A City in the Desert: Landscape and ‘Breaking Bad’

[20 August 2013]

By Benjamin Riley

Breaking Bad begins in the desert. It opens on still shots of vegetation and rock formations before cutting to open, blue sky. The empty frame is interrupted by a strange object drifting into shot: a pair of pants, falling gently through the air. The pants hit the ground and are run over by a white RV, tearing along a dirt road. The driver of the RV is a man wearing only his underwear and a gas mask, but further shots of the RV’s interior reveal a passenger unconscious in its front seat and chaos in its rear, as two more unconscious bodies are thrown about amidst breaking glass and spilling liquids. The driver eventually loses control and the RV careens off the road, crashing into an embankment. The driver gets out of the RV, puts on a shirt and retrieves a gun from one of the bodies in the back along with a video camera. We learn the man’s name is Walter White as he records a message saying goodbye to his family, then takes the gun from his underwear and walks back up to the road. The scene ends with Walter standing half-naked in the middle of a desert road, aiming a gun towards the sound of approaching sirens.

Since first airing in 2008, Breaking Bad has been lauded for its unique and dramatic visual style. From cinematography to editing, each episode feels meticulously crafted, the director’s authorial hand ever present to lead the viewer through the story. Every shot is as precise and deliberate a storytelling tool as the scriptwriting or the actors” performances. Playing a huge role in the startling visuals of the series are its twin settings of suburban Albuquerque, where protagonist Walter “Walt” White lives with his family, and the New Mexico desert lurking at its borders.

In many ways, Breaking Bad is a show about borders, about lines in the sand its characters draw for themselves and each other, and about what it means to cross those lines. The border between high school teacher Walt and his meth-cooking alter ego Heisenberg becomes the show’s central conceit, but each of the series’ protagonists goes through a process of questioning who they are and what they and those around them are capable of. As a city of 900,000 perched on the edge of the massive Chihuahuan Desert, Albuquerque is the perfect setting for such thematic concerns. Despite its familiar suburban streets, the constant, sun-soaked glare reminds us the desert is never far away, pushing in at the borders of the city.

The opening scene of Breaking Bad‘s pilot described above is intentionally jarring, thrusting the audience into a harsh and unfamiliar place and introducing us to a man for whom things have somehow gone horribly wrong. But it is an exciting place, and once the scene is over we see Walt’s real life, a life of drudgery. A far cry from the usual color of televised suburbia, Walt’s Albuquerque is bleak. Everything from his under-lit house to his part-time job at a car wash to supplement a meager teacher’s salary is upsetting because it looks horribly, uncomfortably like real life. The Walt we see in the opening scene, a half-naked man at the mercy of the New Mexico desert, couldn’t be further away. The rest of the pilot—indeed, the rest of the series—explores the fraying edges at the border between these two men, trying to understand how one becomes the other.

From the beginning, Breaking Bad establishes that the desert is not a place our protagonists are welcome. The first time things get really bad for Walt and his business partner and former student Jesse involves the Mexican drug kingpin Tuco, the first in a series of formidable adversaries the two seem ill-prepared to deal with. Fearing capture by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Tuco kidnaps Walt and Jesse with a plan to take them to Mexico to cook meth for him full-time. The Second Season episode “Grilled” takes place largely in a shack in the desert belonging to Tuco’s uncle where the kingpin holds the two hostage, his paranoia descending into insanity. The captivity is surreal, as Tuco’s threats of violence are interspersed by food preparation, television, and incessant bell-ringing, his invalid uncle’s only means of communication. Walt and Jesse are completely out of their depth in this alien environment, bumbling repeated attempts to kill Tuco with prepared ricin. Walt and Jesse eventually escape, more because of Tuco’s instability than their own ingenuity, but have nowhere to run but further out into the desert.

The show’s next major excursion into the desert—this time across the border into Mexico—ends in horror for another character, Walt’s brother-in-law and DEA agent Hank. Following a promotion and transfer to an office in El Paso, Hank is mocked by his fellow agents for not speaking Spanish, and for his obliviousness to the cultural context of working on the border. He joins a team of agents going to stake out a meeting involving a DEA informant nicknamed “Tortuga” (“tortoise”) and is ridiculed further for his disgust at what they find—Tortuga’s decapitated head attached to a tortoise, crawling slowly across the desert sand. Moving away to dry-retch into the scrub is the only thing that saves Hank from what happens next: the tortoise explodes, killing one agent and maiming three others. The aftermath is graphic as the shell-shocked Hank stumbles back to a scene of severed limbs and bloody corpses. Although shocking, the devastation seems an inevitable response to Hank’s intrusion into a place he had utterly failed to comprehend.

