How the desert made Walter White

The setting of "Breaking Bad" was something of an accident -- but now it's impossible to imagine it anywhere else

Published August 11, 2013 6:00PM (EDT)

              (AMC/Ursula Coyote)
(AMC/Ursula Coyote)

When people talk about “Breaking Bad,” they focus on Walter White. This, of course, makes sense. Though Tony Soprano will always remain the quintessential antihero for a decade of TV dominated by them, “Breaking Bad” has actually pulled us along for the ride, showing each exacting step on the path of Walt's corruption. With the impending premiere of its final eight episodes, it's too early to know for certain what the legacy of “Breaking Bad” will be, but it's probably safe to say that the process of giving your audience a problematic but sympathetic protagonist, and slowly turning him into a character many now likely root against, will be the narrative gambit the show remains known for. But the focus on the character Bryan Cranston has created does do one disservice: We don't talk enough about "Breaking Bad's" setting, an element so intrinsic to the show's nature that it's on par with any of the characters' trajectories.

It's not that people don't write about the fact that “Breaking Bad” is set in New Mexico, in the desert of the American Southwest. They mention it all the time, but it's mostly as some aside in a post otherwise for another purpose (air date news like “Walt and Jesse return to the desert on August 11th...”) or a brief description in a recap of how a shot of the sun accentuated this or that scene. One of the only notable exceptions I've come across is a recent New Yorker post by Rachel Syme, in which she discusses the power of “Breaking Bad's" setting from her perspective as a longtime New Mexico native.  And yet, without the desert “Breaking Bad” doesn't work. The desert is pivotal for the creation — and, possibly, the destruction — of Walter White.

Though it's now hard to imagine “Breaking Bad” taking place anywhere else, setting the show in New Mexico was initially circumstance. Creator and show runner Vince Gilligan has been making the interview rounds recently in preparation for “Breaking Bad's" final act, and he has repeatedly commented on the fact that he had actually planned to set the show in Southern California's Riverside County. Suddenly, you get images of “Sons of Anarchy” territory — some dry brush and the occasional highway surrounded by dusty crags, but also the idea of Walt and Jesse's RV nestled in the woods rather than in the bleak expanse outside of Albuquerque. Sony suggested the show actually film in New Mexico since there would be lower taxes, and when Gilligan began scouting there, he realized the idea shouldn't be to film there and still write the show for California, but that this was the place for his story. It was the skies that sold him. Compared to the blank blues and grays of California, Gilligan was entranced by the cumulus clouds over New Mexico, because they “give you a scope of the distance out there.” He felt like they were “virgin territory for cinematography.”

Setting is naturally always an important identity of a show, but for a lot of the other great shows of our time it came from a place of logic. “Mad Men” couldn't really take place anywhere besides Manhattan for historical and factual purposes; same goes, more or less, for “The Sopranos.” “Breaking Bad” doesn't seem beholden to that same stricture — there are suburban dads and meth dealers all over the country. Having settled on New Mexico, however, Gilligan chose a setting that became part of the fabric of the show, the desert becoming a governing characteristic aesthetically, thematically and metaphorically.

It's telling that Gilligan singled out the potential with cinematography. “Breaking Bad's" cinematography has always been singular and occasionally experimental, deploying tricks like frequent time lapses of desert sunrises or cars zipping down isolated highways or around isolated gas stations, and wide shots of an unforgiving landscape looking down on the tiny silhouettes of two characters.

This type of innovation shows up at the beginning of the pilot. “Breaking Bad” doesn't open with a shot of suburbia or of Walt, but of three still, silent shots of desert landscape, and then the sudden intrusion of the absurdity of Walt's pants floating gently through the air with an ambient backing sound, then the RV roaring through and disrupting the initial revery. All the cinematic treatment cultivates a sense of the desert as both an alien landscape and a pure and ancient place only thrown out of balance by the violent intrusion of Walt and his machinations. Five seasons on, hindsight suggests there was an implicit suggestion from the get-go: This is the place that allowed Walter White to be born, but he is a visitor passing through, and it could also be the place that will ultimately destroy him.

