The Complicatist : Listening To Breaking Bad

The use of music in Vince Gilligan’s great series
by Gordon Campbell

Spoiler Alert : If you’re still playing catch up on the previous seasons of Breaking Bad, steer clear of the following article, though I’ve tried to avoid gratuitous spoilers. This article is mainly for tragics like myself who have followed Vince Gilligan’s series fairly obsessively, and for whom Monday night is now a yawning abyss of nothingness.

So the finale has come and gone, and Walter White did finally manage to deliver on that fantastic “A Man Provides” pep talk that Gus Fring gave to him, so very long ago. Walt did provide. He provided money, and in a fashion that might even reach its destination. Yet he also delivered emotional devastation by the truckload as well. Plus, he finally confessed to his wife Skyler that the main beneficiary of his actions had been… himself. As in: “I did it for myself. I liked it. I was good at it. It made me feel alive.” I still don’t think this means that all his altruistic impulses were false, or the product of his control freak inclinations. (Every single action we take can be framed as essentially selfish, even the altruism that is motivated by parental love. So the point becomes meaningless.) But in Walt’s case, Skyler was also right when she said that this family did need to be protected from the man who protects this family.

This week’s interview with Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, is the only BB wrap up that is essential reading. I particularly liked Gilligan’s comment about how, in the final, final scenes, Walt had found his Precious. Walt as Gollum, the good/bad guy driven and ultimately consumed by the thing that made him feel whole? I’ll buy that. The only beef I had with the conclusion was that the last thing we heard as the credits rolled was a song by Badfinger, “Baby Blue.” Did we really come this far to hit the exit ramp with Badfinger?

Surely, surely not. Look at how ingeniously the music selections had been made before. In the midst of the physical and emotional carnage of this season’s ‘Ozymandias’ episode for example, there was a scene where Walter White was rolling his sole, remaining barrel of money across the desert. It came as comic relief after the death scene that preceded it and like many a Breaking Bad scene, it had an ironic precedent. In season two’s “Seven Thirty Seven” episode, as Hank Schrader watched the surveillance tape of an unrecognisable Walt & Jesse carrying away a barrel of meth precursor from a robbery site, Hank had snickered at the screen : “Try rolling it, morons! It’s a barrel! It rolls!” This time, Walt rolled the barrel past a pair of discarded overalls left behind after his first meth cookout – at a stretch, this served as a visual riff on that line from Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” about the “two vast and trunkless legs…in the desert.” While Walt rolled his barrel, up came Glenn Yarborough’s sweetly tremulous tenor on the soundtrack with a weirdly chipper version of “Take My True Love By Her Hand” by his folk group, the Limeliters. Apt lyrics, though :

Had a job a year ago
Had a little home
Now I’ve got no place to go
Guess I’ll have to roam.
Take my true love by her hand
Lead her through the town
Say goodbye to everyone
Goodbye to everyone.

Badfinger aside, the music selections routinely provided a similar genius-level backdrop- cum – commentary for the events onscreen. Before getting into that though, I’ve assembled a few of the key clips from the show itself. For starters, there’s that “ A Man Provides” speech by Gustavo Fring, which resonated right through to the end of the series. From the first season, there’s Jesse Pinkman’s “ Yeah Science” moment which effectively closed the door on one of Jesse’s early opportunities to get out. There’s Walt’s memorable “ I’m The One Who Knocks” speech to Skyler, from season four. And finally, the show’s main title theme, which appeared in extended form as Walt sat in that lonely New Hampshire bar at the end of the second-to-last episode, “Granite State.”