Breaking Bad‘s most significant trip to the Mexican desert comes much later, in Season Four’s “Salud”. To prevent a war with a Mexican cartel, Walt and Jesse’s new boss Gus Fring takes Jesse and enforcer Mike to meet with the cartel leaders in an opulent hacienda. Jesse is daunted by the prospect of having to demonstrate cooking high quality meth in front of them, but succeeds. Gus’ true plan to deal with the cartel only becomes clear after he uses a celebratory toast to feed poison to the cartel leaders, sparking a horrific massacre the three visitors barely escape from. Jesse saves himself as well as Gus and Mike only because he reacts and adapts in time, again fleeing into the desert, driving his crippled companions to safety.

The protagonists continue to adapt to these existential threats, and as the series progresses the border marking the distinction between Walt and Heisenberg, between his life in Albuquerque and his life in the desert, disintegrates. When Walt and Jesse embark on their illicit enterprise, their lab is vulnerable, exposed and mobile, a rickety RV clearly out of place under the baking desert sun. By Season Five the two command a vast meth empire, and their lab has moved into the very suburban homes they used the RV get away from. After the destruction of Gus’ superlab at the end of Season Four, the two meth cooks settle on a different kind of mobile setup, operating through the front of a pest-control company. The company books in to bomb an infested house, and once everything is set up Walt and Jesse go in, cook, and set the bombs as they leave. The iconic image of a tented house in a street in Albuquerque inverts the picture of the RV alone in the desert. Heisenberg is no longer of the desert, a dark secret on the fringes of Walt’s life—the two men occupy the same suburban space once reserved for Walter White.

The pest control operation leads to an incredibly surreal and poignant scene, as Walt and Jesse sit down after a cook to share a beer and watch some television in the lounge room of a tented house. Relishing playing the father figure, Walt offers advice on the uncertain future of Jesse’s relationship and tells him he trusts him to do the right thing. Of course, Walt being Walt, the conversation is another opportunity for him to exert his power over Jesse, but he displays genuine moments of truth, and it constitutes something much more normal, much more familial than the silent hell his house with his wife Skyler has become. His family home and the center of his former life is now a monstrous parody, a fiction held up by Walt so he can pretend the line between Walter White and Heisenberg still exists. Unwillingly drafted into the fiction, Skyler is essentially a prisoner in her own home, living with an acute awareness of who her husband is and the role she plays in his own self-conception as a successful family man, an awareness Jesse has never been able to discover.

Despite this upending of the spatial divide in Breaking Bad‘s final season, the run features one of the show’s most dramatic set pieces, beginning with a cryptic, wordless teaser. It opens once more on the desert, to a shot of sparse scrub stretching out to mountains in the hazy distance. The momentary stillness of this opening shot is broken by a helmeted figure on a dirt bike, tearing through the landscape. We follow the figure as he rides, the camera cutting from long shots of the bike moving across the scrub to the view from behind the handlebars. When the bike comes to stop we see its rider is a young boy, about 12-years-old. The boy takes off his helmet and walks into the scrub, where he finds a tarantula crawling in the sand. He watches the spider for a moment before scooping it into his hand and putting it in a glass jar. The boy puts his helmet back on and rides away, the wheels of the bike spraying dirt into the ground-level camera lens as a train sounds in the distance.

In the episode proper, Walt and Jesse devise a plan to steal a key cooking ingredient methylamine from a freight train passing through a security “dead zone” in a remote part of the New Mexico desert. The plan doesn’t go off without a hitch, but they get their methylamine. In a shot of Walt, Jesse and a new associate Todd celebrating their success we see Walt’s face turn to horror at something off-camera. The next shot reveals the boy from the teaser, who waves hello to the three men from his dirt bike. Todd waves back absent-mindedly, before taking out his gun and shooting the boy in the chest. The boy drops dead, and the episode closes with a shot of the tarantula on the ground next to him, probing the glass with its feet from inside the jar. Far from an intruder in the desert, Walt has become the danger, the thing in the desert to fear.

The first half of Season Five ends just three episodes later with something completely foreign to Breaking Bad: a relaxed family dinner. The meth operation has wrapped up, Skyler has let the kids move back into the house and everyone seems to be getting along. The scene shows Walt and Skyler chatting with Hank and Skyler’s sister Marie (Hank’s wife) around a backyard table, while Walt’s teenaged son pushes his baby sister around in a plastic stroller. The scene feels jarring not just because of its apparently happy tone: the dialogue is off—this kind of background, naturalistic chatter is never a part of Breaking Bad. Like everything else about the show, its dialogue is always deliberate, considered. As if this tonal contrast is not portent enough for the episode’s final twist just minutes later, the omniscient authorial hand behind the camera reaches in to direct our eyes not to the broad strokes of the scene, but to the details: a dripping hose, a hanging ornament, and an insect, marching along a mottled surface. Even here, in Walt’s home, in his life restored to normal, this tiny black intruder from the desert plants a seed of danger, a reminder we are in a place where borders are rarely as fixed as they appear. Sure enough, the episode closes on Hank’s realization, in this most Walter White of settings, that Walt and Heisenberg are one and the same.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/174330-a-city-in-the-desert-landscape-and-breaking-bad/