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Car Casting: Breaking Bad

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“It’s a car that jumps up and down,” says Breaking Bad character Hank Schraeder in an early episode of the series, while he and his partner are searching for an abandoned low rider in the desert. Few TV shows in history seem to have given as much thought to the cars they use as Breaking Bad, and that attention to detail made the series feel all the more vibrant—like its characters were real people whose personalities were reflected in their car of choice. Breaking Bad didn’t just do a good job of matching the right car to the right character, it also picked some interesting cars in general, giving the car-related scenes in the show just a little bit of extra visual flair.

Set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the show’s creators were wise to put some emphasis on cars. In this part of the country driving from place to place across the wide open landscape is a way of life, and used car buyers often prefer to buy cars from the southwest thanks to the more mild winter weather there. Car casting is an actual job in movies in TVs, called Transportation Coordinator, these individuals are responsible for procuring any vehicles a production needs both behind the scenes and on camera, including the cars driven by a production’s characters.

For Breaking Bad, transportation coordinator Dennis Milliken helped bring the vision of series creator Vince Gilligan to life. As he said in an interview with Jalopnik “I have to proudly admit that the cars on Breaking Bad have Vince Gilligan’s fingerprints all over them.” In the interview, Milliken explains how he would work from the show’s scripts to try and find the vehicles that lined up with what was written. “While many of the cars that made it on screen came from my input or the input of my department,” he said in the interview, “all decisions that lead to what ended up on the screen was 100% Vince.”

Although fans of the show agree that the car choices were spot-on, TV is, at the end of the day, a business, and some decisions have to be made with finances in mind. That said, Chrysler was a major sponsor of Breaking Bad and a good deal of the cars seen on screen throughout the series are made by Chrysler brands. 

Although Breaking Bad was a show that revolved around a shadowy world populated by extraordinary figures, it was also in many ways a show about very normal people—people you could find in any American town living ordinary lives, and how thin the line could sometimes be between ordinary and extraordinary. One of the things that kept the show most grounded in reality even as its plot spiraled toward ever-increasing highs was the cars we saw on screen, the vast majority of which were normal ones you could see driving down just about any highway. Here are some of the most inspired car choices throughout the series.

Walter White’s 2004 Pontiac Aztek

Has a single car ever been through as much as Walt’s Pontiac Aztek? This car was hit by airplane debris, had a giant hunk of cement thrown through its windshield, ran over and mortally wounded two drug dealers, and got t-boned when Walt intentionally drove it into oncoming traffic, and after some repairs it was still road ready. The mechanic who fixes the car the last time speculated that Walt could expect to get a few hundred thousand more miles out of it before he decided to sell.

The Aztek is perfect for Walter White in many ways. When we first meet him, Mr. White is a man with a humble life who dreams of having much more. The Pontiac Aztek was never especially high-priced, rather it was an affordable and practical vehicle with ambitions, reflected in its unique design, of something better. The car’s paint job was actually a custom color made for the show. Every character on Breaking Bad was associated with a specific color and Walt’s was green, so his car had to match. Aztek’s were often ridiculed when they hit the market, but the people who owned them stuck by them just like Walt does throughout most of the series.

Skyler White’s 1991 Jeep Grand Wagoneer

As with Walt’s car of choice, Skyler drives a car that is on paper not anything special, but undeniably eye-catching and interesting. Her red-and-brown Grand Wagoneer with wood trim definitely stands out as a well-designed ride. Her driving an older car is notable in some ways—we might speculate that Skyler has been driving it since before her and Walt were together, and thus that she has had to wait longer to upgrade to a newer car—and this large SUV-style vehicle is also somehow reflective of her independent spirit. It is also very much a car rooted to its geographic setting. Its very name evokes wagon trains rolling across the open landscape.

