As I mentioned below, one of the weird and stupid reasons New Mexico popped into my head as a vacation destination was Breaking Bad.
I had another link to New Mexico: my aunt – my father’s younger sister, lived most of her adult life there. We had visited once, probably when we lived in Lubbock, so when I was around 3 or 4. I swear, the only thing I remember – and I do remember it – was the decorative concrete blocks that made their carport wall. For some reason, the look and texture of that stuck , and up to this trip, if you said the word, “Albuquerque,” that’s the background image that floated through my brain.
The blocks evoke more, too. Mixed up there with Albuquerque, they evoke “hot,” “dry,” the early sixties, and going on trips in big, heavy cars.
Quite a bit.
But that was it. They had moved to Clovis a while back, and then my uncle died, and then two years ago – a year before my dad, her brother, my aunt died.
So no family called me there any more. Just the landscape, the history and culture, the food, and, yeah, Breaking Bad.
I didn’t take us out of our way to see any Breaking Bad sites. Because this is the world of the Internet, and people are crazy, there are, of course, detailed maps of shooting locations – for every scene – of the show, which is completely shot in and around Albuquerque (one of the reasons it is one of the more expensive shows on television: it’s all shot on location.)
So, as we wandered the city last Thursday, I checked in at a few places that were on our routes.
The hotel where we stayed is near the airport (pardon me…Sunport) and hence, just a mile or so south of UNM – and this duplex is very close – it’s the duplex where Walt’s former student and current meth cooking partner lived, found his girlfriend Jane, and where…really bad things happened, one of which Jesse still doesn’t know about, and when he finds out…well.
By the way, you may be wondering what Breaking Bad is about. It’s about sin. It’s about why not do..whatever..if there are no apparent consequences. It’s about those consequences, which are not so illusory after all. And at the core of it, it’s about the perversion of the teacher-student relationship, about what Mr. White does to Jesse Pinkman. It’s an intense, fascinating and sobering hint of creative process to know that the original intention was to kill Jesse off during the first season – I can’t imagine what the show would be like without him. Not just because Aaron Paul is superb and the character provides an odd sort of moral core, but because, as I said, that relationship reveals the most about the corrosion of Walter White’s soul – more than his relationship with his family, more than his relationship with his “customers” whose lives are destroyed by his “product,” whom he never seems to think twice about. Jesse Pinkman is all of them, in one wiry, wide-eyed, nervous package.
Okay. Then it was east to the Sandia Crest Tram. The Schrader’s house is right on the way, with the mountain in the background. Very nice neighborhood.
(Hank and Marie Shrader- Walter White’s brother and sister-in-law (his wife’s sister) – Hank is a DEA agent whose presence in Walt’s life was partially responsible for planting the notion of cooking meth in his head at the beginning…and who, we can be sure, will be part of the end of it.)
One the way back from the tram to the Old Town area, we could stop at the White’s house.
Saul Goodman’s office – where the Hooligan’s sign is – is in a strip mall, a little more than a half mile from the White’s, which surprised me.
Then, after Old Town, Tuco’s HQ.
I had wanted to go to the car wash and Los Pollos Hermanos (which is a branch of a local chain called Twister’s), but they were out of the way – well, I don’t think the car wash was, but by the time I figured that out, we were on the other side of town, and were going to to try to hit the Petroglyph National Monument (failed- dust and then rainstorm came up).
It was all quite fascinating to me, the chance to compare reality to the unreality of what ends up on the screen. I’ve noticed before, when I’ve seen, for example, television sets in person, how smaller everything appears, how less shiny and perfect. Same way with these Breaking Bad landmarks. Most startling was Tuco’s HQ, which is not, as it turns out, a ratty run-down office building in a slum with junkies and hoods peopling the sidewalk, but rather a coffeeshop just a quiet block away from downtown.
The magic of television.
Something similar – but different – happened north of this, in Rancho de Taos.
People come from far away to paint, draw, and photograph the back – not the front, just the back – of S. Francisco de Asis church. Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe being the most well known, of course. It is the lines, I’m told. And they are striking.
So the day we took the High Road to Taos and were just wandering around up there, I made a point to look for this church, to see it for myself. From all the various renderings of it, I had somehow come to think that the structure was located in an open space somewhere – perhaps on a hill, just off a side road, with nothing else around.
Which is why, despite the GPS on my phone, I couldn’t find it at first. It kept taking me to a rather congested area, and I kept thinking, “it’s not here. Can’t be. There are too many other buildings – I know it’s in open space.”
But it’s not at all. Yes, there is a small plaza surrounding it, but it’s smack in the middle of a lot of other structures lining a busy state highway.
What I have been thinking about since seeing all this has concerned the process of making art of any kind. When I stand, myself, in person, in front of Jesse’s Duplex of Death or the White’s house or Tuco’s lair, I see all sorts of things. I see the buildings themselves, I see the houses next door, the streets behind and in front, I see the big metal neighborhood mailbox right up against the porch. But when I see these same places on television or on a photographic print or canvas, all of those other things disappear, and not just because they’ve been edited out or covered up. That is certainly part of it, but it’s also because they eye of the artist directs my eyes to what he wants me to see. He is telling this story and he is using this setting to tell it in his way, and so at the moment, that’s what I see.
My greatest struggle as a writer is settling on a story to tell. I start on anything, and my mind immediately starts traveling down other possible roads, because I can see all of them, they all appear interesting and suggestive, and I find it a huge challenge to settle on one moment in one spot and direct my energies to excavating the truth waiting to be revealed there, rather than being fearful that if I don’t take in all that’s in the periphery, I will miss something, leave something out.
One of the most surprising Breaking Bad-related points about Albuquerque was the landscape. The visual perspective is (outside of the city) overwhelmingly flat desert with mountains in the far distance. It is where Walt and Jesse go to cook. It is where they run, drive, escape – rattling around on dirt paths carved through scrubby desert plains.
I was amazed to see that the city of Albuquerque is dominated by a mountain. The Sandia mountains loom to the east, and in fact, border the city. There are enormous peaks which, especially on the other side, turn almost Alpine. For decades, people have skied these mountains. On the day we were there, it was misty, damp and sixty degrees on top.
I thought…now there’s a choice.
The choice was to situate the show looking west and south, to place the story in the context of scrub, desert, rocks, dust and only distant dark mountains. How would the narrative and sensibilities been different if, instead of the desert, the forested mountain, with its crags, recesses, rockfaces, bears and coolness, had provided the primary visual setting?
I’m not arguing – at all – with the decision to look east and south to the desert, to Mexico – but just as seeing those houses, so much dingier and smaller in real life, just as seeing S. Francisco, so hemmed in by business and noise – that mountain dominating the city in a way that I would never have known from just absorbing Vince Gilligan’s narrative of the story he’s telling in that place – it made clear to me that there’s nothing to be afraid of in clearing out the frame. In the anxiety to take it all in, you end up taking in nothing. You’ve got to choose what to see and tell, and be brave about it, or else no one ends up seeing anything at all.