Watching an episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad causes the body to go into survival mode as if imminent danger is lurking in a nearby closet – causing one’s heart rate to quicken, mouth to become dry and aqueous humour in a person’s eyeballs to bubble from the heat radiating from the performance by Bryan Cranston. Many metaphors have been used to describe the journey of Walter White from docile and sickly high school chemistry teacher to ruthless methamphetamine drug overlord, but creator Vince Gilligan has been consistent in his assertion that he wanted to take the character from “Mr. Chips to Scarface” – referring to two title characters with two drastically different approaches to life. As the finale approaches and devoted watchers dissect each and every detail already shown as if the prestige portion of a magic trick performed by the brilliant writing staff, many are committed to the theory that everything we need to know about what will ultimately happen to Walter White has already been presented for us. Whether you’re one to believe that the monster always existed inside of Walt, or that his cancer diagnosis was but the first in a series of life-induced lobotamies that spurred the change, one thing has remained completely consistent throughout the five seasons of Breaking Bad: his trusty Clarks Wallabees.
Wallabees have never gone away – partially the reason why Breaking Bad costumer Kathleen Detoro chose them for Walt – but the shoes have seen a certain cultural resurgence in the last few years. Inspired by a moccasin made by a company called Sioux, it was developed in 1961 at the Clarks owned Padmore & Barnes factory in County Kilkenny, Ireland whose crepe soles – made from latex tapped from the para rubber tree – are entirely natural and sustainable. Clarks’ mission statement further cements the legacy and staying power of the shoe by proclaiming, “Clarks Originals are of the moment. Always have been. Always will be.” It seems almost surreal that when Wayne Hemingway, designer and co-founder of the UK’s Red or Dead, said of Clarks Wallabees back in 1997, “There’ll be a huge move towards a geography teacher look. With beards and everything.” Geography and chemistry; the intersection of direction and explosiveness.
Having been the key ingredient much like Methylamine during high-profile collaborations in the past with the likes of Supreme, uniform experiment, fragment design, Oi Polloi, Loopwheeler, Stussy XXX and Hobo, it’s clear that old world aesthetics with slight trend updates like colorway changes, debossed crocodile patterns, and two-tone construction make the shoe as relevant as ever.
“Walter White was the most bland, milquetoast name conceivable,” says costumer Kathleen Detoro who spent four years in charge of Walter’s look on Breaking Bad and who holds a BFA from the Pratt Institute and studied at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “His palette was constructed starting with beige and eventually ending up in the symbolic green shirt, tan flying pants – complete as always with the tighty whitie underwear and Wallabees. At the end of the pilot, Walt is the most alive he has ever been. For us, green symbolized life force. I only offered Vince two shoe choices for Walt; the Clark Sand Wallabees and the Clark Sand Desert Boot. He wrote the script and was directing the pilot and loved the Wallabee. Such a classic. Off we went to the desert. Bryan never resisted my choice. I explained the entire color palette and concept to him and he jumped right in. I brought vintage Wallabees from Sony costume and new Wallabees from Clarks. He liked having new shoes.” During stunt sequences, up to twelve pairs of Wally’s would be on hand – all with stock laces – and Gilligan and Detoro would often be infuriated if the wrong color pair showed up with the wrong outfit.
Whether it was a conscious decision or more of a coping mechanism to deal with the threat that Tuco presented during season one, the creation of “Heisenberg” – an homage to German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg – began not only Walter’s emotional pilgrimage into his so-called “blue period,” but an onscreen physical change thanks to a lightbulb smooth dome and goatee. The cancer attempted to ravage his body and financial livelihood – Heisenberg was his self-reflective chemotherapy.
“I think that as a character, Walt has kept one trusty thing – his shoes,” says Detoro. “It’s like the one semblance of who he was and what he trusts that remains the same. If it wasn’t Wallabees, it would be Oxfords and his windbreaker. Something remains the same. It also embodies Walt’s earlier era of his youth. For many actors, costume is the starting point in becoming the character. For some it rounds out the character. Sometimes the costume informs the audience of a mood through the use of color or style. Often I will introduce a character with certain color palette that I can manipulate through the story arc. With Walt, he starts out very beige and neutral and then became more alive with color (green) – then became darker ( blacks and greys ) with the introduction of “Heisenberg”.”
At the very core of Breaking Bad is a variety of unsavory characters who all resort to various forms of evil behavior in order to achieve certain goals – some more rooted in human desire and others more reserved for sociopaths. But for each, a certain semblance of their own personal purity follows them throughout their tenure – whether physical attributes or more esoteric belief systems. For Jesse Pinkman it was the drugs. For Skylar White it was normalcy. For Hank Schrader and Saul Goodman it was doing their jobs on the fringe of the justice system. For Gustavo Fring it was revenge for the murder of a partner. For Mike Ehrmantraut it was his granddaughter. And then there’s Walter Hartwell White and his Clarks. He knowingly chose to share his life with a murderous alter ego who just so happened to fancy the same kind of shoes. Why? You can’t really understand another man’s experience until you have walked a mile in his shoes. Much like it’s said that the “Mona Lisa’s” eyes will follow a person no matter where they stand in the Louvre, Walter White’s footprints into Hell will follow him in whether he lives or dies.
Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based writer who can be found @smart_alec_