The Jeep Grand Wagoneer, first introduced in 1963 as the Wagoneer, is a landmark vehicle in automotive history, heralding the luxury SUV segment. Its transition to the “Grand Wagoneer” nameplate in 1984 marked a significant evolution in luxury, power, and off-road capability. This vehicle combined rugged utility with upscale features unheard of in other 4x4s at the time, such as air conditioning, a plush interior, and even a sound system. Its distinctive wood paneling became an iconic design element, symbolizing both luxury and adventure. The Grand Wagoneer enjoyed a long production run until 1991, earning a loyal following and a legacy for pioneering the concept of the premium SUV. After a long hiatus, Jeep announced the return of the Grand Wagoneer as a concept vehicle in 2020, aiming to recapture the luxury market.

Hank Schraeder: 2006 Jeep Commander

Another Jeep, and thus another Chrysler, appears in the form of Hank Schraeder’s Jeep Commander. There is no question that throughout the series Hank sees himself as a man’s man. Hank serves as a reference point for Walt’s masculinity, one that the latter man tries to measure himself against on multiple occasions. Underneath Hank is more complicated. He’s a fan of minerals who suffers from PTSD-related flashbacks and has a wife who compulsively shoplifts. None of these things are marks against his character, they rather expose that he isn’t quite the Dirty Harry-esque bad boy cop he perhaps imagines himself as, and true to form, his car isn’t either.

The Jeep Commander, introduced by Jeep in 2006, marked the brand’s return to the full-size SUV segment. With a design that harked back to classic Jeep styling cues, the Commander offered a boxy, rugged appearance that was both distinctive and reminiscent of the brand’s heritage. It was notable for its three-row seating configuration, accommodating up to seven passengers, which made it the largest vehicle in Jeep’s lineup at the time. Engine options ranged from a V6 to more powerful V8s, including a HEMI option, catering to those seeking performance alongside utility. Despite its capability and Jeep’s legendary off-road prowess, the Commander faced criticism for its limited interior space, particularly in the third row and cargo area, and its fuel consumption. Production of the Jeep Commander was discontinued after the 2010 model year, partly due to declining sales and the shifting preferences of consumers towards more fuel-efficient and smaller SUVs.

Jesse Pinkman’s 1982 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 1986 Toyota Tercel, and 1981 Chevrolet El Camino

Although Walt pointedly changes vehicles at a certain point in the show (arguably just when his character truly begins leaning into his downward spiral), Jesse’s cars also communicate a great deal about his journey as a character. He begins with the comparatively flashy Monte Carlo, complete with vanity license plates—all of it is a facade, an image he is trying hard to project to the outside world more than a reflection of his true self. After a close call with Tuco, Jesse is forced to downgrade. What’s a cash-strapped drug dealer to do when in need of new transport?

What’s brilliant about the Toyota Tercel is that it could plausibly be bought on the cheap, it’s basically a practical vehicle, but it’s still undeniably got quirks, for better or worse. It’s the kind of car your wacky friend in high school might have driven, and that’s what makes it perfect for the EDM-listening, video-game playing, guy-in-search-of-his-identity Jesse Pinkman. 

The El Camino is of course not chosen by Jesse, but a convenient way for him to finally escape his imprisonment at the end of the series. If things had ended there, there wouldn’t be much more to say about this car, but his experiences both as a captive and as a man on the run shown in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story, end up making this car a symbol for the final chapter in Jesse’s story. Jesse was always basically a good guy at heart, mixed up and constantly making bad decisions, but trying to do better along the way. In the end he is rewarded by the loyalty of his friends who trade the conspicuous and actively pursued El Camino Jesse is driving at the start of the film for their own cars, with Skinny Pete volunteering to take the fall when the cops finally track it down. The El Camino shifts from a symbol of Jesse’s torment to concrete proof that he had people who cared about him all along—a metaphor for his ultimate redemption.

Honorable Mentions:  Saul Goodman’s 1997 Cadillac de Ville and Mike Ehrmantraut’s 1988 Chrysler Fifth Avenue

Both of these cars said a lot about the men who drove them. Saul’s car was the perfect thing for a shady lawyer who isn’t necessarily rolling in it but wants to present the image of success to the outside world. Mike’s Fifth Avenue is practical, austere, and somehow in great shape despite its age, which also happens to perfectly describe his character in the show.