There is a lot of media participation media about Breaking Bad and its related franchises, Better Call Saul and I guess El Camino is here, too, I suppose. This makes sense — Breaking Bad is a tall series with a long shadow, an influence on the culture around me that makes it perfect for people who like to talk about media to talk about it. It’s not just that Breaking Bad has become a spreading puffball of memes that land on every surface around it — I Am The One Who Knocks — but it’s also got its own subcultural bubble of hack media studies memes — this is the point where Walter White truly became Breaking Bad.
It’s something that means every time I’ve wanted to talk about any of these properties, I only did it if it was literally the most convenient thing. That’s why I wound up talking about El Camino a while back. It was the only thing I’d seen recently that fit the theme. That was a rumination on the same general idea — that Breaking Bad is kind of a crowded space to talk about.
It’s honestly one of the things about Breaking Bad I find personally very charming. Normally if there’s something ubiquitous in a media space, it’s because it’s very approachable and very conventional, like, The Avengers may do a good job of executing on its plan but largely, it’s a plan you’ve seen before, done on smaller scales. A chunk of that movie is just taking a victory lap about itself existing, a can you believe we’re doing this like this kind of exhibition demonstrating a crew of characters who are meant to stand together despite the silliness of the whole affair.
Some of this relates to algorithmic content formation. One of the largest platforms for media participation media is Youtube, and then there’s Tiktok, and both of those platforms use algorithms to reward content creators who generate repeatedly compliant media. If you have an existing interest like mental health or tier lists or a language boundary or a film degree or whatever, you can pour Breaking Bad into your form, the content deforming to the shape of the bucket you use to carry it.
It’s very popular, and it’s big enough and slow enough that you can probably find almost anything that applies to your particular interest.
I don’t think, though, it’s entirely fair to act like Breaking Bad (a very popular show in a white common cultural space) is the same as The Avengers (a very popular media in a multinational common cultural space). They probably both colour Mexico yellow for no good reason, I suppose. This isn’t because The Avengers is somehow less or more worthy of attention than Breaking Bad, but because it feels to me like Breaking Bad is deliberately doing a lot of stuff that’s, for lack of a better word, harder than doing it in The Avengers. Breaking Bad’s depiction of violence is abrupt, it’s fast. Combat when it happens is short and sharp. People can’t really take hits – they tend to lose, hard.
The whole vibe of The Avengers is about having all the resources in the world and finding a thing that can make you feel limited. In the Breaking Bad universe, which more and more as I say it I realise I am just calling that because I’m really thinking about Better Call Saul, but anyway, in that universe, it’s about having very little, and making it last. It’s about this constant tension!
Gosh, I’m trying so hard to not talk about Breaking Bad like ‘oh hey, did you notice that Gilligan uses montage to not show impressive things but mundane things?’ and please please praise me for noticing I’m so smart, I have spent so much time paying attention to this show. Which is weird because I’ve only watched it once. I haven’t gone back and spent time marinating in the entire world of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. I watched Better Call Saul and I really enjoyed it, and I thought that the characters I spent time with were executed on well by their actors and then there’s the cultural impact and the Skylar White conversation and –
there’s just so much stuff to talk about. To play with.
And most of it has been talked about and played with.
I suppose I should explain what I mean by media participation media. This is media participation media. It’s media that primarily presents itself as media about participation in other media. Video essays on franchises or character studies or fanfiction, all that stuff, that’s media participation media. This isn’t the official media study thing, by the way, it’s just a term I grabbed out of the air for this conversation.
I needed media participation media because I needed something that didn’t front-and-centre the idea of critique. A lot of these people engaging with media in this space are going to be formally, doing critique, but common use of critique has a negative connotation, a dissent with how the thing is done and how it should be done better. Critique isn’t a bad thing but if you talk about critique the implication in English is that you are doing it in a negative way.
Also, ‘media critique’ or ‘media studies’ feels like a phrase that, if I use it, you’re going to assume it excludes things like fanfiction, fancams, meme exchanges, that kind of thing. I don’t! I don’t mean that. When you see people doing readings of memes of Jesse Pinkman trying to convince Gus to go watch Morbius, that’s funny and fun explicitly because of how it relates to Breaking Bad.
(The Media Studies terms for what this is, really, is paratextual media, but I’m simplifying.)
Okay, so there’s a lot of People Doing Stuff With Breaking Bad and by extension Better Call Saul. So what? that’s okay. Nobody’s required. If I had something fun or interesting to say about them, I could. It’s my blog, and I’ll at least be recycling jokes you havent’ seen all in the same spot, right? And sure, I may talk about them sometime, some place. There’s stuff that’s interesting to me, in all those spaces.
What I find the most interesting about Breaking Bad and its related media, though, isn’t the media itself. Clearly – I mean I’ve only watched it once, like I said. But it’s interesting to me because of the cloud of opinions around it, the way that things feel and the things people extract from it.
The media can give me such an enjoyable story, but people, people talking about it, talking about what they got out of it? They can show me thousands of stories.