The Prosaic Relics of Breaking Bad and Fan Culture

WWundiesThis 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 underwear

Walter White’s underwear

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.

Jesse Pinkman's Toyota Tercel was purchased for $7200

Jesse Pinkman’s Toyota Tercel was purchased for $7200 (image Screenbid)

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.

William Burroughs' methadone prescription bottle with soil from his grave (image PBA Galleries).

William Burroughs’ methadone prescription bottle with soil from his grave (image PBA Galleries).

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.

The teddy bear that fell into Walter White's pool (image Screenbid).

The teddy bear that fell into Walter White’s pool (image Screenbid).

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.

Images

Breaking Bad teddy bear, Jesse Pinkman’s Toyota TercelWalter White underwear auction image from Screen Bid

William Burroughs methadone prescription bottle image from PBA Galleries

Posted on October 13, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I think there might be a distinction in fan items / relics associated with a fictional show and with an actor or performer who is a “real” person. Particularly in this case, while the underwear have iconic value as part of the show’s fan culture, I imagine that those who want to buy, display, or see them are probably also doing so ironically. Underwear make people laugh because of what they stand in for and therefore serve as a means of distanciation from something more serious.

  2. Reblogged this on Lily Does Archaeology and commented:
    Wow; this is a fantastic look at current material culture.

  3. Such a fascinating read! I’ve never thought to compare these types of collectables with relics becayse, like you said, it doesn’t carry the same weight philosophically. It’s something more of a bragging point, to show your level in the hierarchy of fandom, and your position of wealth. Materialism is the American way afterall. We all want to be seen as the person with the most. I doubt that underwear will be considered a smart purchase in a few years, unlike something of a larger historical or cultural significance. I’d never take my fandom that far. I’d love to own some kind of historical artifact, personally, but would likely never get past the guilt of taking it away from others for a private collection. But, then again, I’m not rich.

  4. Great blog. As with many obscure items that go on sale – what would you do with them?

  5. I also enjoyed the comparison between historical and religious relics and our modern pop culture version of “relics,” something I have never considered. I have thought a lot about the tendency towards idolization when it comes to celebrities and the devastating effect it can have on our own self worth. I read somewhere that “people waste potential idolizing celebrities.” A willingness to spend what I would call an obscene amount of money for a mundane object simply because it was a “relic” from a favorite show worries me about how much this person may value themselves. When we put people AND their stuff on such a high pedestal then we cast ourselves far below worshiping with awe. We could invest in ourselves and allow our own gifts to shine and be in awe of ourselves and our own underwear.

  6. Interesting blog. I suppose it’s just that the association of anything with ‘meaning’ or ‘significance’ gives them a commercial value, whether it’s sporting memorabilia or Walt’s y-fronts or the relics of a saint and it’s probably quite a reasonable investment, as this programme is very good and will probably keep its status for generations. There are some interesting cases of where things have had an artificially boosted status and then the bottom has suddenly dropped out of the market – the best example is the tulip craze in the Netherlands in the 17th century.

    • I think tulips are more luxury items for the rich, whereas Walt’s Y fronts are more along the lines of religious relics. I think there’s something about the latter that makes the abstract or spiritual more accessible, whereas the former is just about spending money and showing off.

      • I am inclined to agree that there is some elevated devotion invested in Walt’s drawers that is probably a little distinct from things valued for pure cost-status. I do get Debunker’s wariness that some fans are committed to afandom ritual when they secure such things but others are just buying them to capitalize on their value rising. I suspect there is perhaps a sort of continuum of values that melt somewhat messily into each other and encompass crass commercialism and heartfelt ritual if not faith.
        Thanks for the thoughts.

  7. Maybe. I suppose it depends what your motive is for buying something like this. Is it a genuine feeling for the programme and its place in media history, or is it just an investment? I’m sure many people who buy things like this are thinking about both the intrinsic and the commercial value but there must be people who buy these things to lock them in a safe-deposit box for a few years until the price is sky-high!

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