Heisenberg’s Hat: Breaking Bad Theories and History of the Porkpie

**This post contains Breaking Bad spoilers

In a celebration of the beginning of the end of one of my favorite TV shows, I had to know, why the porkpie hat? The past 4 and a half seasons of Breaking Bad have been nothing less than masterful. And I can hardly walk away from the show without knowing why Creator + Executive Producer Vince Gilligan, who has more than earned my complete faith, chose the porkpie hat. Before the iconic Heisenberg piece, I mostly affiliated the hat with black and white photographs of vaudevillians, but Heisenberg made the porkpie hat something it rarely has been in its history: feared. The porkpie’s been especially prominent in this first half of the season as mastermind Walt has been orchestrating the “empire” and moving back and forth between Heisenberg during meetings with Lydia and Walt making increasingly rare appearances during times with his children. And  it looks like with Hank’s recent bowel and mind clearing experience regarding Heisenberg’s identity, Heisenberg might be taking full ownership of this vessel. Which, lucky for us, means more porkpie hat. But how did a hat that received its name when someone noticed a resemblance between the dish they were eating a pork pie out of and the flat, squared shape of the hat–a genuine stroke of genius–become synonymous with this Scarface idolizing meth superpower?

The porkpie hat, and I think that we can rule out this piece of history as being in any way telling about its use in Breaking Bad, is first recorded as a hat worn by American and English women during the Civil War that was festooned with feathers. If that sentence read: festooned with crystal meth, I might consider this to be a viable option.

The porkpie hat remained out of the limelight until famous American actor Buster Keaton reprised the hat in many of his movie roles. Keaton was incredibly important and is still revered to this day as one of history’s finest actors. However, I think that I would have to stretch Keaton’s success-turned alcoholism-regained success story pretty thin to claim this as Vince Gilligan’s inspiration to choose the porkpie hat as the calling card of an increasingly soulless drug overlord.

The porkpie hat remained out of the limelight until famous American actor Buster Keaton reprised the hat in many of his movie roles.

The porkpie hat remained out of the limelight until famous American actor Buster Keaton reprised the hat in many of his movie roles.

We move into less murky waters with the porkpie hat’s resurgence during the Great Depression era of the 1930s and 40s. Famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright was recognized for his proclivity to wear the hat, but more importantly the hat had strong ties with the zoot suits of the period. The same suits that were the choice of many gangsters of the era, but the link grows weaker, as the prohibition-fueled gangsters were known to wear fedoras. It was the jazz musicians of the time–like Lester Young who Charles Mingus’ song “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is dedicated to– who were also draped in zoot suits, that the hat’s history is rooted in. I could write a long-winded thesis of how the hat’s tangential gangster associations and Walt’s self-serving view of himself as “an artist” make these hybrid connotations an ideal choice to create Heisenberg, but that’s a little far-fetched for my taste.

The porkpie hat sprung up again during the 60s when the Jamaican rude boy subculture championed this hat. Walter White is many things, but I don’t see him as a dancer and the hats would have been ubiquitous at the rude boy’s ska pumping dancehalls. I could be proven wrong though if the Walt we saw in Maryland starts to let his new hair dread, though. (Actually crossing my fingers for this.)

During season 5, we see Walter White reveling in his son’s entertained state while watching Scarface. Walter White’s infatuation with these gangster movies and empires may be an explanation for the peculiar hat choice. Just 10 years before Scarface was released, Americans watched a young Robert De Niro play Johnny Boy in the movie Mean Streets. Mean Streets, directed by Martin Scorsese, is seen as one of our greatest crime films, but more important to us is Johnny Boy’s porkpie hat. Johnny Boy finds himself in debt and turns to crime to climb his way out. Right in the plot summary, Johnny Boy’s described in an eerily similar fashion to a character we have come to know: “Johnny becomes increasingly self-destructive, growing continually more disrespectful of his creditors” and Johnny’s festering hubris eventually leads to his death at the end of the film.

Johnny becomes increasingly self-destructive, growing continually more disrespectful of his creditors” and Johnny’s festering hubris eventually leads to his death at the end of the film.

While I cannot say for sure whether Vince had the great crime drama in mind, or if the hat just happened to be in the right (wrong?) place at the right/wrong time, I can feel satisfied knowing I have at least formed an educated guess. How far astray the porkpie will lead Walt, I have no idea, but the importance of the hat seems to have followed it all throughout history.  The porkpie rarely falls into the backdrop, instead making itself a pivotal player on the main stage . Actor Bryan Cranston who plays Walt, headily describes the hat in a recent Huffington Post interview, “It changes how you present yourself or how you feel about yourself. Depending on what you’re wearing.  So Walter White goes to that touchstone, that talisman of the porkpie hat, and man when he puts that on, it changes him.” Cranston elegantly describes an essence of clothing that all of us who care about clothing know to be true, and the porkpie hat’s history is nothing less than illustrious if not infamous even before its Heisenberg incarnation. Clothes change the way you feel about yourself, a glance in the mirror can inject you with confidence or cause you to scurry back to your closet. So, if you so choose to honor Heisenberg by wearing the hat, just beware of the power going straight to your head.

 

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