Note: Major spoilers only for Breaking Bad, mild for all else.
I don’t blame you if you were asking yourself, “What’s next, the dollhouses from six movies make symbolic sense?”
The swimming pool might sound like a mundane idea of being a metaphor for something deep. However, I do not have a mind poignant enough to look for said deep comparisons.
But in three shows I’ve seen, the swimming pool, like a number of other random things, is used as a catalyst for character development.
The three shows span 20 years between themselves. From 1999, we have The Sopranos: the motherlode when it comes to the longform TV drama. The show is known to have changed much of what we know about modern writing. Complex characters, deep moral conflicts, and issues that were hardly tackled before at a large scale – the taboo around mental health discussions, fragile masculinity, old age, religion – made this show so revered as it is today. However, what’s incredibly funny is that one of the first frames was with, you guessed it, a swimming pool in the focus.
The show starts with Tony Soprano discovering that there are ducks in his backyard swimming pool. He’s a New Jersey mobster, so he has a lot of money and property. The pool is an exemplification of wealth, at the very least. Tony wades into the pool in his bathrobe to swim with the ducks. He goes to feed them, and they’re trying to develop wings.
It’s a bizarre sight: a mobster who’s fully clothed dives right into his pool to feed some birds. One would think he was going a little insane; at least some in his family did. Soon enough, the ducks leave after developing wings. Tony sees that as him losing his family, and hence gets his first panic attack, thereby kickstarting his therapy sessions with Dr Jennifer Melfi.
In retrospect, the viewer understands that Tony feels like he’s drowning: he has a family to tend to (one that constantly likes infighting), multiple illegitimate businesses to look after, incorrigible people to deal with, and an ailing mother who refuses to go to a nursing home. The swimming pool imagery makes more sense when one looks back at all that Tony Soprano has to face in his life. On top of all that, if any of his mobster friends found out he was seeing a psychiatrist, he’d be chided for being too weak.
The second show started in 2008, and much like The Sopranos, it doesn’t waste a lot of time showing you the house layout. However, nobody would call Walter White’s family upper-class. Breaking Bad, as opposed to the mob drama, was about how desperation leads a commoner, who feels like he hasn’t received justice in life, to ways of crime. The first notable usage that comes to mind is how, throughout Season 2, we’re shown a pink teddy bear in the water at the start of every episode.
Eventually, we find out that that’s debris from a plane crash indirectly caused by Walt (I would rather not say how). There is also the death of Gus’ friend Max, right by a swimming pool. It was a moment where Gus, who is otherwise a cold, ruthless meth distributor, was humanised with backstory. Gus returns the favour in style by killing Don Eladio, the man responsible, beside his own pool.
One can still call these moments mere indulgences of creator Vince Gilligan, and nothing else. However, the greatest moment in the show that involves the White family pool is Skyler White immersing herself in a possible suicide attempt in Fifty-One, the fourth episode from the fifth season. She was done with being complicit in Walt’s wrongdoings for the sake of the family. She had seen through her husband’s “I’m doing it for us” facade. The swimming pool becomes a placeholder for waste, death, and guilt in the show, if not a direct symbol.
Also read: The Curse of Binge Watching
The third show, BoJack Horseman, shows you a pool that overlooks Hollywood in the intro sequence itself. But people hardly swim in the pool, which is true for the two shows above as well. The pool has often been a source for BoJack’s worst moments; notably, crashing his car into it in a drunken bender. He always sees himself as someone who will eventually overdose on alcohol and pills, or alcohol and heroin, and like many before him, he will become unconscious and drown himself.
Like much of his riches – his grand mansion, or his sleek car – the pool represents a maddening sense of depression and self-loathing. There’s an element of nothingness to these material items: you bought them with your hard-earned money, but they don’t evoke positivity in you. There is also a mock copy of Portrait of an Artist, by David Hockney, where one figure is looking at another swimming. In the show, BoJack is both figures.
Swimming as an activity is something that you might like to do for a prolonged period of time. BoJack has extreme tendencies to go into spirals of self-wallowing, as if he likes to indulge in them in his past time. The imagery reminds me of the song “Swimming Pools” by Kendrick Lamar; metaphorically, the pool in the song has liquor instead of water. Unfortunately, the water in the show is as toxic to BoJack as the alcohol.
Water as a commodity is a symbol of quiet contemplation.
You take your time to reflect upon yourself, and swim your troubles away. But these characters don’t like to see a mirror image of themselves. For these shows, the pool represents not much beyond an empty hearse.