For our final Issue Eight teaser, Anthony Morris ponders what a character’s headwear says about them. If a teaser just isn’t enough, you can find the full text of Morris’ essay and more on our website in the coming weeks. For instant gratification, why not pre-order a copy of the latest issue?
In the golden age of the Hollywood Western, you could tell which side of the law a character was on by the colour of his hat. Good guys wore white hats; bad guys wore black. Today, in the golden age of television drama, such simplistic moral signifiers are, well, old hat. Audiences aren’t asked to cheer on the good guys and boo the bad – series like Dexter and Deadwood, The Sopranos and Sons of Anarchy present thugs and killers as their leads, with the good guys placed strategically as obstacles at best, and as victims at worst.
So when Breaking Bad – a show hailed as a subtle and complex drama unafraid to pose profound questions – has protagonist Walter White (Bryan Cranston) putting on a black hat, it’s played as a bit of a joke. He’s trying to convince the junkies and drug dealers of his New Mexico town that he isn’t just some nerdy high-school science teacher. The joke is that he is a nerdy science teacher; the black hat is merely a costume.
Meanwhile, on Justified – a show as nuanced and gripping as Breaking Bad, if less critically acclaimed – US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) wears a creamy-white Stetson cowboy hat on the job. In the 21st century this is unusual enough to attract attention, even in rural America (Givens’ beat is Eastern Kentucky). It may not be a disguise as such, but there’s a clear sense here – as there is in Breaking Bad whenever White’s black hat comes out – that this is a man playing a role; and it’s one that is bound to be subverted.
Givens sees himself as an old-fashioned, straight-shooting (often literally) good guy. White, on the other hand, wants people to fear him, as they would the villain in an old Western. In both cases, of course, real life (and both shows largely aspire to realism) isn’t that simple. Law enforcement today isn’t like a Western where the sheriff rides in and cleans up the town; Walter White is a solid citizen play-acting at being a bad guy.
But the closer you look at both shows, the less of a joke their leads’ headgear becomes. Past the layers of irony and comedy, these protagonists’ hats mean exactly what they would mean in a Western: for all their moral complexity, Breaking Bad and Justified ultimately present viewers with a world populated by clear-cut good and bad guys.