The Prosaic Relics of Breaking Bad and Fan Culture
This week an anonymous bidder secured one of the most fascinating relics, a material thing evoking the distinctive power of a venerated figure: Walter White’s cotton briefs. The Breaking Bad anti-hero is a dark, vengeful character with whom we uncomfortably sympathize, so it might seem somewhat surprising that his underwear and many more series items are in demand. Yet Walter White is compelling because for many people his tale brazenly questions universal morals. In the desperate face of impending death, Walter White lives in a world in which good and bad ideals become clumsy and unsettling abstractions. Many of us are fascinated by the resolve of an individual acting with their own sense of honor and morality, even if his choices are often problematic if not evil.
Walter White’s narrative has spawned a far-reaching fandom that inevitably reaches into the material world. Few things in Breaking Bad could be more iconic—or more personal—than Walter White’s cotton briefs. As part of an auction of Breaking Bad items, 109 people bid for the underwear that eventually sold for $9900. Much of the press on the auction was reduced to shallow curiosity over the attraction of Walt’s ill-fitting underwear or the cost of Hank’s rose quartz and Jesse’s DEA mug. Strangely enough, nearly no press expressed any surprise that underwear and television series props would be so expensive and desirable.
Few observers have really questioned why fandoms seek such prosaic things linked to fictional performances. The prosaic tighty whiteys are a relic of sorts, a material thing associated with a venerated figure. The most powerful of all relics are those things associated with the body of a saint, such as literal human remains or an item of clothing touched by the figure. Those things are invested with the symbolic power of the venerated figure who once held them, focusing secular narratives as well as triggering deeper philosophical reflections raised by the lives of saints.
A relic is often a body of a saint, but the Breaking Bad auction and the trappings of Walter White cast a relic in somewhat broader terms. On the one hand, the underwear relic is perhaps invested with symbolism that is a springboard for self-reflection; perhaps the display of the underwear can promote discussion on the philosophical threads of Walter White’s life. On the other hand, though, Walt’s tired underwear may simply have been reduced to commodities that remain utterly mundane advertisements for the series. The only discussion Walter’s underwear may spark could end up being in a restaurant where they end up alongside a scatter of popular cultural things decorating the walls.
Walter White’s underwear are all of those things: that is, they are iconic representations of the chemistry teacher’s embrace of evil; they are relics that evoke a complex moral narrative framed by Walt’s story; and they are commodities sold to milk profit from the series. Perhaps part of the underwear’s allure is that they are among the most mundane of material things: white cotton briefs are utterly commonplace, even leveling things. Relics often are comparably leveling mechanisms that underscore our commonalities with venerated people: real bodies, places in which cherished events occurred, things that person had in their life, and so on.
Fandoms’ efforts to secure such things and visit such places to better understand the subject of their fandom are quite commonplace. This week, for instance, a set of 1962 Marilyn Monroe x-rays were slated for auction; on Thursday a San Francisco auction house sold an empty bottle of William Burroughs’ methadone with dirt from his gravesite; Steve McQueen’s 1941 Chevy pickup sold for $66,000 in January (with the seller proclaiming that “Heck, it has his DNA all over it. He drove this!”); Eminem’s childhood home went on the block in September with a starting bid of $1; and a lock of Elvis’ hair was sold last year for $4000 (locks from his 1958 Army induction hair cut sold in 2009 for $15,000).
This may seem less like the veneration of relics than crass commercialism, and clearly some things strike even committed fans as violations. The same 2012 auction sale offering Elvis’ hair originally offered Elvis’ original Memphis crypt, where he was first buried at Forest Hills Cemetery before being moved to Graceland, but an outcry from fans led to the auction house removing the right to be buried where Elvis had once lay for two months. Marilyn Monroe’s x-rays were also criticized as the target of “gross rich people” violating implicit boundaries on things that are appropriate for exchange.
There is still a distinction between a fandom relic—a thing that is a material and aesthetic part of the fandom—and a mass-produced iconic image, yet desire for the former clearly fuels consumption of the latter. For most fans, the “real” artifacts of their fandom are alluring and fascinating relics—Walter White’s underwear, the teddy bear that turns up in his pool, Hector Salamanca’s bell—but they likely are not vehicles for especially deep philosophical reflection, which is the intended purpose of religious relics and pilgrimage. Mass-produced iconic things—like Breaking Bad t-shirts, A1A Car Wash air fresheners, toys, Los Pollos Hermanos lunch bags, and of course DVD sets—invoke fandom, which shares some of the devotion we associate with faith. Nevertheless, fandom may be less an explanation of imponderables than a community reflection on social life, and Breaking Bad fandom and material things address different dimensions of our social lives than being an Arsenal fan.
Fandom relic auctions and the mass consumption of iconic commodities signal the depth to which fandom is inseparable from consumer culture. Aside from scattered surprise when celebrity body parts are trafficked, we have come to accept such consumption of fandom relics as now utterly commonplace and notable only for the amount of money such goods bring. Indeed, it may be impossible to now be considered a fan without some material things establishing that affinity and sharing it with broader consumer communities.
William Burroughs methadone prescription bottle image from PBA Galleries