One of the more underrated characteristics of Breaking Bad‘s success is the incredibly effective music that adorns its most iconic scenes. Composer Dave Porter’s twangy, percussive title theme may be his most well-known contribution, but the atmospheric music he layers throughout all the show’s dramatic twists and turns deserves to be highlighted as well.
In addition to Porter’s original score, the show often pulls from other contemporary artists to complement particular scenes, moments, and montages. Throughout his commentaries on the series, creator Vince Gilligan regularly gives credit where credit is due and praises the music for injecting poetry and emotion into the already brilliant narrative.
The opening moments of the pilot quickly set the tone for the series as a whole. All seems quiet as audiences are introduced to peaceful, static shots of a desert landscape. However, the silence is broken by an airy, curious theme as a pair of khaki pants come soaring across the screen. The theme then suddenly devolves into hard action beats as an RV barrels through the desert.
In just a few seconds, Porter introduces the audience to the juxtaposition of emotion that’s to be expected moving forward. In the Breaking Bad world, no moment is ever safe, and as glass shatters and bodies sway in the RV, his music adds to the exhilarating confusion very well.
Negro y Azul
One of the more bizarrely effective musical numbers comes in the form of a music video. Jump starting the Season 2 episode “Negro y Azul”, the whimsical Latin tune from the group Los Cuates de Sinaloa plays nicely following Jesse’s harrowing escape from Spooge’s house in the previous episode.
The title translates into “Black and Blue” and details how Heisenberg’s growing reputation has reached the Mexican cartel, who feels threatened and disrespected by his presence. The song also introduces Danny Trejo’s talkative character “Tortuga,” and provides some useful exposition for the story without being distracting.
Fans of the series have long felt that Jane’s death was truly Walt’s moment of crossing the line. As such, Porter’s theme “Jane’s Demise” plays to the emotions of the scene appropriately.
It begins with a sorrowful tone as Walt first attempts to reconcile with Jesse. Realizing that Jesse’s become addicted to heroin, Walt’s pain can be felt in that he doesn’t want to lose his surrogate son to drugs. The music detours sharply, however, as Jane suddenly begins choking on her own vomit. Darker audio themes begin entering as Walt makes the self-preserving choice to allow her to die, all the while fighting back tears.
There is no character who experiences elation and pain on Breaking Bad more than Jesse Pinkman. Following his apparent victory in freeing Andrea’s little brother Tomas from two drug dealers, he’s subsequently crushed when he learns they murdered Tomas instead of letting him go.
Hell-bent on revenge, Jesse decides to take on the two dealers personally in a suicide mission after Walt refuses to help. As Jesse exits his car, the air is wrought with tension. The soundtrack evolves from a quiet rhythmic heartbeat to more intense clanging, getting louder and louder. As Jesse pulls his gun, the music morphs into the sound of Walt’s car engine as he arrives on the scene at the last moment to save his partner’s life.
Following the climactic events of “Half Measure,” Walt is instructed to drive out to the middle of nowhere to meet with Gus. Here, the audience receives their first glimpse of a new musical cue, titled “The Long Walk Alone (Heisenberg’s Theme).”
After Mike humorously calls Walt on his cell phone from across the field and asks him to exit his vehicle and begin walking towards them, Porter’s four-note motif is unveiled as Walt dons his trademark bowler hat. The transformation is effective and simple with the music following suit in a repeating fashion.
This iconic episode pushes Skyler’s conflict with her former employer Ted Beneke to the brink. She secretly takes over $600,000 of Walt’s money so Ted can pay back the IRS and relieve her of any culpability for his financial misdeeds.
Unfortunately for Skyler, Walt badly needs the money to put the whole family into hiding after Gus threatens their lives. He frantically searches through the crawl space for the missing money, only to realize it’s gone. Upon learning Skyler gave the money to Ted, Walt screams and cries, only to then start laughing maniacally. With Porter’s frantic score rising into white noise, Walt becomes still as the camera slowly pans away from his lifeless body.
Gliding Over All
In Season 5’s mid-season finale, Walt finally finds himself being able to operate unimpeded for the first time. Free from the reigns put on him by people like Jesse, Mike, and Gus, his profits explode as the Vamonos Pest company provides him all the cover he needs to become the boss of his own domain.
To go along with Walt’s rise, the song “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells ironically plays over a montage showing Walt’s empire growing. The viewers see multiple houses being tented for cooking, Skyler laundering Walt’s money through the car wash, and his famous blue meth being shipped overseas as the cheery tune wistfully underscores the darker elements at play.
Hank’s arrest of Walt pays off on one of the series’ most satisfying story arcs. After nearly two years of hunting the mystery man known as Heisenberg, Hank finally captures his “white whale” thanks to Jesse and some creative problem-solving. With Walt in handcuffs in the back of Hank’s car, justice finally feels served in the Breaking Bad universe.
That all changes when Porter unleashes a foreboding musical stinger as Jack’s men appear in Hank’s rear-view mirror. Credited by Gilligan as one of his favorite cues on the show, the music forecasts the anxiety and dread both Walt and the audience now feel as the vehicles approach. Hank and “Gomey” never told anyone their plan and are about to be heavily outnumbered by the ruthless Nazi gang.
In a last-ditch effort to reach his family, Walt calls Walter Jr. from a New Hampshire bar but is told by his son to leave their family alone and die. Heartbroken, he calls the police on himself and sits alone waiting for their arrival. As luck would have it, he catches his former business partners, Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz, on TV. Explaining Walt’s contribution to their company, they stop short on any giving him any credit past the company name, something Walt’s massive ego cannot handle.
As the police show up and surround the bar, Porter’s main title theme gets an unexpected cameo. Heard in its full form for the first time, the familiar music quietly builds as the police prepare to arrest Walt. Just as the theme reaches its crescendo, the camera pans to the barstool where Walt had been sitting, which is now empty.
The series finale “Felina” finds Walt taking down Jack and his men and freeing Jesse from captivity. In addition to tying up loose ends, Walt manages to orchestrate a fitting send-off to himself and his two-year journey as Heisenberg.
Knowing the police are on their way to Jack’s hideout, and having taken a bullet to his abdomen, Walt relishes his final moments by walking through the lab that gave him a new lease on life. The cheery song “Baby Blue” by Badfinger plays overhead as Walt succumbs to his injuries on the floor. Lyrics such as “Guess I got what I deserve” and “The special love I have for you, my Baby Blue” remind the audience of Walt’s journey to self-acceptance, something which made him feel alive, no matter the consequences.