Walt is trying to cling to his guilt, so that his soul can somehow be recovered.
Yet that Walt is losing the battle. At the end of Season 4, the camera moves from the pool over to Walt’s Lily of the Valley plant, revealing that it was Walt who poisoned the boy Brock in order to manipulate Jesse. By positioning this poisonous plant next to the pool, the moment turns the water into a reflection of how villainous, even evil his soul is becoming.
In season five, as Skyler sinks into the deep end, this represents the way that Walt has dragged his family under. His wife wades into his guilty water, just as she has become his accomplice, justifying her actions as a necessary evil.
“Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.”—Skyler, Season 4, Episode 6 “Cornered”
And the underwater image reflects Skyler’s emotional state, despite her attempts to manage the situation.
Instead, she’s drowning in feelings of despair and powerlessness. She’s overwhelmed by emotion, as represented by the water pulling her under, while her face is expressionless, showing that this overload has made her numb, unable to connect to the enormity of what she’s feeling. The visual matches the way she has described herself as a prisoner in her own home and gets at how psychologically damaged she’s going to be in a lasting sense.
Walt: Is that what your pool stunt was about? Trying to protect my children from me?
Skyler: Not just you. There’s blood on my hands too.—in Season 5, Episode 4 “Fifty-One”
The pool, which often gives off an eerie blue glow, could also be a visual metaphor for Walt’s love affair with his blue meth.
As some viewers have noticed, moments around the pool can be interpreted as reflecting the state of affairs of Walt’s drug empire. We see Jesse throw money into it, just as the product is a cash cow. When Skyler has her breakdown in the pool, surrounded by the blue water and even wearing a blue skirt, it’s as if her broken mind has chosen to submerge itself in the blue poison Walt has forced upon her. Later when the pool is empty and being used by skateboarders, this corresponds to the period when his business has run dry.
Like Walt’s “baby blue,” the swimming pool appears beautiful and appealing, but it attracts trouble and drags people under. The blue meth casts an ominous shadow over the Whites’ home life, visualized by the deceptively ethereal and entrancing waters of the swimming pool lit up at night. And in this way, the pool is a great use of visual storytelling to get at the theme of temptation. It shows the way Walt falls in love with this siren which fuels his ego and makes him feel like a big man. Even if he doesn’t actually use drugs, he gets hooked on the high of tasting power, to the detriment of everything else in his life.
“You, and your pride and your ego! You just had to be the man!” –Mike, Season 5, Episode 7 “Say My Name”
The most memorable pool scenes in the series revolve around Gustavo Fring, and the pool is a clever mirror of his emotional makeup, too. In a flashback, Hector Salamanca kills Gus’ business partner, and possible lover, Max at Don Eladio’s pool. And in this moment, we’re shown Max’s blood dripping into the pool.
While it’s often hard to read what Gus feels underneath his composed exterior, this blood in the water offers us the key clue to his secret emotional life. The bottled-up Gus we know in the present was formed by this moment. After his loved one’s blood seeps into the clean water of his feelings, revenge becomes his entire emotional life. We never see him express a genuine emotion unless it’s centered around Hector and his burning desire for vengeance.
“This is what comes of blood for blood, Hector.”—Gus, Season 4, Episode 8 “Hermanos”
This all-consuming need for revenge leads to his elaborate plot to poison the Cartel
around the same swimming pool, even though his plan is uncharacteristically risky and even irrational as it relies on a number of variables and close calls. And in the end, Gus’ emotionally driven insistence on going to see Hector in person, one last time is what gets him killed.
The most striking thing about the swimming pools in Breaking Bad is that almost nobody ever swims in them. The pool is a fixture of the well-off American suburban home: a stand-in for the American dream, a symbol of happy times of togetherness in the sun, and the holy grail of material comfort. While the White family is in dire financial straits at the start of the show, their house with the swimming pool in the backyard tells us they’re still projecting the outward appearance of the comfortable American life.
Yet it’s no accident that, apart from Skyler’s breakdown, nobody is actually shown using the Whites’ pool. Walter Junior vomits in it. Hank emasculates Walt near it at family barbecues. But we don’t get a single warm, fun swim. The swimming pool, devoid of people using it to frolic and have fun, represents what’s lacking in the Whites’ home life. These people aren’t connecting, and there is little genuine joy here.
In his society, Walt is encouraged to provide his family with comforts like a swimming pool, as if this will magically yield contentment. And it’s exactly this kind of flawed, materialistic narrative of “family,” with its implied expectations of the masculine breadwinner, that fuels his self-deception that he’s doing all this for his wife and kids.
Walt: Skyler, it’s charity.
Skyler: Why do you say that like it’s some sort of dirty word?—in Season 2, Episode 12 “Drama”
But when see other houses with much bigger pools, nobody is actually swimming in those, either. The size of one’s pool is a clear marker of social status. Walt’s former business partners Gretchen and Elliott flaunt their wealth during a pool party. They even make their guests watch them publicly open gifts to be judged by the crowd, underlining that this is a kind of materialistic ritual to make everyone feel reassured by how much money they all have.
The cartel leader Don Eladio’s pool is even larger and grander, but it was bought with blood money, so it’s a corrupt image of what material wealth costs on the spiritual level.
In fact, the swimming pool symbolism zeroes in on why Walt breaks bad in the first place.
Countless scenes show Walt staring vacantly into his pool, giving the distinct impression of being greatly disappointed. We know why the Walt we meet at the start is unfulfilled. Yet even when he has more cash hidden away than he can ever use, he’s still staring into the depths of that pool in discontentment. For such a brilliant man, Walt is disconnected from the state of his inner pool. He doesn’t understand the real source of his unhappiness.
The siren of the ever-larger swimming pool embodies the lie Walt believes: that money buys domestic happiness. He and others chase that bigger, empty swimming pool, and it’s this materialistic view of the world, in which no pool will ever be big enough, that leaves them dissatisfied.
“How much is enough? How big does this pile have to be?”—Skyler, Season 5, Episode 8 “Gliding Over All”
For all his rhetoric of family, he doesn’t truly understand what makes a good family man. Just as duffel bags of drug money won’t really help your loved ones, recreating the picture of a perfect American family doesn’t make it so, not unless you make the time to swim in the pool together.
Water is associated with life. We drink it, we bathe in it, we’re baptized in it, and we need it to survive. But in Breaking Bad, the pool is most often a conduit for death, destruction, emotional voids and dark feelings. The clever visual symbolism of the dirty water and empty swimming pools plaguing Walt adds another layer to the show’s exploration of morality and the effects of our actions on our inner, spiritual selves. Once Walt’s soul has been corrupted, the water of his life has gone bad and it destroys everything it touches. In Breaking Bad, the water is anything but fine.