The Hills Have Eyes for Saul Goodman
When the cable drama Breaking Bad wrapped up in 2014, I wrote that the story stood as an example of how America’s nuclear legacy is usually overlooked in popular culture. Here we have a story about an evil genius scientist, set in the birthplace of the nuclear era, yet the characters never make explicit reference to Los Alamos or Alamogordo, nuclear waste sites or the many techno-scientific institutions of national security throughout the state. On one occasion, nuclear history appeared as a backdrop (season 2, episode 7) when Walt met with three of his distributors at the National Atomic Museum. It was here that he got the inspiration to make his distribution grow exponentially, like a nuclear chain reaction. The setting helped to underscore that Walt had decided to "go nuclear" in expanding his drug business.
Perhaps the nuclear theme had to be back-grounded in order to sustain the conceit of the story: that a brilliant scientist like Walter White could find employment only as a high school chemistry teacher. In reality, he would have had many opportunities in the defense labs that New Mexico is famous for. It also seems like a good choice to keep the nuclear history in the background because, in reality, that's where it is for most New Mexicans. It is the air they breathe, so no one has to think about it much.
After production of Breaking Bad finished, the creator Vince Gilligan began work on the spinoff Better Call Saul, which tells the back story of the “criminal” criminal lawyer, Saul Goodman ('ts'all good, man). Based on what happened in the last episode of season one, it seems as though the writers want to keep making occasional oblique references to the nuclear history of the state. In the final episode, the beleaguered hero has a “meltdown” while hosting a bingo night at a seniors’ residence. He takes a break from calling the numbers and launches into a rant about his New Mexico state of mind:
None of us is ever leaving this godforsaken wasteland… I mean, what is it with this place? It's like living inside an Easybake oven. Look out that window. It's like a soulless, radioactive Georgia O'Keeffe hellscape out there, crawling with coral snakes and scorpions. Did you ever see the movie The Hills Have Eyes? It’s a documentary! God forbid your car breaks down and you have to walk ten steps: you've got a melanoma the size of a pineapple where your head used to be. So you ask why, if that's how I feel, why do I live here... why? (episode ten, 11:06~)
The Hills Have Eyes (2006 remake of the 1977 original) is a horror film set in New Mexico in which a family is lost in the desert and tormented and hunted by mutant humans born from a nuclear testing site. A reviewer, Richard Scheib, wrote that the remake has…
… an entire subtext about America’s repressed past emerging to devour itself—the credits play over a mix of footage from the 1950s A-bomb tests, while elsewhere there is footage from a documentary about Agent Orange. When we go visit the mutant’s lair, we see a desolate desert town filled with mannequins, antiquated 1950s-styled decor and where a mutant with a giant brain sits watching Divorce Court (1999– )… The Hills Have Eyes (2006) also opts into the view that America’s dirty warlike past has bred a world in the present where such madness seems a natural outgrowth.
The remake was made by French director Alexandre Aja. Perhaps because he was a foreigner looking at America, he was more inclined to put the nuclear history into the story and inject a political subtext into what is, on the surface, B-grade horror shlock.
The nuclear testing village portrayed was a real thing in the history of nuclear testing, but it was built in Nevada. Another, more serious inaccuracy was the depiction of the mutants. Their appearance was inspired by the features of real people born in irradiated environments like Chernobyl and Semipalatinsk. Reviewers and audiences never seemed to reflect on how this aspect of the film might have impacted the feelings of people who have actually been affected by nuclear technology. Was it insensitive to create a work of commercial entertainment that depicts them as savage and vengeful murderers? The real hibakusha in the world have never done anything more than peacefully protest against the inhumanity of nuclear technology. I suppose this is why they call this genre of film “exploitation.”
As the review above states about The Hills Have Eyes, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are also about the “past emerging to devour itself,” and indeed it does in reality as the New Mexico economy has begun to feed off these stories of its own history. The setting is economic and social decline in a state addicted to defense spending. These stories are so grim that they shouldn’t be welcome publicity for New Mexico. They have nothing uplifting to say about the region’s history, but it is what it is. There is money to be made in chasing the vapors cast off by this legacy—the jobs for film crews and tour operators who take visitors to all the famous Breaking Bad filming locations. The question remains: can art lead us to a better place, or does it just provide comfort on the way down?