By Ashley Crowson, king’s College London
Depending on your TV viewing habits, the house below is either an entirely unremarkable suburban residence or it is the home of television’s greatest antihero, unassuming high school chemistry teacher turned underworld kingpin Walter White.
This house has recently featured in the entertainment press as Breaking Bad creator, Vince Gilligan, while discussing the show’s new spinoff series Better Call Saul, has chastised fans for repeatedly throwing pizzas on to its roof. The house, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is home to a retired couple and was used for exterior shots in the show. The pizza throwing fans are replicating an infamous scene, in which an enraged Walt hurls a ‘party pizza’ on to the garage roof.
Visits to the White residence, alongside many other sites used as locations on the show, have been driving something of a tourism boom in Albuquerque. Fans can take Breaking Bad tours and buy merchandise at numerous themed gift shops. This impulse to undertake a pilgrimage to locations associated with popular films and TV series is something that has intrigued geographers.
Couldry (2003) argues that such pilgrimages are implicitly connected to the symbolic authority of the media; they represent a symbolic journey in which the distance between the ‘ordinary world’ and the ‘media world’ is momentarily collapsed, giving the impression that this boundary is traversable.
Writing in Area, Stijn Reijnders take issue with this approach, arguing, “We should take into account the cultural embeddedness of media pilgrimages.” And that we need to acknowledge “the way the authority of the media is related to other power structures, such as gender and ethnicity.” Reijnders does this by focussing on the relation between media pilgrimages and masculinity, looking specifically at why fans travel to James Bond film locations.
Reijnders explains, “Scholars interpret Bond as a paragon of manliness – a paragon with a strongly conservative and hetero-normative disposition… The respondents recognise this sexual ideology, but without explicitly condemning it. On the contrary, these fans – the majority of whom are white, heterosexual men – adore the character of Bond. Exploring his world and repeating some of his actions affords these fans the opportunity to embody and act out a certain idealised masculinity.”
Breaking Bad is also a show with a lot to say about masculinity. One reading might interpret it as a cautionary tale about the foolishness of traditional notions of masculinity. In one scene, big-time drug dealer Gus Fring tells Walt, “A man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.”
This is a concept of masculinity that our protagonist seems to embrace. When Walt gets his cancer diagnosis, pride prevents him from accepting assistance from very wealth former colleagues. Instead, in a bid to ‘provide for his family’, he embarks on a course of violence, criminality, brutality and, ultimately, tragedy.
An alternative reading might see the show as revelling in the transformation of Walter White from a meek and nerdy teacher to a hyper-masculine gun-toting criminal mastermind. The audience is invited to celebrate occasions when Walt dominates and out-manoeuvres his prototypically macho brother-in-law, who previously mocked his bookish demeanour.
Reijnders concludes that media pilgrimages are about more than simply closing the gap between the ‘ordinary world’ and the ‘media world’. Imitating Bond “at the very place where he was sitting, running, ﬁghting or making love” enables fans to “recollect the roots of their own masculinity, to refresh it and to deﬁne it.”
Unlike Bond, who arrives as a fully formed paragon of heteronormative masculinity, Walter White transforms into something not too dissimilar on screen. Many of the male pizza tossing fans, then, who travel great distances, often at considerable expense, to replicate the antics of their hero might be considered not just to be closing the gap between ‘real world’ and ‘TV world’, but to be engaged in processes of defining and redefining their own masculinity, processes in which location is of crucial importance.
Stijn Reijnders, 2010, On the trail of 007: media pilgrimages into the world of James Bond, Area 42(3) 369-377.
Nick Couldry, 2003, Media Rituals: A Critical Approach. Psychology Press.