Mood indigo: why is TV looking so blue?

From The Handmaid’s Tale and Mindhunter to Westworld and Riverdale, programme-makers looking to tell tales of darkness and woe are using a blue hue

  • Spoiler alert: this blog gives away plot details for The Handmaid’s Tale, Riverdale and Mindhunter




Kind of Blue: (clockwise from top left) Mindhunter, Westworld, The Handmaid’s Tale and Riverdale



Kind of Blue: (clockwise from top left) Mindhunter, Westworld, The Handmaid’s Tale and Riverdale
Composite: Merrick Morton/Netflix; HBO; Hulu; Bettina Strauss/Netflix;

Television is drowning in a sea of blue and it’s not just the deep hues of Blue Planet II. There has been a recent spate of shows that favour scenes with ethereal blues that glow eerily and make everything look cold and metallic. The Handmaid’s Tale opened with Offred (Elisabeth Moss) taking scant inventory of the small space she is permitted to inhabit, gazing at the shatterproof glass of her bedroom window. Just in case we were not sold on the unremitting desolation of this universe, everything is drenched in a deep, oceanic blue.

In these tempestuous times, it perhaps makes sense that television is well into its blue period. Comedy Central’s new late-capitalist office comedy, Corporate, is drenched in the soulless blues of strip lighting. Most of the interior shots in Westworld were filtered through a crisp and artificial blue. The BBC’s forthcoming psychological thriller Requiem turns up the blue when things get bizarre and macabre.

Bruce Miller’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is back this April for a second season, looks as unremittingly grim as the first, and equally blue. The show’s director of photography, Reed Morano, spoke about the use of colour recently. “While this world that Offred lives in is a bleak one,” he said, “it does feature some pops of colour … inspired by the saturated world of Technicolor.” The colours blue and red are particularly important to the narrative. They are opposites duking it out, with red the colour the handmaids wear and blue the colour the wives wear. In this guise, blue represents the regime – the colour of the sea and sky, horrifying in their immensity – the perfect colour for a totalitarian government.

Certain colours have dominated TV and film for a while now. Oranges and blues are the most popular in film trailers, for example, and in TV the sharp acids of Breaking Bad and the cartoonish yellows of Utopia took the trend to the small screen. Breaking Bad offered a particularly radical use of colour. There were whole subreddits dedicated to unpacking Marie’s preponderance towards purple clothing, for example, and infographics traced the main character’s respective emotional trajectories, according the colours they are seen in. Creator Vincent Gilligan admitted to furnishing each character with a season specific colour palate, describing his obsession with colour as “monomaniacal”. Gilligan’s love of colour-coded messaging extended into Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul, which used red and blue to distinguish between goodies and baddies, according to eagle-eyed fans.

The absurdly blue Riverdale reboots the characters of the iconic Archie comic strips, teenagers living in a sort of camp-meets-Lynch midwestern America. While the show revels in its hokey aesthetic, there is a pervasive darkness; the first season unpacked the murder of the high school’s star athlete, while the current series sees a hooded serial killer offing “sinners”. Riverdale’s teenagers are repeatedly failed by those who are supposed to protect them: parents lie and scheme, teachers seduce students – even maple syrup, the town’s biggest industry, is tainted by drug trafficking and filicide. It is not just separation anxiety that pervades, but a fundamental existential crisis. And each rupture in the cosy fabric of the town is compacted by its angsty royal blues: gloomy and collegial navies lend a feeling of irreality and doom, ramped up kitsch and desperation. The whole town is suffused in an eternal winter.




Requiem ... Matilda (Lydia Wilson).

Requiem … Matilda (Lydia Wilson). Photograph: Adrian Rogers/BBC/New Pictures/Adrian Rogers

Blue also abounds in David Fincher’s serial killer drama Mindhunter. Jonathan Groff’s preppy, hubristic FBI agent Holden Ford’s interest in criminal psychology sees him drafted by the weathered Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) to travel across the country, interviewing serial killers and counselling police departments on investigative techniques. The show is bathed in swampy, greenish blues, perhaps suggesting that you can’t you be mired in the filth without getting some of it on you. The colours are particularly cool during the finale, in which Ford has a panic attack and collapses in a hospital corridor after getting too near to real-life killer Ed Kemper. It’s the closest the show comes to catharsis, with the muted cerulean and pale hues taking on a new meaning of healing and redemption.

Blue isn’t just associated with dread and hopelessness – it can be cadaverous and frozen – but according to colour psychology, it invokes feelings of calmness and peace. In Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets, a poetic meditation on blue, she wrangles with the colour’s conflicting implications – both serenity and sadness. “When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light,” she wrote. Let’s hope that television has reason to thaw out and brighten up soon.