Vince Gilligan on Albuquerque

Ursula Coyote/AMC

The creator of "Breaking Bad" has fallen for New Mexico’s second city.

I went to Albuquerque for the money, plain and simple. I’m not proud to admit that, but there it is. I’m happy to say it turned out to be a fine decision.

In 2006, when I was preparing to shoot the first episode of Breaking Bad, I intended to set the series in southern California. However, New Mexico was offering Hollywood a relocation incentive—one that amounted to a 25 percent rebate on all production money spent in-state. Figuring a meth lab’s a meth lab (and knowing they exist, unfortunately, from sea to shining sea), I transplanted our tale of middle-age crises and drug dealing to the Duke City. I had no clue what an impact this move would have.

Albuquerque has become a character in our story as surely as Walter White is a character. And like Walt, there are two sides to Albuquerque, light and dark. The city is full of friendly people and surrounded by an abundance of stark, natural beauty. It also contains places you’d best not roam at night.

It’s a bisected city. The Rio Grande runs through it, dividing it east and west. Then two broad interstates, I-40 and I-25, meet up square in the middle and chop it into quarters. If you drive through it at 70 miles per hour, it looks like a land of strip malls and Applebee’s. But when you get down off the elevated concrete and into the neighborhoods, you find hidden gems of art, culture and history. You find an excellent public aquarium located 700 miles from the nearest ocean. It’s that kind of place.

Santa Fe gets all the tourist love, and its name is a lot easier to spell. But while Santa Fe is charming and picturesque, Albuquerque is cinematic. For proof, look no farther than the Ernst Haas–worthy neon motel signs lining Central Avenue, the roadbed of old Route 66. Or the Sandia Mountains to the east, looming over everything. They get their name from the way they light up bright red in the sunset like a big slice of watermelon.

Albuquerque—light and dark, yin and yang—was, in hindsight, the only conceivable location for Breaking Bad. It teems with all the personality and flavor our postmodern western could ever need. I think of dark blue skies dotted with cotton-ball clouds hanging over an endless desert plain. I try to picture what our show would be without those skies, and I can’t.

Breaking Bad returns for its final season on August 11 on AMC.