For a sample of the quality of the writing on the show, here’s part of the script from the “Half Measures” episode near the close of session three. Fring’s enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut is telling Walt a story about domestic abuse, a story that is intended to make Walt feel more resolute about killing Jesse. Here’s how it goes:

“I used to be a beat cop a long time ago. And I’d get called out on domestic disputes all the time. Hundreds, probably, over the years. But there was this one guy — this one piece of shit — that I will never forget. Gordy. He looked like Bo Svenson. You remember him? Walking Tall? You don’t remember? No. Anyway. Big boy — 270, 280. But his wife … or whatever she was, his lady … was real small. Like a bird. Wrists like branches. Anyway, my partner and I got called out there every weekend, and one of us would pull her aside and say ‘come on, tonight’s the night we press charges.’ And this wasn’t one of those deep-down he-loves-me set-ups — we get a lot of those — but not this. This girl was scared. She wasn’t going to cross him, no way, no how. Nothing we could do but pass her off to the EMT’s, put him in a car and drive him downtown, throw him in the drunk tank. He sleeps it off, next morning out he goes. Back home.
“But one night, my partner’s out sick, and it’s just me. And the call comes in and it’s the usual crap. Broke her nose in the shower kind of thing. So I cuff him, put him in the car and away we go. Only that night, we’re driving into town, and this sideways asshole is in my back seat humming ‘Danny Boy.’ And it just rubbed me wrong. So instead of left, I go right, out into nowhere. And I kneel him down, and I put my revolver in his mouth, and I told him, ‘This is it. This is how it ends.’ And he’s crying, going to the bathroom all over himself, swearing to God he’s going to leave her alone. Screaming … as much as you can with a gun in your mouth. And I told him to be quiet. I needed to think about what I was going to do here. And of course he got quiet. Goes still. And real quiet. Like a dog waiting for dinner scraps. And we just stood there for a while, me acting like I’m thinking things over, and Prince Charming kneeling in the dirt with shit in his pants.
“And after a few minutes I took the gun out of his mouth, and I say, ‘So help me if you touch her again I will such-and-such and such-and-such and blah blah blah blah blah.’”
Walt: “So, just a warning?”
“Of course. Just trying to do the right thing. But two weeks later he killed her. Of course. Caved her head in with the base of a Waring blender. We got there, there was so much blood you could taste the metal.The moral of the story is: I chose a half measure, when I should have gone all the way. I’ll never make that mistake again.”

Great writing, throughout. Which is fine and admirable as far it goes. Yet it doesn’t quite explain why people – ordinary people like and you and me, right? – came to obsess about this show. Because some folk certainly did. One point of contention being….just when is the story set, and how much time has passed ? The events of the whole five seasons are supposed to take place in not much more than one year, and that time might well seem to begin in 2007 – since in the pilot that’s the date on the disabled driver’s licence that Walt fixes to his son’s car. (People don’t use iPhones on the show, only flip phones and burners. Yet there’s GPS.) Later though, Walt buys Walt Jnr a 2009 Dodge Challenger, and there’s a script reference to the killing of Osama bin Laden ( which happened on May 2, 2011) in the “Gliding Over All” episode eight of season five. The dates simply don’t line up properly.

No big deal, perhaps. But the prize for obsessiveness on this point went to two people called Constipated Duck and Wizzy Wig, on the AV Club site. Here’s the Duck’s opening salvo :

‘Not gonna lie, it’s bothered me at times. There’s an episode (season 4 I think), where Marie buys Hank a fantasy football magazine about the draft, and he remarks the draft is months away. That puts that scene in say, February (as the draft is in April). But this is season 4, are we to believe everything has gone done in merely 5 months here (as Walt’s bday is in September, and thats the pilot). I actually think that’s a mistake, because the plane crash supposedly happens almost 6 months after the pilot, and Hanks shooting and subsequent recovery period is still at least a month or two off of that point. It’s just an indicator of time that when you sit down and think about it, makes very little sense to everything that’s gone on (especially if it’s a mistake).

