“The commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.”

Karl MarxCapitalVolume 1.

“Small penis? Have I got a car for you” undoubtedly a very sexist sentence you might have read today right? This was an advertisement by Porche in 1970 for one of their promising models, the ‘Porche 911 Carrera’. I’m not going in detail about the sexist connotations of this advertisement as it is pretty evident from the sentence itself. Owning a Porche or a BMW or any other premium/luxury car defines one’s identity in a market driven society, in which we all exist. From a Marxist perspective, every commodity has its own identity and it will have a shared identity with human race; what you own defines you or what you own, owns you.  A car in this sense, becomes a medium of social communication and a special object of reverence in the North American culture. It possesses a sacred or magical power to shape everyday life. From the ‘toys of boys’ to the ‘hearse limousine’ it is there in the life of almost every average American as a necessity as well as a pride symbol.

Hollywood from its inception and especially after the great recession of 1930’s acted as the face of capitalism and more so, as a sales person for the great American dream. Arguably, the evolution of automobiles, especially cars share a common history with Hollywood including the James Bond series to American Graffiti the Fast and Furious series and almost every genre and period that features and promotes cars as part of lifestyle. Luxury cars like the Plymouths, Aston Martins and the old Buicks have their own identity and arc in the evolution of Hollywood films and its different genres. 

1969 Model Dodge Charger – Dukes Hazard (CBS)

The American TV too has a similar history to share. CBS’s famous American comedy series, “The Dukes Hazard” featured a bright orange 1969 Dodge Charger with a “01” on the side and a confederate flag on the hood, in each and every episode. This landmark model was shown racing backroads and running over pretty much anything you can think of. Similarly, there are instances of other great television shows which portrayed cars not just as a commodity but as a character or part of a character, even if they aren’t necessarily “car shows.”

On a closer look, AMC’s Vince Gilligan Shows, ‘Breaking Bad’ and its spinoff  prequel ‘Better Call Saul’ deserves to be on that list as well. As we all know Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are the battleground for the question of what is good and what is bad. Each Series has five seasons with more than 100 episodes of arguably great character writing and finest execution of all time in American TV. The casting and the entire mise en scene from the location to each and every prop, colour schemes and obviously the frames adds to the narrative. Apart from this, the ‘Casting of Cars’ also plays a very important role in defining the of both the series.

Coming back to the concept of ‘commodity fetishism’ which I began writing this piece with, we are all familiar with the way in which a commodity shapes human relations in a market driven society. The famous car advertisements of America (a perfect neoliberal economy) makes us believe how a car is an extension of one’s character and at the same time also convinces us its importance by portraying how every American requires one. There is a popular saying in America which is, “an average American requires a car if he/she needs to travel more than five feet”. Casting of car thus becomes a prerequisite for making a series on the life of people who are primarily the victims of capitalism and its morality.

Walter White’s Pontiac Aztek , BB (AMC)

Walter White, the main protagonist from the series, “Breaking Bad” is shown as a pathetic, ineffectual man who struggles to get respect from others. Furthermore, his life never turned out the way he wanted to and thus he is amidst a big midlife crisis who is also a victim of cancer. Observing his character build up, one cannot visualise him driving a fancy car. So Walter White drives a Green/Grey shade Pontiac Aztek, which is taken to be a boring, dull and normal one.. The Aztek – one of the most boring cars ever made was one of the first vehicles established right in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad. It was chosen to depict the ‘baby boomer’, lame and pathetic side of Walter White. The Pontiac Aztek stood up as a beacon of failed dreams, and that’s why the use of Aztek seemed fitting to denote the protagonist’s image. The car was lambasted as a perfect example of groupthink and managerial bad decisions at General Motors. In many ways, it could be seen as a symbol of their downward spiral into near-death during the Carpocalypse. Deep down inside, it represents something ugly, not unlike the path Walt follows as the show progresses. But in the process of turning ‘Mr. Chips to Scarface’, the journey of Pontiac Aztek ends when the alter ego of Walter White, the great ‘Heisenberg’ emerges in its full form and thus starts driving a shiny black Chrysler 300 SRT8.  We can read it in a reverse way too here as, when Walter White purchases a Chrysler 300 SRT8, it marks the turning point of Walt’s character as he puts on the big and bad persona of Heisenberg. Sick and tired of always being the nice guy, Walt ditches his old life and the Aztek for a Chrysler 300, which signifies the death of plain old Walter Wight and the birth of the new drug kingpin – Heisenberg. This transformation is the backbone of Breaking Bad and one of the most convincing and compelling character shifts in television history. Walter White’s character is a typical middle class American who is the direct victim of the capitalistic economy and its morality, He knows he was a failure, all his possessions including the Pontiac Aztek is a proof of that. Thus, the only way to make him feel worthy in this society was to earn more money and of course the change from Aztek to Chrysler 300 SRT8.

