Albuquerque was worried a TV series about drugs would ruin its name, but Stephen Kelly finds that "Breaking Bad" has created a tourism boom.
Ashlie and her husband are in the midst of a 4 100km drive from Pittsburgh to their honeymoon in California. “We both agreed, though,” she tells me, “that we have to stop off in Albuquerque for some meth.”
She is wearing a T-shirt that shouts “Yo Bitch!”, and waves her little bag of blue crystals as though they were nothing but novelty sweets.
Their dealer, the legendary Candy Lady, just looks on and smiles.
This is a mere snapshot of a tourism industry constructed around Breaking Bad: the AMC drama phenomenon in which mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) turns his expertise to producing crystal meth after a cancer diagnosis leaves him fearing for the financial future of his family.
It has translated – via Netflix, DVDs and the online underworld – into one of the most engrossingly layered character studies ever put on screen, with Walt’s five-season arc charting his fall from likable antihero into the monstrous depths of his villainous alter ego, Heisenberg.
Its writing is masterful, its performances are iconic and its setting of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has become a character in its own right — even if, understandably, the city didn’t like to acknowledge it.
“At first we thought it made us look grim and would put people off,” says Natalie Kohl, a representative of the local tourist board. “I mean, you know, it was still a show about drugs.”
City riddled with crack
You can see her point, although the subject matter doesn’t consciously define the city as it did with, say, The Wire’s depiction of Baltimore as a city riddled with crack. If anything, the setting is complementary, with creator Vince Gilligan picking Albuquerque over the original setting of California purely because of its striking sense of depth.
It’s a city that feels, at once, intimidatingly grand and comfortingly communal, where small towns find themselves neighbouring seas of desert and the looming shadows of mountainous teeth.
As the show gradually eased into popularity, around season three, the city started coming around to the idea of being associated not with “a show about drugs”, but with a critically acclaimed, Emmy-winning work of art. “We thought,” Kohl says, “that this was something we could get on board with.”
And so, here we are. It’s a pristine Saturday – hot, but not oppressively so – and I’m waiting for the flagship of Breaking Bad’s tourism industry: ABQ Trolley’s BaD Tour. Over three hours long and taking in 13 locations over 61km, the tour was set up last July by Mike and Jesse (coincidentally the names of two of the show’s characters), who have been giving open-air trolley tours of the city for the past four years.
As Breaking Bad’s final season approaches, this has been the most successful one yet: they routinely sell all 34 seats per tour within minutes of online reservations opening.
The trolley departs from the plaza of Historic Old Town: a quaint little district that offers souvenirs, a museum of natural history and a Christmas shop. The trolley starts to trundle and Crystal Blue Persuasion by Tommy James & the Shondells – soundtrack to a fantastic montage in series five – begins to play. Mike and Jesse are excited, and it’s infectious.
Television is now our literature
As we pull up at our first stop, the house belonging to Jesse Pinkman, Walt’s charismatic partner in crime, a relevant clip from the show plays on a screen overhead. Mike regales us with trivia, about how the guy who owned the house sold it after the first season, which meant they had to construct interior sets for season two.
On 16th Street, in a bright, affluent part of town, Jesse’s house is just that: a house. So why is it so bloody exciting? This inane giddiness at everyday buildings is a common theme throughout the tour. From Jesse’s house we move on to locations such as the hideout of season one’s Tuco Salamanca, the offices of crooked lawyer Saul Goodman (now a bar called Hooligans), the Octopus car wash where Walt moonlights in episode one, an eventful street corner, a Denny’s restaurant ...
All of which are, when you take a step back, too laughably banal to “ooh”, “aah” and take pictures of. But that, it becomes clear, is the power of this show: its themes, characters and story are as immersive as a great novel. And if, as artist Grayson Perry said earlier this year, television is now our literature, the tour is like a walk around the pages of your favourite book.
This is no more true than when we pull into one of the two major highlights: Los Pollos Hermanos, the fried chicken chain owned by season two’s infamous druglord Gus Fring. In reality, it’s a burger joint called Twisters, which – much like everywhere in New Mexico – serves its food with either red or green chillies.
The interior declares proudly: “Yes! Breaking Bad was filmed at Twisters!” and even has a guest book for tourists to sign.
Albuquerque tourist board
The teenagers behind the counter look at us with withering contempt, an expression that also flashes across Mike and Jesse’s faces as another tour group enters. “One more stop,” Jesse says, regarding them frostily. “The White house.”
According to Gilligan’s pilot script, “no president ever slept there”, but you would disagree if you had heard the gasps. Walter White’s house is right there. Mike plays us a clip from season three, in which Walt, enraged, manages to throw a gigantic pizza on to the garage roof.
“Apparently,” he laughs, “the guy who owns the place goes out to pick up his paper some days, and has to remove a giant pizza a fan has thrown up there.”
But given that the owners, according to local lore, have made up to $500 000 from filming fees, they can probably live with it. “He even comes out and says hello sometimes,” says Jesse.
The tour finishes there, which gives me a chance to ask Jesse about that rival tour group. I’d thought these guys were the only ones.
“The Candy Lady,” Jesse replies. “She sent an employee on our tour once and then, a few weeks later, they had one. Pretty convenient.”
Debbie Ball, aka the Candy Lady, is what the Albuquerque tourist board has come to call “a character”. Her sweet shop, on Old Town’s Romero Road, rose to local notoriety in the 1980s when she started selling erotic confectionery.
'Sex and drugs'
Since then, though, her most famous product has been “meth” in little “drug dealer” bags that were used as props in the first two seasons. She now sells them for a dollar each, shifting more than 25 000 in less than a year. Breaking Bad fans, she tells us, account for 20% of her income: “We really didn’t think it was going to take off like it did. At least now I can say that we sell sex and drugs.”
“They don’t see it as a drug – they see it as a prop,” she says, before assuring me that the sweets are never, ever sold to children.
Is this whole thing, overall, a big ol’ sinister cash-in or just a harmless bit of tourism?
That, it would appear, depends not only on your own sensibilities, but also on how chatty you feel like being when bringing your faux meth back through customs. One thing’s for sure: much like Breaking Bad itself, Albuquerque is certainly not boring. – © Guardian News & Media 2013