Earworms: Breaking Bad
I actually spent five minutes rewriting the first sentence of this post. Do I say, “I am a big Breaking Bad fan,” or “I was a big Breaking Bad fan?” The show’s over, it’s history, they’re not making any more of them, so I suppose since it’s in the past I have to say I was a big fan. (But I still am!)
I was a fan of The Sopranos, too. While I believe The Sopranos was every bit as brilliant as Breaking Bad — and there’s a wealth of speculative thought BB wouldn’t have existed without TS — I still prefer Bad. For me, there’s an asterisk in my mind about Tony and his goombahs due to the series finale. The final five or so minutes of the last episode. People, to this day, are still arguing about what happened. I personally think Carmella and A.J. got some Extra Gangsta Brain Sauce on those onion rings.
I was watching when The Sopranos finale aired. When the screen went to black, I flipped out. “The fuck? The cable decides to go out right NOW?” Me and eleventy million other people reached for our phone to give the nation’s cable companies an earful.
The ending wasn’t “spoon-fed” to the viewers. You really had to be paying attention to events which occurred over the course of the last season. In hindsight those events told you exactly what happened in the last minute of the series. But like most hindsights, they weren’t obvious on the first viewing.
By contrast Breaking Bad‘s series finale wrapped it all up. The end was pretty definitive. You caught up with the major characters and even a couple of minor ones. The ending wasn’t the least bit ambiguous for “Walter White.” (The last song played on the series was “Baby Blue” by Badfinger. As Walter is nearing his end you hear the words, “Guess I got what I deserved . . . “)
The opening of the show always featured a 19 second guitar riff. According to BB‘s music director, Dave Porter, it was played on a resonator guitar by musician Jim Heffernan.
As far as I knew, that 19 seconds was all there was to Bad’s theme. I had no idea the actual track was much longer than that 19 second riff.
The one and only time in the entire series the full theme was used was in the penultimate episode “Granite State.” At the end of this episode Walt has just gotten off a very bad phone call with his son Flynn. He’s days away from dying from cancer. He’s the subject of a nationwide man-hunt since it’s believed he killed two DEA agents (one of which was Walt’s own brother-in-law.) He basically said, “Fuck it,” called the Albuquerque DEA office and turned himself in. He saddled up to the bar for a last drink of Dimple Pinch (DP: “Gee, thanks for nothing.“)
The bar’s TV is showing “The Charlie Rose Show.” Being interviewed are associates of Walt’s from “the early days.” They’re basically saying to the world, “Walt? Walt who? No, we didn’t need his help in starting up our multi-billion dollar corporation.”
Meticulously edited to start at 1:33 into the video below, for the first and only time ever the full theme of the show was used:
A haunting, rising crescendo that sharply climaxed with a scene of an abandoned glass at the exact second the music becomes as familiar as our own names. We know at that point Walter White is gone. Merged forever with Heisenberg.
Why did the second-to-last episode seem like the right one to use the theme?
This is my own personal interpretation. I viewed this moment as the one where we realized that the transformation in Walter’s character is complete. The two halves that we witnessed so much, the milquetoast and the Heisenberg guy, have melded into one. Peter Gould, who wrote and directed the episode, has said that this was the episode where all the major characters reach their absolute bottom. In that moment, Walt has just had a confrontational discussion with his son, and he feels like his entire journey has been for naught. He calls the DEA and has basically given himself up, until he sits down at the bar and sees [his old colleagues] on the Charlie Rose show and realizes there’s more that he wants to say. My hope is that the theme helps drive the understanding of Walter’s push to finish the story, however it may conclude.
Did Vince Gilligan have anything to say about the choice?
I was expecting a big discussion about it when I pitched the idea, and I was very nervous, to be honest. But they liked it. Peter Gould said once, “We earned it.” We use score in a very reserved way. This last season the stakes reached their highest point, and that gave us more reason to be bold and out front. Jesse spraying gas all over Walter’s house–that’s a moment I wouldn’t have played so big in seasons past. The music in episodes 313 and 314 is bigger and more powerful than anything I’ve done in the series. So many years of story and character come to a head in those two episodes, so the music is reflective of that.
I’ve got a big thing for well-used background music. As I’ve stated before I listen to music a little differently than everyone else. When the music is integrated as beautifully as it was on Breaking Bad in general and in this penultimate scene in particular, to me it creates a powerful experience that words, acting, and music alone can’t.