As a 20-year-old girl with nerd-aligned interests, it’s fair to say that I have spent a large portion of my adolescence online. I’ve seen a lot through my involvement in various fandoms, ranging from niche online webcomics to major television shows. To this day, I still indulge a bit in fanworks — it’s fun to be able to create a community out of wasting time. I’ll meet someone online and become best friends with them because we have both spent over 50 hours reading an anime visual novel, and I think that’s beautiful. However, to many, it may be no surprise that fandoms can also be incredibly odd spaces. Fandoms tend to move fast, and they can feel like places where inside jokes are pushed to the extreme, often seeming like spaces that are so self-aware that they lack any self-awareness at all. Lately, this has summarized my experience with the “Breaking Bad” fandom.
AMC’s “Breaking Bad” is a TV show centering on Walter White, an older man diagnosed with lung cancer who decides to manufacture illicit drugs with his previous high school student, Jesse Pinkman. Over time, Walter slowly becomes the antagonist. The show is serious in its subject matter — it depicts extreme violence and drug abuse. Characters are depicted as morally gray, painting a very holistic, depressing picture of human nature. Because of these things, the very notion of a “Breaking Bad” fandom can seem odd at first. While it’s true that fandoms surrounding darker media exist, “Breaking Bad” has been around for 15 years and has only recently begun to receive this “fandomized” treatment.
It’s necessary to distinguish between online discussion and “fandom”: “Breaking Bad” has been praised and discussed online for years, primarily praised by more serious critics. However, when I invoke the term “fandom,” I’m referring to online spaces that exist solely to discuss the show. This often includes (but is not limited to) fan accounts, inside jokes within communities, fan art and shipping culture. While online discussion alludes to a general discussion of textual choices, “fandom” signals a discussion of what every “Breaking Bad” character would order at Taco Bell.
Why am I even distinguishing these, you may ask? Well, as of late, if you search for the show on any major social media site, you’ll find things that encompass the sillier fandom atmosphere. Whether it’s a video detailing how the characters would sing a K-pop song, drawings of characters in cat ears or video edits to cheery songs, it’s very clear the discussion around “Breaking Bad” has shifted.
With a narrative so dark, why are people referring to Walter White as if he’s a baby? I’ll see alternate universe pitches where Walter adopts Jesse and they live happily ever after, where the cartel members are edited to cheery music or where everyone is drawn as anime chibis looking as cute as ever. Additionally, it’s funny that such normal-looking characters are treated in this sense. I’m conditioned to see video edits of K-pop stars rather than a balding old man. So, how did we get here?
From personal experience, I think part of this comes from younger, less male-dominated audiences starting to watch “Breaking Bad.” It’s gained extreme popularity on Netflix as of late, with its community’s memes especially garnering attention (this Reddit community has 32k members). After the memes blew up in popularity, the show’s influence definitely seems to have trickled into less “film bro”-oriented spaces. Online, it’s so easy to stop taking things seriously, and the emergence of “Breaking Bad” memes and fan spaces are prime examples of this. Meme culture has definitely changed the way many of us consume media — the show has been around for so long, but only now has it begun to be discussed in this way. To me, this is a testament to how fast online fan spaces move. The anime drawings of Jesse may have started as an ironic joke, poking fun at anime fans and diluting the dark tone of the show. But now, the space between people doing that ironically versus unironically is almost indistinguishable. It could be argued that people have begun viewing the show as more of a cartoonish spectacle than a dark drama.
Is there something wrong with this? Is this something that I — admittedly, a bit complacent — should be more critical of? Is it wrong to drastically misinterpret the tone of this show in favor of calling an elderly man “babygirl?”
After all of my pondering, I can only ask, why would there be anything wrong with it? Engaging with media is fun in any form — so what if a bunch of kids online want to interpret it in this way? Yes, it’s weird, but I think so many of us are able to find a sort of comfort in that weirdness. At the end of the day, fandom was created to give people spaces to geek out about what they love. In a way, it’s beautiful that so many people are able to bond over “protecting Jesse Pinkman” instead of consuming “Breaking Bad” with utmost seriousness and respect. It’s harmless, and I think sometimes it’s okay to throw self-awareness to the side like that. Being cringeworthy is really fun, and I think the uninhibited joy of these “Breaking Bad” fans should inspire us to embrace that.
Daily Arts Contributor Katelyn Sliwinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.