Walter Whites Chrysler 300 SRT8 , BB (AMC)
Chevy Monte Carlo – Jesse Pinkman BB (AMC)

Another fine character from this Albuquerque world of Vince Gilligan, is Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul) who later featured in the movie ‘El Camino’ a sequel of the Breaking Bad series, Jesse’s character arc is actually the antithesis to Walt’s moral decay, As Walter White slowly fades into the shadows, his partner Jesse just as steadily crawls into the light. He was the only person in this whole universe of Breaking Bad with such a different character arc. When we meet Jesse, he is a criminal, School dropout and a drug dealer. When we leave him, he has become a changed man and a heart forged in abject suffering and moral epiphanies. This gradual change in the arc of Jesse shares parallels with his cars as well. Jesse starts out by driving a red Monte Carlo equipped with hydraulics, the perfect car for his early wannabe thug persona. But after it gets shot up in the desert, he buys a much more sensible, practical and far less ostentatious 1986 Tercel wagon with four-wheel-drive. This change suits the changing Jesse far better than the Monte Carlo. It’s a plucky, can-do little car, something you kind of root for, just like Jesse. Jesse is the only character in the Breaking Bad universe who doesn’t want to be in this race and thus chooses to drive a normal Tercel wagon.

Jesse Pinkman’s Toyota Tercel 4WD Wagon , BB (AMC)
Jimmy’s Suzuki Esteem , BCS , (AMC and Netflix)

James Morgan McGill (also known as Saul Goodman, Slipping Jimmy, and Gene Takavic) played by Bob Odenkirk, maybe the most complex yet one of the most simple character from the Breaking Bad as well as its spin off prequel series, Better Call Saul. When we first see him in Breaking Bad, in all of his colourful shirts and ties, where every other character are defined in the shades of grey, he stands out. How Breaking Bad is the sole story of Walter White’s journey from ‘Mr. Chips to Scarface’, Better Call Saul has similar take with Jimmy’s character. As we have already seen  a market driven society and its moral codes defines a person’s value with the possessions he acquired and the idea of success is merely on how much you are going to earn. The main difference between Walter White and Jimmy McGill is that with Jimmy we know what is going to happen, we know Jimmy’s journey is to become the crooked lawyer in the ‘Albuquerque Noir Universe’ and we already know his 1998 model yellow Suzuki Esteem will be taken over by a white Cadillac DeVille in the future. In Better Call Saul, We’re introduced to Jimmy McGill’s sad yellow garbage-can-on-wheels after a genius Easter egg; it’s parked next to the same white Cadillac DeVille that later established Saul Goodman drove in Breaking Bad. But here Jimmy is still running small cons and trying to establish himself, therefore he is stuck with the Suzuki Esteem with mismatched doors, peeling rubber mouldings. The scene in the pilot episode of ‘Better Call Saul’, when skateboarders, pulling a scam, slams into it and crack the windshield and when they ask him for $500 as compensation Jimmy says,  “Does this steaming pile of crap scream ‘payday’ to you? The only way that thing is worth $500 is if there’s a $300 hooker sitting in it” This one dialogue defines his car and his character.  But Saul Goodman can’t drive a car with multiple colours in it he may dress in different colours no his cars but he also needs attention and he wants to show off but must be wary of doing so, which is why the nutty lawyer drives this white Cadillac DeVille. It’s big enough to get your attention but not flashy enough for you to ask any questions. And this is the car one would imagine to be driven by a sleazy, greedy lawyer like Saul Goodman. In between when Jimmy accepts Davis & Mains hiring proposal, he was very satisfied to get rid of his bi colour Esteem and accept the classy 2003 model Mercedes Benz C Class. To celebrate his hiring Kim offers him a travel mug that’s she has craftily adjusted to read “world’s 2nd best lawyer”, Jimmy is very fond of this mug which fitted perfectly on his esteem’s cup holder but not on his brand new Benz C Class. And his struggles to make it fit on that car goes on until he loses his job in Davis and Main. The cup symbolically represents Jimmy who would not fit into that German made automobile which the society doesn’t want him to drive.