* * *

As an icon, the desert has a double identity. Its barrenness suggests a blank space for you to fill up with your own stories and myths, an emptiness to be written upon. At the same time, it is loaded up with associations and symbolism in a way so extreme that perhaps only a visual this dried-out and uninhabited could hold it all. In America alone, there are plenty of visions of the desert. Going back to the country's Christian roots, there's a biblical resonance, a landscape that was both origin story and a place requiring an Exodus. The religious connotations are heightened in contemporary times with homegrown American faiths like Mormonism coming to thrive in places like Utah and Nevada. The other side of that coin is the capitalistic vision, the Manifest Destiny of a frontier to be taken and mined and added to a nascent continental empire. Religion and capitalism both have plenty of their own claims to transcendence, so the connective tissue here is the classic American iconography of the Wild West: the untamed desert of the frontier as a place of new beginnings, the nation's literal building blocks of gold and oil physical manifestations of some unidentifiable potential the West is supposed to hold for self-reinvention.

That last idea has lived on in a hundred highway songs and countless depictions of East Coast dwellers envisioning California as an end point where you can start over, but Walter White is stuck on the road in between those points. It's a desert with drug cartel activity, with trains barreling through with massive quantities of methylamine, with a horizon that's still as open or empty as you choose to see it; in other words, it still feels as wild as those classic American myths. “This is the West,” a man in a dark hotel room tells Walt as he buys a gun in Season 4, before going on to explain that nobody is going to fault him for shooting a man in self-defense.

Gilligan has recently called “Breaking Bad” a postmodern western, which gets at the way the desert's double identity has produced two major effects for “Breaking Bad.” Throughout, the show reappropriates classic western imagery and signifiers, always ushered in by the eerie twang of the brief intro credits. The setting is now the suburbs rather than a Wild West town surrounded by ranches, but the neighborhood roads and parking lots of “Breaking Bad” feel as vacant as the dusty path outside of an old-time saloon. They aren't bandits hijacking a train, but there are drug dealers siphoning out its methylamine. The locales convey a sense of dread, like an attack is always looming (particularly in Season 3 with the Salamanca twins), so that when Jesse shoots Gale or Walt execute's Gus' street-level thugs or when Todd shoots the child at the train tracks, the bursts of violence feel like a darker version of the pressure release that would come at the end of a slow-building western.

Ironically, this violence never really directly comes out of any of the show's numerous meetings out in the desert. Those become more verbal and emotional showdowns, and they happen frequently. While the show usually follows an implicit criticism of Walt's insecurities regarding his masculinity, they do allow him a Wild West-esque show of bravado in the “Say my name” exchange with Declan in Season 5. Even there, though, there's a twist: This man is not an outlaw or frontier man in the classic sense, but a high school teacher and suburban dad having assumed the persona of an archetype.

This all connects to the first strand of meaning produced by “Breaking Bad's" desert setting. While on paper these descriptions would suggest the show carries a bunch of baggage by playing with all this old iconography, in reality the sparseness of its setting allows for and mirrors its narrative's relatively direct minimalism. In comparison to a dense ensemble drama like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” has anywhere from seven to nine truly central characters at any one moment, and all of them revolve around what is essentially the straight line of Walt's descent. The show's visual and narrative leanness have accentuated its raw, visceral moments. Taking a cue from the sands that open the series, “Breaking Bad” has often featured a specific palette of drab coloration: drained, pale brush, the nondescript taupe of Walt's wardrobe, the '70s brown of the RV, the anemic greens of the Aztek. Every bit of violence stands out as all the more striking in comparison, the stream of blood as Gus slits Victor's throat with the box cutter or the gore of Gus himself getting his face blown off all the more vivid against the sandy pallor that serves as the show's typical backdrop.

Like “The Sopranos” or “Mad Men,” there is actually certain logic to “Breaking Bad's" setting; if it were set in an urban center like Los Angeles or New York, it's more likely that Walt would've been found out or just shot early on. Naturally, there is a degree of hyperreal TV dramatization to the fact that those things haven't happened yet (well, aside from Hank's revelation at the end of last season), but the emptiness of the desert allows for a suspension of disbelief. Its barren landscape and the process of Walt unleashing the darker urges of his personality have a mutually primal nature. Everything in “Breaking Bad” is laid bare, the action so often occurring in broad daylight in arid stretches of dirt and sand. It would seem that the desert allowed for us to believe a character like Walt not only logically, but thematically, that the harshness of his home yielded such an uncompromising narrative. The raw power of the desert's unforgiving expanse was akin to that of a man with his back up against the wall.

