Having grown up in the country, perhaps it was the rural setting of Breaking Bad that first addicted me to the show. The desert and scrubland around Albuquerque, where Breaking Bad occurs, are a far cry from the Midwestern forests I was raised on. But I nevertheless feel a certain kinship with Breaking Bad’s wide-open plains. Like my dense, dark forests, the New Mexico desert onscreen feels endlessly vast, a space for imaginations to run wild, a world that calls us to explore. So when I discovered the show late last August, I couldn’t help but try to see as much of it as I could, as quickly as possible.
American television’s gone through a renaissance in the last fifteen years, catching up to Hollywood in terms of writing, acting, and cinematography. The West Wing, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men all elevate TV from mere entertainment to serious drama. But for me, these shows’ East Coast settings remain basically alien. I haven’t lived in a high-rise or a row house, and my hometown largely lacked Mafiosos, street gangs, or swanky cocktail parties. The Wire’s characters are still fundamentally relatable—that’s what makes it great art—but the more suburban concerns of Breaking Bad’s protagonists, often played out against its rural desert backdrop, feel a whole lot closer to home. And since the Wild West is such an archetype for the whole American experience, maybe the show’s saying we’re all desert dwellers in some strange way.
Breaking Bad’s “Pilot” fades in on the Chihuahuan Desert as if we’re cowboys just opening our eyes, the real world slipping away like some half-forgotten dream as we’re sucked into the show’s mise-en-scene. Birds call softly while we scroll through shots of twisting cacti and elegantly eroded rock formations. It’s peaceful, pastoral, yellow-red bluffs against a sapphire sky. It could be the opening of a nature documentary on Discovery Channel, and I half expect, every time I re-watch it, a voiceover from David Attenborough or Morgan Freeman.
Then–abruptly, swiftly–eerie music builds to a tremendous pitch, and a pair of khaki slacks float surreally across the sky, billowing like a jellyfish in deep ocean. The slacks touch down on a dirt road that’s about the same khaki color, and Breaking Bad’s action begins. A beat up RV runs over the slacks, swerving wildly across the road, a green button-down shirt on a hanger trailing from one side view mirror. The RV crashes, and a man stumbles out in tighty-whities and a gas mask. When he hears sirens in the distance, he pulls a gun out of his underwear, walks into the road, and we cut to credits.
Our gas masked hero, of course, is Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher whose new side job cooking crystal meth steadily transforms him into the show’s arch-villain. Despite Walt’s murderous ways, he never feels simply or stereotypically evil. Bryan Cranston plays Walt with tremendous reserve, refusing to let his expression show us just what Walt’s thinking. But he also acts with tremendous tension: Walt’s taut grimace and searing gaze, hovering somewhere between anguish and rage, indicate just how hard he’s always thinking. So Walt’s mind seems like a caged beast prowling behind his eyes, as enigmatic and inaccessible to us as in that strange first scene, yet waiting to pounce upon us. Walt appears utterly unpredictable, as if he could choose to do anything next, and even when he slips up it’s tempting to say he chooses to do so, that he controls his own destiny completely and could break out of his villainous role in the show if that’s what he wanted.
The desert, to return to my theme, plays an important role in giving Walt such freedom to shape himself. Breaking Bad loves time-lapse shots of the desert, sometimes over the course of multiple days, and it frequently employs panoramic long shots to establish the scene of Walt’s next murder, heist, meth cook, or drug deal. These shots create an airy sense of openness and emptiness, implying that no matter where the camera’s looking now, we’re really seeing just a tiny part of a huge arid landscape that extends over three states and the border with Mexico. So the desert gives Walt a place beyond the control of others, a place in which he can act as he wants, in which he can become the person he wants to be.
And a place where he can kill whomever he wants, before dissolving their bodies in hydrofluoric acid.
Breaking Bad’s desert is a place of paradox, just like that opening scene that’s both nature documentary and surrealist action film. In the desert, Walt gets to choose who he wants to be, quitting his middle-class life to deal drugs. In “Say My Name,” it’s at a desert rendezvous that Walt truly embraces the new identity he’s created for himself as the drug kingpin Heisenberg. But the desert’s also where Walt violently strips other people of their ability to choose who they want to be, intimidating them into following his orders, or killing them outright. In “Dead Freight,” after a train robbery fit for any John Wayne or Clint Eastwood Western, Walt’s minion shoots a kid who happened to catch them in the act, probably the show’s most unforgivable killing yet. The open space of the desert enables freedom, but in doing so it necessarily enables oppression as well.
Call this the paradox of freedom, and the contradiction at the very heart of the American experience: how do individuals maintain their liberty while living together? The three-fifths compromise, the Civil War, and the myriad struggles for civil rights over the last century or so bear painful witness to this paradox, and Breaking Bad puts it center stage, a philosophical investigation of human freedom disguised as a cops-and-robbers action show.
Mad Men similarly interrogates the contradictions of liberty, as Don Draper’s ability to shape himself tortures his wives’ psyches. But Breaking Bad takes us back to the Wild West, reemphasizing the importance of the American landscape as it contemplates the sublime possibilities and extreme dangers of individual freedom. From Manifest Destiny to early-20th-century imperialism to the Space Race, America’s understanding of liberty has intertwined with our experience of space. We’ve defined freedom as the ability to expand our sphere of influence and action, and we’ve done our damnedest to forget the people we’ve oppressed in doing so. One thinks of a cowboy president deciding that a couple of Middle Eastern countries should be ours as well, or a more dispassionate empire-builder with drones and NSA eavesdroppers to extend America’s reach abroad. In this context, Breaking Bad’s lush landscape shots remind us of geography’s central importance to our liberty—and to our unspeakable crimes.
At the end of last season, Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law Hank discovered Walt’s secret identity by picking up Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Finding one Walt in the pages of another couldn’t be apter, for Whitman declares “I contain multitudes” and identifies himself with northerners, southerners, Canadians, Africans, Europeans, and Asians: “such as it is to be of these more or less I am.” Whitman claims that his “eyes settle the land,” so that he conquers diverse landscapes by gazing and writing upon them, shaping his own identity by expanding himself across the earth.
As he builds a drug empire that spans the Southwest and, improbably, the Czech Republic, Walter White similarly tries to expand himself not only into multiple personae as a family man and a drug dealer, but also into the lives of his wife Skyler and his partner Jesse, seeking to control their very feelings and desires. Breaking Bad thus forcefully depicts the dark side, the danger of expanding ourselves in Whitman’s way, the dead bodies and broken families that may follow in its wake.
And so it warns me, too, about the dangers of reductively identifying my childhood forests with a fictional desert halfway across the country. The dangers of claiming to speak for everyone about “the American experience” as a whole. Breaking Bad reminds us that our ability to imagine other lives for ourselves, and to imagine ourselves expanding into others’ lives and other places, can all too easily slip from Walt Whitman’s democratic diversity and exploration into Walter White’s murderous, imperious imposition of himself on everyone around. Freedom, the show tells us, can be as evil as it is good. Liberty is a desert, and we make of it what we will.
[Ed note: Breaking Bad’s final season debuts August 11 on AMC.]