The sixth and final season of AMC’s prestige drama series Better Call Saul, the prequel to the award-winning Breaking Bad, dropped on Netflix back in April, and a wristwatch that appears prominently in the series finale has caught the attention of avid small-screen watch spotters. Some of them may remember — while others may have missed — seeing the watch for the first time in Breaking Bad, where it played an even more significant symbolic role in the storyline of its owner, Walter White, played by multiple Emmy winning lead actor Bryan Cranston. Here is the story behind Walter White’s watch and why it is so much more than just a prop.
When we first meet Walter White, in the premiere episode of Breaking Bad on January 20, 2008, he is a somewhat pitiable figure: an underpaid, underappreciated high school chemistry teacher who drives a Pontiac Aztek (remember those?), wears a cheap digital watch, and struggles to support his small family, which includes caring for a son with cerebral palsy. In that same pilot episode, Walter learns he has terminal cancer — a diagnosis that triggers the desperate and increasingly ruthless quest for illicit riches and power that defines the arc of the series, as Walter evolves from hapless, nondescript educator to the crystal meth kingpin of Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Series creator Vince Gilligan has described its high concept as “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.”)
The first watch that we saw Walter wearing is a fairly humble one, a Casio calculator watch that sharp-eyed viewers have identified as a Ref. CA-53W from the 1980s. The multifunctional quartz digital timepiece is certainly an appropriate enough choice for a science teacher of limited means, and it remains on Walt’s wrist intermittently throughout the first four-plus seasons of Breaking Bad. While a pre-owned model can be had for slightly more than $20 on Amazon, the watch remains a cult classic with retro nerd appeal, its defining feature being the eight-digit calculator function that enables addition, subtraction, multiplication and division operations right on the tiny LCD screen.
By the fifth and final season, Walt’s fortunes have taken a turn, and the trajectory of his burgeoning criminal career is on the upswing. His cancer is in remission, he has amassed a multimillion-dollar fortune through a series of schemes and murderous machinations, and in his secret alter ego of “Heisenberg,” he is poised to seize control of a vast criminal empire in the American Southwest. For his 51st birthday (“Fifty-One,” Episode 50, screen shot above), his young meth-cooking partner and former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) gives him a somewhat lavish gift: a brand-new TAG Heuer Monaco watch, which has been widely identified as a Ref. CAW2111.FC6183, equipped with TAG Heuer’s Calibre 12 movement. Walter eagerly ditches the cheap, Japanese-made digital watch for the collectible, historically significant Swiss-made chronograph; in the same episode, he abandons his much-maligned Pontiac SUV in favor of a sleek new Chrysler 300 SRT8. Both are an outward expression of his new identity as a powerful, confident crime lord supplanting the meek, cautious rule-follower that we see in the pilot episode. The closing scene of the episode homes in on the watch, ticking on Walt’s nightstand as if counting down to some ominous event.
Of course, as those schooled in watch and movie history know, the Monaco (originally the Heuer Monaco; TAG was added to the company name in the ‘80s) had already achieved pop cultural icon status decades before it became a touchstone of the so-called “Heisenberg-verse.” Named after the Monaco Grand Prix by its legendary creator, founding family scion and motorsport enthusiast Jack Heuer, the original model (Ref. 1133, above) debuted in 1969 as the first wristwatch with a square case that was also water-resistant, as well as one of the first chronograph watches to be equipped with a self-winding mechanical movement, namely the Caliber 11 that was jointly developed by watch companies Heuer Breitling, and Büren, and movement manufacturer Dubois Dépraz. (With Zenith releasing the El Primero and Seiko releasing its Caliber 6139 in that same year, 1969 was a big year for self-winding chronograph calibers.) Its chronograph pushers were placed on the right side of the case while the crown was positioned unconventionally on the left.
Two years after its debut, legendary actor and “King of Cool” Steve McQueen (1930 - 1980) famously wore the Heuer Monaco in the 1971 movie Le Mans. In the film, McQueen played a driver named Michael Delaney, partly inspired by real-life Swiss motorsport legend Jo Siffert (McQueen’s driving coach for his role), and drove a Porsche 917 race car, which initiated an ongoing partnership between TAG Heuer and Porsche AG that continues to this day. Steve McQueen, usually in his Heuer-branded racing regalia from the film, continues to appear in advertisements for the TAG Heuer Monaco, a watch that still speaks to auto racing enthusiasts.
