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Desert Moon: Breaking Bad in the American Southwest

July 16, 2012 | by

There’s a moment when thunderclouds smother the sunset and the chile ristras begin to sway, when bits of smoldering earth intertwine with invisible rain, and you’re tangled in tumbleweed magic. Everything is burnt orange and cactus green, clay-tinged and warm. There’s mystery disguised as menace, comfort in spite of storm, and the sky gives off a phantom light that makes the concrete seem cinematic. This is the desert Southwest, my homeland, also known as Breaking Bad country.

If you’ve made the television journey with Walter White—from tightey-whitey chemistry teacher to hairless drug kingpin—you’re already familiar with the show’s desert setting of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It acts as a silent character that, to me, is also its most important.

Of all the shows that have been set in the western part of the United States, none have truly represented what it’s like to live in this suburban dream-catcher oasis. The West is usually reserved for westerns, but with Breaking Bad and the canceled USA series In Plain Sight, this part of the country is getting well-deserved notice. New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment, but it’s not just about adobe homes and roasted green chilies or a film-production tax credit. One could argue (Hank Schrader, specifically), that geology plays an important role, too. Where else do rocks make up your front yard landscape as well as the mountain range in the middle of the city, one that is so mammoth and surreal it’s literally referred to by residents as a bright pink watermelon?

I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, and both cities are integral to Breaking Bad’s story line. The show revolves around the manufacturing of crystal methamphetamine and all that comes with it, from low-level distributors and sacrificial employees to parking-lot meetings with murderous cartels. The opening shot of the series follows a beat-up RV on a crash course through the desert, sand blinding the sanity and judgment of a “cook shop” gone wrong. Watching this scene dries your throat and dusts your nostrils. You feel compelled to cough and brush your trousers, checking for errant scorpions at the same time.

Throughout the series' four seasons, we’re taken everywhere from upscale Spanish-style homes (a nod to the city’s Spanish colonial heritage) to strip-mall law offices and the front seat of a bass-heavy lowrider. Every socioeconomic stratum is represented. There’s Walter White and his middle class family, barely surviving on a high-school teacher’s salary supplemented with part-time pay from the local car wash. We feel our toes tangle with their overgrown carpet, and we cringe along with Walt’s teenage son as he chews a piece of his mom’s breakfast veggie bacon. I’ve eaten at their kitchen table and had my finger slammed in their sliding door. It is an eerily familiar home regardless of where you reside.

On the slightly higher end of the economic spectrum are mom Skyler’s sister and brother-in-law, Marie and Hank. They live in a well-appointed adobe home with more space, more light, and a yard of wild cacti. Inside, however, is an explosion of violet. When she’s not nursing patients or her own kleptomania, Marie spends time decorating her life in the complete spectrum of purples. It’s an odd choice, but it works as an amplified OCD character trait that, on the face of it, has nothing to do with New Mexico. I’ve seen many homes cluttered with pottery, Santa Fe rugs, peach walls, and legions of kachina dolls. And while Breaking Bad departs from this stereotypical Southwestern decor, I’m not convinced that there isn’t some equally characteristic New Age aroma swirling around in there. Perhaps the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, consulted the local crystal lore—which cites purple as the color for peace of mind.

I had friends who lived in concrete duplexes, much like Walt’s partner, Jesse Pinkman, and his ill-fated, heroin-addicted girlfriend, Jane. I clapped at the TV when Jane wanted to take Jesse to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, hoping they’d choose still lifes over opiates. When Jesse filled his deceased aunt’s house with drug addicts and debauchery, I was reminded of that party where pizza stains dotted the wallpaper and people forgot their names in a droning techno thump.

Strangely, it’s when Walt and Jesse are abducted by Tuco, the crazed Mexican drug lord, that I’m truly transported home. Tuco makes a semipliant burrito and longs for the quiet in which to eat it. Wind dances outside his desert shack, and if it weren’t for the hostages and his Tio watching cartoons in an adjacent room, this modest lunch would offer a bit of respite. I charred a tortilla on my New York gas-top in response, letting the seared flour curl over noisy neighbors. It wasn’t the same, but close.

What Breaking Bad captures, all too well, is the spirit of the Southwest—however beautiful or repellent. In El Paso’s bordering city of Juarez, Mexico, the drug cartels have taken over with the kind of violence normally only seen in movies, television shows, or faraway wars. I think I was the only one unfazed by the image of a decapitated head atop a turtle wandering around the West Texas desert. It’s not that we’re used to seeing these images, but the macabre stories across the border are constant and all too real. As normal and suburban as this part of the country feels, sometimes the breeze chills your spine, even in the dry, unrelenting heat.

In the last season, we spent much time in an underground super lab with Walt and Jesse. We said hola to the laundry workers toiling above before embracing the fluorescence below. There were multiple visits to rival kingpin Gus Fring’s fast-food chicken chain, Los Pollos Hermanos, where the floors were clean and the chicken was crisp. It’s the kind of place we’re familiar with, minus the lingering terror. We sidled up next to Hank and his collection of minerals, an endearing hobby he took up in the wake of paralysis. And we sat beside Walt’s pool, the sun dancing off the turquoise water, as the camera zoomed in on a lily of the valley. We know these people and these places because they make up every American town, but there’s something about this place that’s sinister when it’s celestial.

It must be noted that Breaking Bad’s Southwest is captured by a brilliant cinematographer, Michael Slovis. (He also shot the cult New York–set film, Party Girl.) Slovis gives us the rose-gold sunsets and the never ending vastness of landscape. He mutes the far-out desert at midday and sharpens the blue sky just before dusk. There are long shots and bumpy rides, but Albuquerque is always there listening in the distance.

There’s no telling what we’re in store for in season five, but it’s sure to be eruptive. Did you know that Albuquerque has five volcanoes? The entire field is holy and considered a sacred place of worship. The volcanoes are dormant for now, but there’s one in particular you can hike to—Vulcan. It’s the largest and is named after the Roman god of fire. It stands by itself in a barren field with clouds cresting an uneven butte. There are no signs, but one should watch for rattlesnakes.

Andi Teran is a writer from the desert Southwest. She lives in Brooklyn with serapes and succulents.

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