Right. And here’s Wizzy Wig’s reply :

I’m fairly certain that Hank was referring to his fantasy football league’s draft rather than the NFL player draft. Most fantasy leagues draft around Labor Day, so I’d put this moment in say, June. It’s still compressed time, but there’s a little more breathing room. I’ve been playing fantasy football since about 1994, so I especially appreciated Hank’s consternation in that scene. Every year it seems I find myself staring at a gas station newsstand on a family road trip in June or July and my heart sinks when I see fantasy football magazines. It’s like “have we given up on Summer already?” and “who thinks about their fantasy football draft before training camp and the pre-season?” etc etc….

That’s how it goes. The personal, and he obsessive urge to rationalise. Luckily, most of us end up more like Badger than Gus Fring in the process. Talking of which, Skinny Pete’s great line in the finale – “The whole thing felt kinda shady, like, morality wise ” – could serve as a verdict on everyone’s response to Breaking Bad. A big wad of money made him feel better at once.

The incidental music for Breaking Bad was written by Dave Porter, a classically trained composer. There’s a link here to a Billboard interview with Porter about the role that music hads played in the series. Several classical items were used ( Mozart, both JS and CPE Bach, Haydn..) There was a lot of jazz ( Stan Getz, John Coltrane in the Gray Matter diner scene between Gretchen and Walt in season two, Nat Adderly, Vince Guaraldi) some 1950s rockabilly and r&b (Mack Self, The Platters, Clyde McPhatter ) a whole slew of cheesy 1970s and 1980s pop (Blue Mink, Wang Chung, Thomas Dolby, Squeeze, Jay Ferguson, The Motels etc ) some old country music (Conway Twitty, Stonewall Jackson) some reggae, some hip hop, norteno, lounge and alternative. Plus multiple uses of Pat Boone. Very few of the items selected were obvious. Who would have expected the Peddlers “ On a Clear Day”? And who was the genius who thought of depicting Walt and Todd doing their first meth cook together while the Monkees sang “Goin’ Down….” BB waited until season five to use the Tommy James hit song ’ Crystal Blue Persuasion’ which has to earn extra points for restraint, in a story about a dealer in blue meth.

Moving that concept up a notch, the fourth wall dimension to Breaking Bad – at times, it plays around with cultural tropes that the show itself has generated – was one of its unique features, and this tendency really came to the fore in season five. In the ‘Ozymandias’ episode for instance, the anti-Skyler rant that Walt acts out on the phone to mislead the police drew upon some of the same misogynist Internet comments about Skyler that Anna (Skyler) Gunn herself had written about in her New York Times op ed about the inexplicable levels of hate being directed at her, and at her character.

In a similar meta-textual moment during the ‘Granite State” episode, Uncle Jack the neo-Nazi has the same brutal response to the video of Jesse’s tormented confession – “Does this pussy cry through the entire thing?” – as the wannabe hard-asses who cropped up regularly on Breaking Bad comment threads. Right down to the final episode (“Felina”) the show took pleasure in messing with expectations. Was Felina to be a reference to the final line of the Marty Robbins’ hit song “El Paso” ( “One little kiss and Felina goodbye”) or merely an anagram for “finale”? It turned out to be both.

Below, I’ve assembled a few highlights from the wide range of Breaking Bad music, starting with the amusing-in-context Limeliters track. In similar vein, terrific use was made of Fever Ray’s “If I Had a Heart” track as Jesse went through another bad patch in the bachelor pad he called home. As one of the commenters to this clip noted, its hard to make go-karting look depressing, but this show was always willing to go that extra mile in the cause of Pinkman sufferation.


