Almost a decade after it went off the air, Breaking Bad is still hailed as one of the greatest TV shows ever made and arguably the pinnacle of the so-called “Golden Age of Television.” Across five seasons, the series charted Walter White’s haunting transformation from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher into a ruthless drug lord.
Series creator Vince Gilligan is a noted cinephile, and as a result, he filled Breaking Bad with references to classic movies. From recycling The Godfather’s orange symbolism to borrowing Reservoir Dogs’ “Mr. White” character name, Gilligan packed Breaking Bad with more movie references than Family Guy.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The names of Breaking Bad’s lead characters Walter White and Jesse Pinkman appear to be a reference to Mr. White and Mr. Pink, two of the color-coded gangsters featured in Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature Reservoir Dogs.
Like Mr. White, Walt is a father figure to one of his fellow criminals. And like Mr. Pink, Jesse is the last outlaw left standing after the explosive gun-toting finale.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
When Hank takes Walt on a ride-along to a drug bust in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, he hums “Ride of the Valkyries.” This is a reference to the iconic sequence in Apocalypse Now in which U.S. troops blare it from the speakers on their choppers as they bomb a Vietnamese village full of terrified civilians.
There’s a biting irony in Francis Ford Coppola’s use of “Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now — and, by extension, Vince Gilligan’s use of it in Breaking Bad — because its composer Richard Wagner was a favorite of Adolf Hitler’s.
The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948)
Vince Gilligan was heavily inspired by the themes of John Huston’s classic adventure movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in constructing Breaking Bad. Both stories share the same message about the corrupting power of wealth. Both Fred C. Dobbs and Walter White become dangerously greedy as soon as they get a taste of financial prosperity.
In addition to this thematic influence, there’s a direct parallel between Dobbs, Howard, and Curtin discussing Cody’s fate in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Walt, Jesse, and Mike discussing Todd’s fate in the “Buyout” episode of Breaking Bad.
Star Wars (1977)
Jesse’s nerdy friends Badger and Skinny Pete littered Breaking Bad with references to science fiction. They primarily debate about various issues related to Star Trek, but they’re also fans of the other Star franchise, Star Wars.
In the Breaking Bad episode “Kafkaesque,” Jesse wonders if there’s any point to being an outlaw if there’s no avoiding adult responsibilities. But Badger comforts him by saying that even the most feared outlaw in a galaxy far, far away had responsibilities: “Darth Vader had responsibilities. He was so responsible for the Death Star.”
The French Connection (1971)
Hank says that when he catches Heisenberg, he wants to wave at him “like Popeye Doyle.” This is a reference to William Friedkin’s gritty neo-noir The French Connection, in which Gene Hackman’s detective character Popeye politely waves at French heroin smuggler Alain Charnier after finally tracking him down.
Popeye’s relentless pursuit of Charnier in Friedkin’s classic cat-and-mouse thriller is comparable to Hank’s relentless pursuit of Heisenberg — except Charnier didn’t turn out to be Popeye’s brother-in-law.
The Caine Mutiny (1954)
In the Breaking Bad episode “Madrigal,” Mike can be seen watching the Humphrey Bogart-starring 1954 classic The Caine Mutiny on TV. This is more than just an Easter egg — it symbolizes the current stage of Walt’s arc.
The movie’s story of a mentally unstable U.S. Naval captain being relieved of his command by a concerned first officer is comparable to Mike and Jesse challenging Walt’s leadership when his “empire business” hubris becomes too much.
What made Breaking Bad such a groundbreaking series was its focus on change. Whereas most TV shows leave their characters in the same place for as long as possible to keep the episodes coming, Breaking Bad set out to chart its lead character’s transformation.
Vince Gilligan famously planned Walt’s arc to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. Toward the end of the show’s run, when Walt is in full Scarface mode, he watches the violent Brian De Palma-helmed gangster epic on TV with Walt Jr. and Holly.
Movie references are a huge part of Jimmy McGill’s performance as Saul Goodman. A big chunk of Saul’s quippy one-liners in Breaking Bad are movie quotes.
When Saul sees the horrific injuries sustained by Jesse after Hank beats him up, he jokingly references Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar-winning boxing drama Rocky: “Yo, Adrian, Rocky called — he wants his face back.”
The Godfather (1972)
In The Godfather trilogy, Francis Ford Coppola famously uses oranges to symbolize death. If an orange shows up in a Godfather movie, like when Vito puts orange peel over his teeth to amuse his grandson, it means somebody is about to die (or, at the very least, somebody will try to kill them).
Breaking Bad uses the same symbolism to foreshadow shocking events. When Ted tries to flee from Huell and Kuby, there’s a bowl of oranges on the table he hits his head on. When Walt returns home after his crimes have been revealed, his stunned neighbor Carol drops a bag of oranges in her driveway.
The Searchers (1956)
In the series finale, when Walt returns to Uncle Jack’s compound to exact brutal revenge on the neo-Nazi gang, he intends to kill Jesse along with them. However, when he sees the state that Jesse is in, he changes his mind and dives on his old protégé to protect him from the gunfire.
Gilligan told The Hollywood Reporter that this ending was inspired by John Ford’s seminal western The Searchers: “John Wayne is chasing after Natalie Wood’s character; she’s been taken by the Comanches, and he keeps saying, ‘When I find her, I’m gonna kill her.’ When he finds her, he sweeps her up and says, ‘Let’s go home.’”