Braking Bad

 

We’ve got some haz-mat suits in the van’

 

Last week I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the celebrated AMC crime drama Breaking Bad was set and shot. During my time there I went on a tour of the show’s locations. This consisted of an informal convoy of cars parading the city which, with its walkie-talkies, cyclical movement and talk of ‘herding’ and ‘getting separated’, reminded me of another AMC series, The Walking Dead. The show is so ingrained in the city that it’s entirely possible to take a Breaking Bad tour of Albuquerque without even knowing. It turned out I had been to several of the locations earlier in the week, including The Grove Restaurant, one of the recurring set-pieces in Season 5, which just happened to be opposite my hotel. In that instance, I was there not as a fan but as an aficionado of oversized baked goods.

Making Mad Money!

Making Mad Money!

Everyone on the tour was struck by how close the locations were to each other. Film and TV locations are usually discontinuous – even if they are supposed to be within the same area – and tend to be arbitrarily stitched together to form an entirely new map that suits the logic of the programme or movie. Except for a few jarring instances, Breaking Bad seems to choose its locations according to the geography of Albuquerque. That doesn’t mean, however, that the show’s directors weren’t adept at transforming locations to fit the tone and meaning of the story. In Breaking Bad, The Grove is a soulless, empty corporate coffee shop whereas the real spot is a bustling, cheery local produce market and café. The Whites’ family home always reeked of lower-middle class suburban compromise but in life it is a desirable piece of real estate in a pretty, upscale neighbourhood.

What soap are they using at the car wash?

What soap are they using at the car wash?

It was clear from the array of visitors to the Breaking Bad locations that the show has created a demand for tourism in Albuquerque. It was less clear how interested the natives of Albuquerque are in making a fully-fledged tourist industry out of it. We were chased off a couple of properties, both politely and impolitely, and in other places which were working businesses you got the impression that they didn’t mind having you look around but nor did they particularly care you were there. A few plaques and souvenirs from the show were scattered here and there, like the gloriously kitsch sign for the fictional Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant in the branch of Twister’s which subbed for it, but nothing extravagant or mercenary. I applaud their effort to maintain identities and existences independent from their appearances in Breaking Bad and I liked being in them more because of that.

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The sign is there, the restaurant is not.

As we saw with mixed local reactions to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, it’s not how much a place is onscreen that matters, it’s how that place is represented. Breaking Bad certainly gestures to what makes Albuquerque a place of beauty – its inspiring urban murals, its mountain-lined vista landscapes – but it’s somewhat undermined by being identified as a run-down, crime-ridden city where an opera of meth and death can credibly play out. This may be at the root of the locals’ ambivalence. It’s no coincidence that the most adverse reaction we got from a local was from the owner of The Crossroads Motel, depicted as a hangout of meth addicts, dealers and hookers in the show where it is nicknamed ‘The Crystal Palace’. The most business-sensible of the proprietors use Breaking Bad as a hook. At Twister’s, I arrived thinking about Breaking Bad and left dreaming about their breakfast burrito.

The Nazi compound.

The Nazi compound.

Albuquerque is a far-cry from Hobbiton or Highclere Castle though in some ways Breaking Bad is more rooted in the reality of the city than either The Hobbit or Downton Abbey is in their tourist-trap theme parks. At the disused rail-lined storage facility that housed the Nazi compound in which the denouement of Breaking Bad takes place, there are the remnants of a public-made shrine to Walter White. But however much you wish to imagine it a place of fiction and imagination, it remains a place of foreboding and sinister feeling irrespective of its meaning in the show. Being there you fear real Nazis, or worse. Turning around – and crucially away from the show for a second – you’re faced with a scene of Albuquerque in all its natural southwestern glory. That’s the difference. It’s Breaking Bad, for sure, but something else, and something just as effective, maybe more.

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