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Critics have drawn comparisons of scenes in Breaking Bad to classic Western Cinema. Vince Gilligan himself has spoken of such influences, and I was just wondering if there are any specific pro-filmic/on screen references to any particular films.

I can think of one from S5E05 which,

contains a sequence in which Todd calmly and methodically executes an innocent boy is reminiscent of a sequence in Sergio Leonie's Once Upon a Time in the West, in which Henry Fonda's Character executes a child at a crime scene to eliminate a potential witness.

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Are there other homages in the series?

Note: This could extend to examples which are deliberately subverting the Western genre itself (as Breaking Bad frequently seems to do), scenes which are stylistically 'Anti-Western', but still acknowledge their references.

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Related meta question meta.movies.stackexchange.com/questions/1049/… –  Ankit Sharma Oct 1 '13 at 13:14
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Comments purged, please refer to the above linked Meta discussion. –  TylerShads Oct 1 '13 at 14:19
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Reopened. Cheers! Thanks to @coleopterist for making this question viable one by his edit. –  Mistu4u Oct 6 '13 at 3:24

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I don't know if the references to westerns are quite as direct as you might be expecting. Interviews with Vince Gilligan about the series indicate that he was influenced by many films of many genres, and the western was certainly among them. These are a few examples

  • Tuco Salamanca was named after Tuco Ramirez, the 'Ugly' in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
  • According to Vince Gilligan (interview with Entertainment Weekly), the last episode was taken from the plot of the Searchers:

    “A lot of astute viewers who know their film history are going to say, ‘It’s the ending to The Searchers.’ And indeed it is. The wonderful western The Searchers has John Wayne looking for Natalie Wood for the entire three-hour length of the movie. She’s been kidnapped by Indians and raised as one of their own, and throughout the whole movie, John Wayne says, ‘I need to put her out of her misery. As soon as I find her, I’m going to kill her.’ The whole movie Jeffrey Hunter is saying, ‘No, we’re not — she’s my blood kin, we’re saving her,’ and he says, ‘We’re killing her.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh my god, John Wayne is a monster and he’s going to do it. You know for the whole movie that this is the major drama between these two characters looking for Natalie Wood. And then at the end of the movie, on impulse, you think he’s riding toward her to shoot her, and instead he sweeps her up off her feet and he carries her away and he says, ‘Let’s go home.’ It just gets me every time — the ending of that movie just chokes you up, it’s wonderful. In the writers room, we said, ‘Hey, what about The Searchers ending?’ So, it’s always a matter of stealing from the best. [Laughs]

  • The decision to shoot the series in New Mexico (due to tax breaks) got Gilligan thinking about Westerns: “Now I absolutely see Breaking Bad as a modern Western,” he said. “A man alone against the horizon, being tested, testing himself, testing his mettle.” (Daily Beast interview)

  • Film critic Andrew Romano elaborates:

    In the final act of “To’hajiilee,”…Walt’s arrest plays out like the conclusion of a classic Hollywood Western. The parched New Mexican moonscape. The good guy’s call for surrender, echoing off the crags. The bad guy coming out with his hands up. Justice itself unfolding, finally, in a slow, almost sanctified sequence, like stations of the cross: “Drop it. Hands up. Walk towards me slowly. Stop. Turn around. Lace your fingers behind your head. Walk backwards to me. Stop. Get on your knees.” And, above all else, the hero’s flinty satisfaction in getting his man…This is followed by the shootout, “a hail of bullets buzzing back and forth.”

  • Breaking Bad and Butch Cassidy are about two men on the run whose fate we know won’t turn out well.

  • There are similarities with The Unforgiven, where William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is drawn back into a life of killing after years of being a pig farmer in order to alleviate his family’s financial troubles. “In the ensuing hostilities, the ruthless demon that laid dormant within Munny is unleashed with a vengeance.” (TVTropes)
  • The plot line is also somewhat a reverse of The Shootist, where a gunman (John Wayne) is trying to die quietly from cancer, and old enemies seek him out to exact revenge. After befriending a widow and her son, whom he tries to set on a straight path, he plans his own death by shootout.
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+1 for answer, but... "Breaking Bad and Butch Cassidy are about two men on the run whose fate we know won’t turn out well". This is the principle of the tragedy itself. Every tragedy has the same concept. –  Leandro 20 hours ago

The existing answers have already provided some very interesting examples and I'd like to add a few small things, even if they're not directly referencing particular movies or not too obvious or relevant. Of course there's all the more general Western themes probably discussed in your links already, the whole New Mexico setting and the many scenes shot in the nature, especially the New Mexico desert, the acoustic guitar music, the great train robbery Walt and his gang are performing in S05E05 ("Dead Freight").


But it's interesting that you bring up the point of "subverting the Western genre", because there is actually a scene in S03E12 ("Half Measure") which, while not referencing a particular movie, plays with one of the most traditional Western scenes ever. At the end of the episode Jesse is facing the two dealers who killed Tomás (Andrea's little brother). The way those two parties quietly approach each other, knowing and determined of what's to come, the closeup shots of them pulling away their jackets and readying their guns, the consecutive shots of Jesse's face getting closer and closer, the wide-angle shot of the opposing gun holders. This whole scene as well as its cinematic presentation very much resembles a classic gun duel showdown as known from virtually every Western ever.

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But all this elaborate and suspenseful construction does not get resovled in a classic Western way of the one duelist who draws quicker winning. No, Walt, being as to this point a complete outsider to the scene handles the situation in a very untraditional but effective way by just crashing the dealers away with his Aztek. If this is not a subversion of one of Western's most innate images, presented in a cinematographic style that very much acknowledges this reference, I don't know what is. (You could say Walt is an intruder to the whole situation, handling it in his own original way, not by strength or experience, but by quick thinking, ruthless initiative and, let's face it, luck, afterall very reminiscent of his overall venture into methamphetamine business.)


Just while thinking about one of Spaghetti Western's greatest examples I stumbled across another possible reference in nothing else than the great finale of the show. At the end of the very last episode S05E16 ("Felina") Walt gets his final revenge on Jack's gang by visting their supposed trap but suprising them with the remote controlled machine gun he has in the trunk of his car, effectively mowing down nearly all of Jack's men.

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This could be seen as a reference to one of the most remarkable scenes in Sergio Corbucci's 1966 classic Speghetti Western Django, where Franco Nero's eponymous protagonist enters a town dragging a coffin. And once he confronts the gang of the man he's seeking revenge to, he opens his coffin and pulls out nothing else than a big-ass machine gun, mowing down most of the gang.

Yet, I'm not sure I'd call that machine gun scene from Django a classic Western scene, since that scene could itself rather be seen as an unconventional subversion of classic Westerns, but well, that's what Spaghetti Westerns generally were afterall, just that they've become "classics" in their own right.


Another reference I found is of a much more far-fetched and rather non-Western nature. But there is the bottle episode S03E10 ("Fly") where Walt is trapped in the lab with a fly and getting increasingly paranoid of its supposed contamination, slowly losing his sanity over it. Call me a lunatic, but this actually reminded me of the famous opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West, where one of the hitmen waiting for Harmonica is repeatedly bugged by a fly and ultimately traps it in the barrel of his gun.

Like the Breaking Bad episode, this scene, albeit being utterly irrelevant for the actual further plot of the movie, has been the source of much discussion and analysis. Decide for yourself, though, if this is a bit too far fetched of a similarity to actually call it a reference to Western cinema.

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