Jimmy’s Mercedes Bens C Class – BCS (AMC and Netflix
Saul Goodman’s Cadillac DeVille  – BB (AMC)

Mike Ehrmentraut and Gustavo Fring, both of them can be taken as a synonym for the word ‘cold’. They share a mysterious traumatic past which has definitely made them. Mike was a policeman and Gus Fring is one among the millions of refuges who came to the North American soil with his brother from South America. We are introduced to the two sides of Gus Fring’s character in Breaking Bad itself. On one hand, we know him as a drug lord who is feared by Walter White himself and we are also familiarised with his past and his vengeance with the Cartel. On the other hand, he is also introduced as a businessman dealing with a chain of fried chicken restaurants and is friends with the DEA officers. So portraying these two personalities of his, needs lot of effort in the props he uses as well as the costumes he wear. That’s where his sensible black Volvo V70 plays its role, as his monetary capacity would be able to afford any super car available in the market but the moral side of this money wouldn’t. And the image he puts to the society of the nice restaurant owner won’t fit in to any super car as it would draw unwanted attention to the heartless killer side of Gustavo Fring. Mike Ehrmentraut in the Breaking Bad appeared more as the henchman of Gus Fring, his right hand. But when we get in to the Better Call Saul world we get to see more from Mike, a loving father and the loving grandpa of Kaylee and how he gets in to Fring’s and Salamanca’s world of organised crime and  cartel business. Mike is calm, a wise Oldman and a very loyal person. He doesn’t want to get attention from the public as he clearly knows what he is doing and thus the repercussions for it. His car also shows the same characteristics, so Mike Ehrmantraut drives an old black Chrysler Fifth Avenue, Named after the New York street, it was a gas-guzzling lumpen unit built for comfort rather than speed or performance, but not anymore. Now it is simply Mike’s runabout – and although he claims it has “sentimental value, it almost certainly doesn’t. Mike isn’t that kind of guy. Whatever this Black Chrysler Fifth Avenue is certainly giving that mike’s “don’t mess with me” vibe.

Gus Fring’s Volvo V70 – BB and BCS (AMC and Netflix)

In every show or movies police and their apparatuses are more powerful and they will have an edge over everything related to power, in the Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul Universe, Hank is the direct person of authority or state but in this universe state or its machineries are not powerful enough comparing to the cartel or its people. This reflects in the choice of Hank’s Vehicle too, he drives a Jeep Commander. The DEA official fancies himself as a bit of a tough guy, but really he’s a big softy. Similar to his 4×4 which looks big and strong but it’s a Commander after all isn’t it? If one were to compile a list of the greatest Jeeps of all time, the Commander would probably not be on it. It’s not memorable mechanically or aesthetically, and probably only sold because it kind of resembles older, better Jeeps. Hank likes to act tough, but as we see when he gets transferred to El Paso, he doesn’t really have the stomach or the street smarts to deal with the extreme violence he’s supposed to be combating. Same with his car — he drives this Jeep because it looks enough like a Jeep, but it’s not at all hard core.

Hank Schrader’s Jeep Commander BB and BCS (AMC and Netflix)
Skyler White’s Jeep Grand Wagoneer BB  (AMC)
Mike Ehrmantraut’s Chrysler Fifth Avenue BB and BCS (AMC and Netflix)

Unlike her brother-in-law Hank, Skyler, wife of Walter White, drives a Jeep that doesn’t suck. It’s a good example of an older Jeep, though. It’s a super-normal choice for a woman like Skyler, a normal woman thrust into bizarre and later horrific situations. Also, it has wood panels that hints to Skyler’s character as well. Skyler drives a red 1991 model Jeep Grand Wagoneer, It was the first 4×4 luxury car and a proper SUV even before the term SUV coined. Skyler, an independent women who looks after the family and literally stand for her family even when Walt is no more the Walt she knows. She drives an old SUV really goes with her strong character.