2. Jim White: “Wordmule” “Los Cuates de Sinaloa : “ Negro Y Azul
Jim White did a memorable tour of New Zealand a few years ago with John Doe. The “Wordmule” cut is from his Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus film, a road movie through the back trails and memory cells of Southern music & religion. “Wordmule” plays in Hank’s garage as he tries to reconfigure his work-to-date on Heisenberg, in the light of what he’s just discovered about the maestro of blue meth. Its apt both for its headlong rush – and for how it shows the drawback of relying on logic to plough the hard 40 acres of life :

Your world is in flames there ain’t even a name
For the feelings you feel as you watch it all burn.
There’s a girl in the distance, she’s calling your name,
But the name that she’s calling is not your name, she calls:

but he’s plowing the field…
But he’s plowing the field…

And you can’t walk on that water, I know ’cause I tried.
It’s our spider web-thinking, it’s just too heavy with holes.
And our thoughts they are made up of red Georgia clay,
we think we know everything, but man we don’t know….

One bonus of the story being set in Albuquerque is that the soundtrack could make a meal of the norteno music of the Tex-Mex border. Here, with Italian subtitles, is “Negro y Azul” aka “The Ballad of Heisenberg” that provided the title of episode seven, season two. The literal translation is “black and blue” – for the clothes Walt wears as Heisenberg, and the stuff he deals. Arguably, the song was consistent with the narcocorrido tradition of norteno, which as this link explains would routinely celebrate legendary dealers and major events in the drug trade in the same fashion as gangster rap.


3. Darondo “Didn’t I” Gnarls Barkley “ Who’s Gonna Save My Soul”
These were two terrific soul cuts from season one, when Walt still had a soul to lose. Darondo, who died in June this year, was a soul musician from the SF Bay Area and also allegedly a pimp, though he denied this. The Darondo track played in episode four, as Walt rained down fire on the car of a guy who annoyed him. The more conventional Gnarls Barkley track was provided a good finale to season one as mad dog Tuco departed from the junkyard meeting, leaving Walt chewing over an early “ What have I gotten myself into” moment of reflection. Interestingly, the same season one episode that featured the Darondo track also contained this dialogue snatch :

So can I call them and tell them you’ll start next week?” Skyler asks Walt, who’s reluctant to commit to $90,000 worth of treatment that might not work and could leave them broke. “I just don’t want emotions ruling us,” he says. Walter Jr., who’s watching Earth vs. the Flying Saucers in the living room, blurts out, “Then why don’t you just fucking die, already?! Just give up and die.”

Which as we now know, was exactly what Walt Jnr was saying to Walt for real, by the time the “Granite State” penultimate episode rolled around in season five.


4. Knife Party “Bonfire” Whitey “Stay On The Outside”
Some terrific modern Jamaican electro-dance music, from when Walt and Walt Jnr were celebrating their (temporary) new car purchases. “Bonfire” came from the episode called “Fifty One”, the fourth chapter in the final season. Knife-in-the-back motifs also cropped up in the British musician Whitey’s “Stay On The Outside” which played during the bogus search-and- discovery of the ricin cigarette in Jesse’s apartment during episode two of the last season.


5. Taalbi Brothers “Freestyle” Apparat “ Goodbye”
Adios, hermanos. Some flamenco inspired moments from teenagers Bronson and Preston Taalbi as Walt and Jesse prepared to torch the premises of Fring’s superlab and laundry, in one of the final scenes from the season four finale. The same episode also contained a piece by the German electronic musician Apparat. This played in the background as Gus Fring made his last suspenseful walk into the Casa Tranquila nursing home to meet Hector Salamanca, the man with the bell.


6 Bassnectar : “The 808 Track” Chops & Lil Weavah “ “My Rims” The “808 Track” was from the same period ( see Fever Ray above) when Jesse’s home had become a non-stop party house, and it poured from his giant speakers during one of his acute moments. In line with the Poor Jesse theme, “My Rims” was used ironically as a reference to Jesse’s red Chevrolet Monte Carlo that eventually got wasted in the shootout with Tuco. This led him to move on (in a bid to be less conspicuous) to his crappy 1984 Toyota Tercel. I’m not sure, but I think “ My Rims” played in the Monte Carlo as Jesse drove away from his apartment after a fight with Jane Margolis over the furtive way she introduced him to her father. In the Fever Ray clip above, you can see he’s already driving the Tercel 4WD.