* * *

There's another history to the American desert. It isn't one where unexplored corners promise the birth of a new self, or one in which there's a certain individualistic fascination with a willed lawlessness. It's one where things go to die and be buried, which is of course the other side of classic desert symbolism: Deserts are ancient, the sources of things, but also dead and abandoned, the sands eventually blowing over and erasing history.

Recently “Breaking Bad” has incorporated a literary reference. The first teaser for the final eight episodes gives no direct hints as to what's to come, featuring shots of familiar locations from the show, primarily desert landscapes, devoid of people, as we hear a voice-over of Walt reciting the Percy Bysshe Shelly poem “Ozymandias.” That poem describes a fallen monument to an ancient power in an “antique land,” working around to a conclusion describing the claim to glory (“And on the pedestal these words appear:/'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!') and how time has eaten away at whatever empire once stood there (“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”). In the teaser, the reading grows increasingly sinister until peaking with the command “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” before leveling out again, the sobered closing lines read against the image of Walt's Heisenberg hat dirty and solitary on the desert ground. This teaser has been accompanied with posters with the tag line “Remember My Name.” Walt demanding that his legacy remain, and trying to show his mastery. Both messages have an underlying desperation that suggests the legend of Heisenberg will, like Ozymandias, stand lost and isolated in the dust.

“One of the main ways we view the show is as a portrait of decay,” Gilligan told Entertainment Weekly last year. At first glance, this doesn't make much sense; much of the show has focused on Walt's increasing power. And yet, this is another one that goes all the way back to the pilot. While struggling to capture the interest of his high school chem students, Walt gives a broad lecture about the nature of chemistry: “That's all of life. It's the constant. It's the cycle. It's solution ... dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation.” Of course, back then the aha symbolism moment would rest on that last beat, the idea that we would be watching Walt transform, famously, from Mr. Chips into Scarface. But the word “decay” precedes “transformation,” and lately Gilligan has stated he believes that the truth is that there was always something dark in Walt, waiting to be called out. The rotting gives way to the transformation, which in turn gives way to more rotting. The final dissolution, the end of the cycle.

The emptiness of the desert remains the organizing principle for it all. It's the place where American iconography and history go to get swept under in nuclear waste burials and towers of old cars alike, yes, but it is also where they get strangely mutated. “Breaking Bad” takes archetypes and associations and lets them run amok, and eventually everything starts to go wrong. A lot of people get killed. Out with the rest of the country's waste, Walter White becomes an amalgam of discarded stories, becomes the character we now know, and exposes the ugliness lying underneath some of these classic American images.

Sometimes our stories seem to say that cities are where everything happens. “Breaking Bad” challenges that notion -- it shows you the madness that can occur out in the middle of the American landscape, and does it by showing these archetypal American ideas and characters and people going off the rails in a setting as simultaneously overloaded and vacant as the desert. The abandoned warehouse, the forsaken parking lot, the milquetoast suburban man —“Breaking Bad” is occupied by things that want you to think they're faceless, and yet within have our most disturbing urges catalyzing.

While the desert provides a blank expanse for all this to occur, it is an engine of decay itself. It is the source of things, and it is where things end up. It's strange and unending enough to let the stories of “Breaking Bad” unfold, but also unforgiving and ageless enough that it doesn't ultimately care. We don't yet know how “Breaking Bad” will end. Perhaps the only justice visited upon Walt will be the implication that his story, his name, will eventually be forgotten as easily as if he had never broken bad at all. Maybe his actions, with all of their violent consequences, will come to mean nothing in terms of a legacy. Ozymandias, the Wild West, Walter White — each cedes to dust and time in its way. Eventually the desert swallows it all.

By Ryan Leas

Ryan Leas (@RyanLeas) is a freelance writer based in New York. He has also written for, Stereogum, and the Village Voice's music blog Sound of the City.


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