Nachos ’70s steel-bodied muscle car  BCS (AMC and Netflix)

One of the unsung anti-heroes in the Better Call Saul series, Ignacio “Nacho” Varga is an intelligent and ambitious mid-ranking drug boss with doomed aspirations. He works for Tuco Salamanca and although he enjoys the trappings of his narcotic sales, he is under no doubt about how precarious his position is. Still, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t got hot girls on speed dial, a cool apartment and a sweet ride. Nacho’s drives a ’70s steel-bodied muscle car and was American Motors’ response to the popular “pony car” trend that included the Ford Mustang, the Chevy Camaro and the Plymouth Barracuda. Nacho’s cherry-red version is a beauty, but like the man himself it is too obvious, attracts too much attention and eventually ends him up in troubles. Another car which is too much on the screen was a yellow Hummer driven by Warmolt who sells tablets to Nacho. From the beginning, Mike advises him to get rid of this car because this creates a lot of unwanted attention, and later due to this car Warmolt gets into problems. These two examples of Nacho and Warmolt shed lights on the car fetishism and its class and societal implications. But Howard Hamlin, the co-owner of HHM can drive a grand British luxury car which is The Jaguar XJ8 and he may never get into any troubles just because he drives a Jaguar.

Warmolt’s 2002 yellow Hummer BCS (AMC and Netflix)

Another example for this is Hank’s wife Mary, who has always been shown with different shades of blue especially associated with purple/violet colour. Almost all of her costumes and props are in this shade. So obviously she drives a purple Volkswagen Beetle, it’s cute, small and very feminine and it very much fitting to Mary because she is petty, jealous, insecure, petulant, and never emotionally moved past age of adolescents. A small purple New Beetle fits well enough. And this car casting is a very good example of how a market driven society specialise its products and how it imposes it to certain people/ characters.

Mary’s purple Beetle –BB (AMC)

Everyone every single characters with very different character arc and very different characteristics has unique cars choices in this cinematic universe. Maybe the only person who doesn’t drive a car from this entire Albuquerque Noir Universe is Chuck (the elder brother of Jimmy McGill), but he is shown as a mentally unfit person. And cars are not just another property in these two TV series its part of every characters arc and their characteristics. And it is a correct reading of American free market society and its commodity fetishism, capitalism has products for everyone but it differs by its quality to different strata’s. And it wants to keep this strata for its own existence. In a place like America which is the perfect example for a free market society fetishism towards commodities is part of everyone’s life and it makes you believe every product is a necessity. And when it comes to automobile, maybe monetarily it has been one of the biggest industry in the past history of any free market economy and it offers varied products. In America automobile industry is one of the biggest contributor to its GDP as well. In free market society like America, people worship cars and need them in a sense beyond their use as transport. They have become second nature, a crucial tool for modern living and increasingly weaved in to the texture of everyday life. The notion of fetishism theorises that in the worship of inanimate objects, and by the virtue of giving them with magical powers, these objects take on a life their own. As we shape cars they shapes us. For Marx, commodity fetishism is the tendency of people to see the product of their labour in terms of relationships between things, rather than social relationships between people. In other words, people view the commodity only in terms of the characteristics of the final product while the process through which it was created remains obscured and, therefore, unconsidered. This has crucial implications for our collective ability to see and address the ongoing processes of social and environmental destruction under capitalism.

There are no wasted details in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. The cars of these shows provide deeper insight into the characters’ motivations and inner workings. And there’s plenty of symbolism in this Albuquerque Noir universe that only the most perceptive fans will notice. But besides these Easter eggs, there are more obvious details that lend meanings and its social criticism or understanding to these two shows: Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. What I examined here with the idea of commodity fetishism of cars in this cinematic universe may or may not be intended by the writers but by writing detailed about a free market society will definitely sheds lights to each part of it. And this cinematic universe is one of the wonderfully well written series in the history of TV. And I believe casting of cars and its connotative meanings in this universe deserves a special mention and each details these screenplays provides will discuss for a long time in cinema and cultural studies.


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