As Breaking Bad nears its end, ShortList’s David Whitehouse discovers the unlikely tourist boom keeping its legacy alive
The old lady hands over the little bag of blue crystals. “Your meth,” she says. You pay, leave, then find a quiet place to ingest. It’s a powerful high, like you knew it would be. You’re off your box on an intense sugar rush. “Have a nice day,” chirps the Albuquerque Candy Lady. This is Breaking Bad Land. TV tourism ain’t what it used to be.
Launched in 2008 as US cable network AMC’s second original drama, Breaking Bad’s cultural impact has grown and grown. Fervour for the show is frothier than an overdose, and is soon to climax as the final eight episodes screen on US TV – and you’d imagine Netflix in the UK – from 8 August. As devotees wait to find out how Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) journey from cancer-ridden teacher to drug lord ends (horrifically, we presume), they’ve been busy. The web heaves with fan art. Walt and Jesse’s yellow boiler suits are fancy dress staples. The show’s been reimagined with murderous Lego models. The Simpsons gave over its opening titles to a Breaking Bad homage.
And now, in New Mexico where the show’s set, it has spawned an unlikely, booming industry. After all, unemployment, crystal meth and murder is usually a tough sell for a tourist board. Just ask Blackpool.
The Candy Lady, Debbie Ball, has sold more than 25,000 $1 bags of her blue meth candy in less than a year. Breaking Bad fandom accounts for 20 per cent of her income, though her relationship with the show stretches back further still. Her candy is used as prop meth in the first two seasons.
Now she ships it all over the world and, as you might expect, her ingenuity attracted some outrage from people who argued that drug-themed confectionary shouldn’t be sold to kids.
“But that hasn’t happened,” she says. “One hundred per cent of it has gone to Breaking Bad fans.”
She’s not the only one cooking meth while the sun shines. The Breaking Bad-themed tour of Albuquerque we’ve come for routinely sells out within minutes of reservations opening. It ferries fans to the show’s key locations. The house Jesse (Aaron Paul) lives in. Mexican kingpin Tuco’s den. The money-laundering carwash.
But ShortList’s favourite stop on the tour is chicken shop Los Pollos Hermanos, the front for Gus Fring’s drug empire which, in reality, is a New Mexico fast food chain called Twisters that doesn’t even sell chicken.
The tour culminates with a visit to Walt’s house – its owner is rumoured to have made up to $500,000 from filming. Not bad for a little disruption and a faint stain from the scene where Cranston threw a pizza on to the roof.
“Apparently,” grins the tour guide, “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.”
This is a level of worship few TV shows – especially Emmy-winning complex sagas – can draw. You don’t get Last Of The Summer Wine fans (either of them) tearing around the Yorkshire Dales. While Sex And The City or The Sopranos drive set visit tourism, Breaking Bad has undulated through the local economy.
Breaking Bad’s popularity is born of its Dickensian scope. Set against Albuquerque’s physically beautiful but psychologically strange mix of mountain and desert, it’s a sprawling, richly imagined analog US. Within the sanctity of its creator Vince Gilligan’s hyper real bubble, it explores morality, from the everyday (lying to lovers) to the enormous (a mid-air plane collision, and the tired air traffic controller who caused it).
It’s novelistic in arc and depth. Which is why, like with a great book, people want to experience living inside it. What’s more, it has been drip-fed into British public consciousness thanks to the bizarre failure of any broadcaster to properly screen it.
Instead we have sought our fix on DVD or from Netflix, which preys on the show’s addictiveness by only giving you 15 seconds to switch it off before another episode begins.
This has engendered word-of-mouth affection for the series in an audience weakened by the usual hype. It has made discovering and watching it an experience, and slowly falling in love with it has carried it into a life beyond the small screen.
Fiona, a woman from Wisconsin who we meet in the candy shop, even brought her husband here to celebrate their first anniversary. “We came on our honeymoon last year, because I love Breaking Bad,” she says. “But we couldn’t do the tour, so we came back.”
Keith and Andre West-Harrison run Great Face And Body, an Albuquerque beauty product company. One Wednesday last August, the pair came up with the idea of making their bath salts blue, a nod to Walt’s pure crystal meth, and selling it in bags – like the drug. They set up a Facebook page for Bathing Bad on the Thursday, and sold 12 bags before they’d even made any. The next Monday the Los Angeles Times was on the phone wanting to talk about it. Now they make 50lb of the stuff at a time. If it was actual methamphetamine, their lavender, orange and frankincense concoction (Keith: “We decided it had to be invigorating [as] truckers use meth to stay awake for three days”) would have a street value of $1.3 million.
The effect of the show on the community’s economy has even led to the passing of legislature known as the Breaking Bad bill, providing tax breaks between 25 and 30 per cent to productions filming in New Mexico. As a result, Albuquerque studios have become big business in North America. Avengers Assemble, the first Transformers film and forthcoming The Lone Ranger were all filmed here.
Breaking Bad will soon be over, but in Albuquerque’s tours, bath products and confectionary it will have a life after the event. That it’s steeped in drugs isn’t ideal for the tourist board, but they’re realising the response is due to the love of a good story, not meth.
“I have servicemen ordering big uncracked slabs of blue candy – when they have a party they bring it out and share it with their friends,” laughs the Candy Lady. “You just gotta remember: It’s not meth. It’s candy.” Abuse of either, we’ll add, will ruin your teeth.
Breaking Bad Season 5 is out on Blu-ray and DVD on 3 June; itsatrip.org/breakingbad
(Image: All Star)