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Thoughts on “Breaking Bad”

The acclaimed AMC television drama “Breaking Bad” has received a lot of attention in recent weeks because it is embarking on its fifth and last season.

For those who are unfamiliar, “Breaking Bad” tells the story of Walter White, a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who morphs into a drug kingpin. A diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer unleashes his id (“I am awake”). He initially begins to cook high-quality methamphetamine to provide a nest egg for her pregnant wife and his handicapped son, but his activities begin to swamp his life and others.

This video conveys the tone of the series:

I’ve watched about 15 episodes on Netflix. In addition to the terrific acting and writing, “Breaking Bad” shows how the smallest details can trip up the most intelligent criminal.

Another thing notable about “Breaking Bad” is it’s shot in Albuquerque. The producers undoubtedly shot in New Mexico to take advantage of generous tax credits for the film industry. But “Breaking Bad” wisely included Albuquerque as a vital part of the setting. I recognized many landmarks from the series, including at least two scenes at the historic Dog House restaurant on Route 66. Albuquerque has made such a big impression on “Breaking Bad,” the city often is described as another character.

That leads to this essay in the New Yorker by Albuquerque native Rachel Syme, who observed the big increase of “Breaking Bad” tours and tourists in her hometown:

Many people have asked me if I think “Breaking Bad” shines a “bad light” on the state. I don’t. And, often, the unabashed love of Walt and co. by locals (citywide events, themed microbrews, Heisenberg hat manufacturers) is puzzling to outsiders. The show is a fable about seediness and monstrosity and a city ravaged by drug trouble. Baltimore isn’t exactly putting up billboards about “The Wire.” (But we are!) I try to explain that New Mexicans are proud of anything that draws us out of neglect, out of never really fitting in. We are just happy to be considered, even if it is for our underbelly.

Perhaps it’s also because we realize there is no sense in hiding our dark side, which is so deep a part of living in a state that has been dismissed and economically hobbled from the start. (We tried to become a state for more than fifty years; no one wanted us; we offered to change the state name to Lincoln; they still didn’t.) […]

When I spoke with Ball, the Candy Lady, about the influx of interest in the state’s more sordid affairs, she told me that she doesn’t see a downside to it. She also told me that last year, just as her sugary narcotics made national news, her daughter-in-law died from a meth overdose. The reality of her life and that of the show are constantly in collision, in a way that might make other people turn away and look forward to its end. But she doesn’t want “Breaking Bad” to be over. She’ll keep selling blue rocks as long as the people arrive. “The whole world can see Albuquerque now,” she says. “They see us with all our problems. We’re not shy about it, just as I’m not shy about mine. But the people … they also see the sky. They never knew! I get so many travellers who tell me they can’t believe this place. They can’t believe this has been a part of their country, this whole time.”

This excerpt dovetails back to a series of discussions during the Route 66 Summit a few weeks ago in Joplin, Mo. Michael Wallis said (paraphrased) to “tell the truth about history of Route 66. Don’t just sugar-coat for nostalgia. People want the real history.” Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program director Kaisa Barthuli said “people are looking for authentic interactions with people in a community. They want to hear your stories.”

That’s what’s holding back many communities on Route 66. Residents in small towns that deteriorated in the interstate era often are ashamed. Residents of gritty larger towns (such as Albuquerque) or with unsavory histories (Tulsa) often are apologetic or defensive.

Instead, these residents and towns need to take ownership of that history and what they have. I’m not saying towns shouldn’t try to improve their economies and standards of living. But these towns also need to accept what they are and embrace it. Tulsa ought to own up to the 1921 Race Riot and its one of its racist town fathers instead of trying to ignore them. Virden, Ill., should play up the 1898 massacre between security guards and miners that left 11 people dead (and helped kick-start the career of a prominent union activist). And the coming years, Joplin, Mo., should tell visitors of the 2011 tornado that forever altered the city.

Even Disney has learned its lesson from this. The fictional Route 66 town of Radiator Springs in the movie “Cars” is imbued with tragedy because it shriveled after being bypassed by the interstate. With this background of heartbreak, it becomes even more moving when the sun sets on Radiator Springs in Cars Land and its neon lights flash to life.

In short, Route 66 should embrace all the wonderful, happy, sad and messy things of its history — and its present.

(Image of “Breaking Bad” street art by YVRBCbro, via Flickr)

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