The watch that Bryan Cranston wore as Walter White in Breaking Bad Season Five is a model that very closely approximated the look of the original “McQueen Monaco” from 1969, with a 39mm brushed steel case, a blue main dial with two soft-edged square subdials at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock, a date window at 6 o’clock, and a red central seconds hand. The most significant difference between the original Caliber 11 model and its contemporary descendants is the placement of the crown on the right of the case, between the rectangular chronograph pushers, rather than by itself on the left. The Caliber 12 inside the case used the self-winding ETA 2829-A2 as a base, with a Dubois-Depraz 2008 module added for the chronograph functionality; more recent versions use the Sellita SW300-1 as a base. Since 2017, this Sellta-based movement has been largely supplanted by TAG Heuer’s in-house Caliber 02, but Monaco models with Caliber 12 are still available at an MSRP of $6,050. Incidentally, TAG Heuer has confirmed that it provided the watch to the Breaking Bad showrunners on request, but it was not used in a product placement arrangement.
Several episodes after Walt receives the Monaco for his birthday, in Episode 54, “Gliding Over All,” the watch and its built-in chronograph function play an even more active role in the story. In a meticulously calculated scheme to eliminate multiple potential witnesses scattered across several prisons — all within the space of two minutes — Walt uses the stopwatch to time the executions. The scene shifts back and forth between the brutal killings and close-ups of the Monaco’s dial as the red central seconds hand ticks away over the blue dial, with Walter watching it patiently from his living room. A great deal of dramatic weight is given to the last shot of the sequence, in which Walt presses the pusher on the side of the case to bring the seconds hand to a momentous stop at 12 o’clock to mark the ten successful killings in the allotted two minutes.
In the series finale (Episode 62, “Felina”), we see one more lingering shot of the Monaco, as Walter, now a hunted fugitive in hiding, leaves it behind on top of a gas station payphone booth before embarking on the revenge-and-rescue mission that will lead to his ultimate downfall in a blazing gunfight. Why he abandons the watch, which had obviously become special to him, is never made clear in the storyline, but Gilligan has pointed out that from a technical standpoint, it was necessary for continuity: Walt is not wearing the watch in a flash-forward scene from a previous episode. Cranston had a different interpretation, telling an interviewer that his character divested himself of the timepiece because “He knew he was not going to survive beyond that day, and he was leaving everything behind… it was leaving the past. Ridding himself of any talisman that put him back to who he was at the beginning of the show or any association with that.”
That is the last anyone sees of Walter White’s prized Monaco until the finale of Better Call Saul (Episode 63, “Saul Gone”), a series that takes place before and during the events of Breaking Bad and centers around the story of Walt’s corrupt attorney and partner-in-crime, Saul Goodman, aka Jimmy McGill (played by Bob Odenkirk in both series). Cranston returns for a cameo appearance in a much-analyzed scene in that final episode, in which Walt and Saul are sequestered in a basement bunker, awaiting transport to new locations and new assumed identities out of reach of the law after the collapse of Walt’s illicit empire. Saul initiates a conversation about what each would do if they had a time machine, which Walt astutely interprets as actually a conversation about past regrets. The Monaco wristwatch is in the scene, sitting on a bedside table while Walt is fixing a broken water heater. Walt’s meaningful glance at it during the conversation indicates that the past regret haunting him at that moment was his betrayal and abandonment of the former partner who gifted it to him — Pinkman, who at that point in the timeline is a prisoner of a vicious neo-Nazi gang that had clashed with Walt and Jesse in the meth business. It was an appropriate final bow for a timepiece that had become such a totem of the complex, central relationship between the two characters, as well as symbolic of recurring themes in the Breaking Bad universe.
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This is me reading too much into it, but I thought the choice of watch was perfect even down to the color. The red seconds hand counting down on the blue dial was, to me, in a way representing the blood he was willing to shed for his blue meth. Anyone else have a similar take?