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'Breaking Bad' Merchandise Is Cheapening the Show's Legacy

Unlike the production of meth in Vince Gilligan’s twisted Albuquerque, there seems to be no filtering process or scientific, efficient equation that separates dreadful guff from attractive stuff.

by Jack Murray
Sep 12 2014, 8:00am

That first scribble of the elusive meth kingpin Heisenberg—the one you see in episode one of series three—announces Walter White’s final descent into his alter ego. It’s a deliberately simple sketch that’s supposed to look like a seven-year-old drew it—Bart Simpson for the Netflix generation, the perfect thing to scrawl all over your math books while you should be learning what "focal radius" means. If you can draw it, you're in the know.

Trouble is, its presence in the actual world is an overbearing, irritating one. Mall kiosks filled with made-in-China crap, convenience stores, and costume shops—all usually content with a stream of One Direction masks, The Big Bang Theory pens, and sports memorabilia—now have Breaking Bad merchandise, most of which has a detrimental effect on the legacy of the multi-award-winning monster of a TV show.

The sketch we first see pinned to a candlelit shrine in “No Más” has became the plastered, painted, scanned, and stamped sign of membership in the Breaking Bad fan club. Together with a collection of other colorful logos—notably Better Call Saul’s nostalgic italics and the Los Pollos Hermanos emblem—the merchandising of Breaking Bad leaves the gruesome undercurrent of the show lost in a gaudy, tacky selection of collectibles that color the series as a lightweight cartoon. The narrative is diluted from a bleak tale of economic strife, drugs, and terminal illness and reworked into travel mugs and a throwaway fashion line.

How did this masterpiece become a stocking stuffer?

Heisenberg is on the high street, and aptly, he’s ruling it. IT managers wear the Bryan Cranston's stern face on their chests, and your auntie just put her keys on the kitchen table to the sound of clink and the sight of a familiar pink teddy bear’s eye. There are coffee cups destined to be plonked on foldable desks in freshman orientation lectures. And there are cuddly versions, 2-D versions, tiny versions, and tall versions of Walt and Jesse that further fuck with the purity of the show.

Perhaps that's the problem. Unlike the production of meth in Vince Gilligan’s twisted Albuquerque, there seems to be no filtering process or scientific, efficient equation that separates dreadful guff from attractive stuff. This results in a marketplace where you can buy a subtle wallet bearing the Vamonos Pest insignia and a T-shirt that inexplicably parodies the Heineken logo, changing it to read "Heisenberg" instead. A marketplace where "Keep Calm and Rave On" shirts sit next to vests reading “Yeah—science, bitch!”

The weird phenomenon of Breaking Bad, curious in its balance of pulpy commerciality and highbrow accomplishment, means it is both a profitable goldmine and a cultural marker. In comparison with other major television shows of the past decade or so, including The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men, Breaking Bad carries with it a chaotic sensibility that favors set pieces and bombastic villains over brooding intellectualism or intense social realism. That’s why it’s not necessarily a surprise that we aren’t dealing with—or never have dealt with—a plethora of Don Draper bobble heads, Stringer Bell Babybels, or Tony Soprano beanbags.

Heisenberg and Jesse, with their crappy hats and almost-catchphrases, encourage an afterlife of costume parties and dorm posters. 

The risk of this current marketing strategy, however—with the bulk of these tacky creations pegged as “100 percent official”—is that Breaking Bad gets forgotten as an important TV show and increasingly recognized as a stag-party theme. You can buy a yellow Hazmat suit, mask, pair of gloves, and goatee at the mall. You can buy the goatee. Forget your felt-tip grooming. It feels like a matter of time before there’s a bargain-bin version of the official Breaking Bad action figures available in the back of a discount supermarket.

As a modern television juggernaut, Breaking Bad’s appearance across the world leaves the feeling that it may have sacrificed artistic legacy for an irrevocable position as an idol. It keeps reminding us that it’s around, but doesn’t mind if we don’t watch it. The implications of this could eventually result in Breaking Bad merchandise becoming a kind of hyper-real replacement for the show itself, with hoodies, canvas bags, and rock candy replacing tropes, character, and direction as the markers to measure its importance by.

A similar fate met Scarface, Brian De Palma’s expletive-laden excursion into Miami’s dangerous drug world, and a film that is probably playing on one of the TV channels with commercials as I type. The presence of shabby merchandise post-film, both unofficial and official—manifested on ill-fitting T-shirts and exquisitely framed but ultimately shitty holographic photographs—has turned it into a movie you associate with teenager's bedrooms before you've ever even sat down to watch it. You know “Say hello to my little friend” even if you’ve never heard Pacino boom it. You’ve seen that suit and shirt before. You know who the bleary-eyed loudmouth on the train is dressed as, even if the bag of Stellas is hiding his gold chains.

When Vince Gilligan said he wanted to take Walter White on a journey from Mr. Chips to Scarface, he surely didn’t mean this. Sure, the extension of the cult of Heisenberg past the four walls of a television show allows him to retain a space in our cultural consciousness. But the cartoonization of characters—the shallow interpretation of the show apparent in most of its merchandising—threatens its long-term credibility.

It should only be bullets, blood, and narcotics that Heisenberg and Tony Montana have in common—not how often their face adorns a beer belly.