It began as a mere coincidence in 1972’s The Godfather — the set designer peppered several scenes with oranges to give the somberly dressed sets some color — but because everyone seemed to die with an orange (or oranges) in sight, the coincidence took on new meaning.
Since then, the symbolism of an orange has become loaded, as everyone from Vince Gilligan to Seth MacFarlane has used oranges — and the color orange — to foreshadow death in their films and television shows. It’s why in this week’s episode of Mad Men, which sees Roger Sterling juggling oranges and the men of Sterling Cooper and Partners fighting over a Sunkist account, that we shouldn’t take those scenes lightly. Oranges signal the arrival of impending disaster. It’s possible that Roger’s orange juggling trick merely foreshadowed the events at the end of the episode — Sally catching Don “comforting Mrs. Rosen” — or it could be foreshadowing a death by the end of the season.
I’m not suggesting anything specific here, mind you, or a grand theory: I’m just saying that a man like Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner doesn’t introduce oranges randomly and without reason. There’s a long history of oranges being used to foreshadow disastrous events, and Weiner is well aware of that — he is, after all, one of the leading abusers of this trope.
Here’s just a sampling of the instances in which oranges have been used to foreshadow death and disaster in films (spoilers for lots of things you should have probably already seen by now).
Children of Men — Just before the car is attacked, Miriam peels an orange in the back seat. Just before the refugee camp falls into chaos, Kee and Marichka share orange slices over the baby.
Requiem for a Dream — The man peeling the orange (and the orange truck) in the scene where the characters go to receive a new shipment of drugs not only indicates their next destination – Florida – but also serves to indicate disaster.
Point Break — When Johnny and Angelo are staking out the bank, a man walks past and offers them oranges. This is followed by Johnny hurting his knee and many people being shot.