‘A city in the desert: Landscape and Breaking Bad‘ was published in PopMatters on 20 August 2013.
Breaking Bad begins in the desert. It opens on still shots of vegetation and rock formations before cutting to open, blue sky. The empty frame is interrupted by a strange object drifting into shot: a pair of pants, falling gently through the air. The pants hit the ground and are run over by a white RV, tearing along a dirt road. The driver of the RV is a man wearing only his underwear and a gas mask, but further shots of the RV’s interior reveal a passenger unconscious in its front seat and chaos in its rear, as two more unconscious bodies are thrown about amidst breaking glass and spilling liquids. The driver eventually loses control and the RV careens off the road, crashing into an embankment. The driver gets out of the RV, puts on a shirt and retrieves a gun from one of the bodies in the back along with a video camera. We learn the man’s name is Walter White as he records a message saying goodbye to his family, then takes the gun from his underwear and walks back up to the road. The scene ends with Walter standing half-naked in the middle of a desert road, aiming a gun towards the sound of approaching sirens.
Since first airing in 2008, Breaking Bad has been lauded for its unique and dramatic visual style. From cinematography to editing, each episode feels meticulously crafted, the director’s authorial hand ever present to lead the viewer through the story. Every shot is as precise and deliberate a storytelling tool as the scriptwriting or the actors” performances. Playing a huge role in the startling visuals of the series are its twin settings of suburban Albuquerque, where protagonist Walter “Walt” White lives with his family, and the New Mexico desert lurking at its borders.
Read the full essay in PopMatters.