7. Stan Getz “Lee” Vince Guaraldi “Ginza Samba”

A couple of the jazz tracks. Stan Getz was playing in Gus Fring’s house as a paranoid Walt arrives for an uncomfortable invitation to dinner. ( “We work together. Why not break bread together?”) The “ Lee” in the title was a tribute to Getz’ contemporary Lee Konitz. Quite a bit of the music on Breaking Bad occurred during montage scenes as the characters went about their work. The Vince Guaraldi track “ Ginza Samba” accompanied the montage where Walt and Gale are working together in Fring’s super laboratory, one of the few giddily happy sequences in the entire show.


8. Pretenders “Boots of Chinese Plastic” Blue Mink “Good Morning Freedom”

Good song by Chrissie Hynde, great video. This was from the “Problem Dog” episode in season four, and it played when Walt was careering around in the Dodge Challenger ( the flash car he had rashly bought for Junior ) just before he blew it up. The ditsy Blue Mink track was from the “near-death in the desert” episode when the methlab in the Bounder RV has to be finally jumpstarted by a battery that Walt manages to invent on the spot. Reportedly, the incredulous “(You’re gonna build) a robot?” line from Jesse that provided one of the comic highlights in this sequence was suggested by one of the crew after shooting had wrapped for the night – but since everyone thought it was comedy gold, they re-shot the entire scene to fit it in. A pretty good example of democracy-at-work on set.


9 Thomas Dolby “She Blinded Him With Science” TV On The Radio “ DLZ”

More cheese. This Thomas Dolby track was the ringtone on Todd’s phone as he gazed after Lydia in the season five “ To’halijee” episode, an episode driven by a virtual riot of 80s power pop. Jay Ferguson’s “Thunder Island” and Steve Perry’s “ Oh Sherrie” were also dragged back from the Classic Rock grave for this sequence, as Lydia gave her little lecture to Todd, Uncle Jack and his crew about blue meth being the firm’s brand. (Back at the carwash, Skyler was giving Junior a similar lecture about the brand identity of their business.) This wasn’t the only time the show had used Thomas Dolby either. His track “Hyperactive” cropped up in the fourth season’s “Bug” episode. That’s as in bugged, and not to be confused with the immortal “Fly” episode in season three.“Fly” was directed by Rian Johnson, and its running time was almost entirely devoted to Walt’s search for a potentially contaminating fly that became a pesky metaphor for Walt’s inability to exert absolute control. During that episode, Walt almost confessed to his complicity in the death of Jane Margolis – which he finally revealed to Jesse in season five’s “Ozymandias” episode, also directed by Johnson.

The TV On The Radio track was the background for Walt’s confrontation at the local hardware store with a couple of mean dudes in the “Over”episode near the end of season two, after he’d been out shopping for gear and ingredients. He faced the dudes down with a “stay out of my territory” warning, and they hightailed it.


10. Beastie Boys “Shambala” Timber Timbre “Magic Arrow”
The “ Shambala” track was from the startling episode called “Full Measure” that was the cliffhanging finale ( Kill Walt ? Kill Gale ?) of season three. Only this show would think of using a Beastie Boys sample of Tibetan throat singing for the scenes where Mike Ehrmantraut finds a number of inventive ways to take out the cartel gunmen staked out at the Golden Moth warehouse. The soundtrack contribution by the Canadian folkies Timber Timbre shared a pleasant similarity to the show’s main theme. “Magic Arrow” featured in the “Caballo Sin Nombre” (“Horse With No Name”) episode – which many viewers may remember for the scene where Walt hurls a pizza onto the roof of his house, and for the tense moment where the murderous cousins sit on the bed waiting for Walt to emerge from the shower. FINALLY, I’ll throw in Clyde McPhatter’s lovely track, which hailed from only the second episode of the show. An earlier and more innocent time, for all of us.