SANTA FE, N.M. -- Bronze statues of mythical methamphetamine cookers Walter White and Jesse Pinkman were installed at a convention center in Albuquerque on Friday to celebrate the "Breaking Bad" TV series and its entertainment legacy, winning applause in a city that played its own gritty supporting role.
Local politicians including Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller mixed with "Breaking Bad" stars Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and director Vince Gilligan to help unveil the artwork, donated by Gilligan and Sony Pictures.
The 2008-2013 show and its ongoing prequel "Better Call Saul" helped fuel a renaissance in filmmaking across New Mexico, while also cutting close to Albuquerque's real-life struggles with drug addiction and crime.
Gilligan said he recognized that the statues of "two fictional, infamous meth dealers" won't be universally cherished in New Mexico.
"In all seriousness, no doubt some folks are going to say, 'Wow, just what our city needed.' And I get that," Gillian said. "I see two of the finest actors America has ever produced. I see them, in character, as two larger-than-life tragic figures, cautionary tales."
Still a fixture on Netflix, AMC's "Breaking Bad" follows the fictional underworld trajectory of a high-school science teacher, played by Cranston, and a former student, played by Paul, as they team up to produce and distribute meth amid violent, cliffhanger plot twists.
The show and its iconic lead characters already are lionized on T-shirts and airport merchandise, while tour guides in Albuquerque shepherd fans to former film locations in a replica of the RV from the show that doubled as a meth lab.
New Mexico has long struggled against the toll of addiction, with more than 43,000 deaths linked to alcohol and drug overdoses in the last three decades. Albuquerque also currently contends with a record-setting spate of homicides.
Surging overdose deaths from meth and fentanyl surpassed heroin and prescription opioids as the leading causes of drug overdose deaths across the state in 2020.
Keller heralded the positive economic impact of "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul" on Albuquerque, acknowledging the dollars and delight it brings to a city he jokingly called "Tamale-wood."
"While the stories might be fictional ... jobs are real every single day," Keller said. "The city is also a character. ... We see ourselves in so many ways, good and bad."
Republican state Rep. Rod Montoya of Farmington said he admires Cranston as an actor but that the statues bring the wrong kind of attention.
"I'm glad New Mexico got the business, but really?" Montoya said. "We're going down the road of literally glorifying meth makers?"
He also questioned the logic of the tribute after Albuquerque in June 2020 removed a statue of Spanish conqueror Juan de Oñate.
Demonstrators tried to topple that bronze artwork in denunciation of Oñate's brutal treatment of Native Americans roughly 500 years ago. A fight that broke out at the protest resulted in gunfire that injured one man.
New Mexico politicians, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, have pinned their hopes on the film industry to boost economic opportunity in a state with the highest unemployment rate in the nation.
New Mexico's film and TV industry recently hit a new production peak, with record-setting in-state spending of $855 million for the fiscal year ending in June. Recent video projects drawn to the state include the Netflix series "Stranger Things."
New Mexico offers a rebate of between 25% and 35% of in-state spending for video production that helps filmmakers large and small underwrite their work. Incentive payments crested at $148 million in 2019.