Warning: fat stacks of spoilers ahead
Sometime in the last few years, I heard a segment of Fresh Air which brought up the soundtrack to Breaking Bad, composed by Dave Porter. Terry Gross or her guest (I don’t remember who it was) described the soundtrack as being not tuneful or musical, but noisy, droning, and very powerful, and perfect for the show. I had been watching the show, hadn’t particularly noticed the music, but the comments on Fresh Air intrigued me. And after that I did start to notice the music, and it sounded a lot like some of my favorite industrial/ambient stuff. I thought, I should get that soundtrack, and that thought sat in the back of my mind with all the other albums and books and comics I would own by now if I had unlimited money.
Then the final season hit Netflix. And then I got to the point where Jesse is pushed past the breaking point of all breaking points, pretty much loses his mind, and tries to burn down Walter’s house. Gas Can Rage is the name of the music track, and it is a series of downward spiraling drones that perfectly capture the fall off the deep end that goes on and on, the feeling of watching oneself dig one’s own hole deeper and deeper, untethered from any hope or desire to do better.
Then I bought the soundtrack. Both volumes. What follows are the most lasting impressions I got from the show, as evoked by some of the music tracks.
Matches in the Pool: The affable chemistry teacher, living in quiet desperation, diagnosed with cancer, sits at his backyard pool making chemical reactions. Matches light, matches go out. In the pilot episode, Walter White says of chemistry, “I prefer to think of it as the study of change.” When the show’s creators were filming the pilot, did they have any idea how thoroughly every character would change throughout the series? Hank going from pot-bellied buffoon to flawed hero cop? Marie rising above her habitual pettiness as her family rips apart? Walter Junior, the self-styled Flynn, coming into his own and turning on the father he once idolized? Skyler, shifting from controlling shrew to stymied mother, to desperate victim, to tormented collaborator, before finally emerging a poorer, sadder, wiser, ethically sound human being? Jesse, a character who wasn’t supposed to survive the first season, living through an arc more akin to a POW than a drug pusher? And of course, Walter White himself. Did anyone picture the stunning scope of his atrocities when they filmed the pilot? I like to think they did not.
Gray Matter: Every time Eliot or Gretchen show up, I feel like we are glimpsing the life Walter should have had. Throughout the series I was haunted by the question, what went wrong? Why isn’t Walter a high-profile, highly paid researcher with his old friend’s company? All we know is there was something between him and Gretchen, and it ended, and Walter’s attachment to Gray Matter ended with it. Did they shut him out? Did he walk away out of pride? Was he always his own worst enemy? There’s no way to know. I believe Walter when he tells Skyler she is the love of his life in his aborted video farewell, and his devotion to his children is beyond question… unless his wife and children are just the objects of devotion he needs to play the role of provider he imagines for himself.
The Bike Lock: By the time Crazy 8 is imprisoned in Jesse’s basement, Walt has committed several criminal acts, but nothing he couldn’t conceivably walk away from and return to his old life. However, he knows there is no coming back from deliberate, premeditated murder, and he’s desperate not to cross that line. Walter’s cancer diagnosis liberates him somewhat. As a man with no future, he’s free to assault the bullies picking on his son and blow up the douchebag day-trader’s car (two of the most gratifying moments in the entire series). But he’s not a man with nothing left to lose. Not until after he kills Crazy 8. Soon after that, he dons the black porkpie hat of Heisenberg. After bombing his way into business with Tuco, Walter is overcome, surpassed by his own actions, and we witness his alter ego growling to life with bestial birth pangs.
Dead Freight: There is something wrong with Todd. He is missing some basic component of humanity. It’s not surprising, given the family he comes from. But he is a stark contrast to just about every other character in the show. No matter what awful things they do, they all are complex people, generating sympathy on some level. Not Todd. His crush on Lydia is kind of endearing, but he treats her the way he treats everyone he is eager to please, which ultimately comes off as a pure sociopath looking for a place to fit in. It’s hard to believe he could do worse than shooting the kid on the minibike, but of course he does.
Hank’s Last Stand: The death of Hank is the last big turning point for Walt. Up to that point he has done awful things, made terrible decisions, made even worse sacrifices, but essentially always come out on top. But when a member of his family finally dies, he has to see that he has scraped by on equal parts ingenious cunning and dumb luck. It’s hard to tell what pains him more, the death of his brother-in-law or the shattering of his illusions. In the same encounter he loses the bulk of the money he’s amassed for his children. The folly of Heisenberg is undeniable. A bit of the old Walt re-emerges then, leading to a synthesis of his two sides; a less reckless man, less dangerous to innocent bystanders, but perhaps more dangerous to the objects of his singular purpose.
Chained Dog. Walter White drives the show, and his long transformation is fascinating, but I was much more emotionally invested in Jesse Pinkman. And holy cow, what a brutal investment that is. He’s a decent kid, basically smart but with terrible judgement, trying to play the hardened criminal, unaware of the depth of his own caring. And in 62 episodes he endures enough suffering, tragedy, and guilt to spawn literary traditions for whole nations. By the last few episodes, the question that ate at me was will Jesse survive? By the final episode, I wondered if he’d want to. While enslaved by Welker’s gang, he flashes back to crafting a wooden box, with all the patience and devotion that Walter always wanted him to apply to cooking meth. Is this also a vision of his future? Burdened by his past, but finding a way to live, bringing some beauty into the world? I have to believe it is. Jesse killing Todd gave me a bloody, nihilistic urge to cheer that I’m not at all comfortable with. When he smashes through the compound gate and hurtles away in the car, boiling over with grief, rage, joy, relief, free for the first time since he partnered up with Walter, I could barely take it. Aaron Paul better win every award there is for Season 5, or there is no justice at all.
Heisneberg’s Theme: a spare series of notes, sounding like the devil’s own footsteps. Did Heisenberg emerge from some netherworld to occupy Walter White’s last two years on Earth? It often seems that way. But I think it’s pretty clear that Heisenberg was always present in Walter, that it’s a mistake to think of Walter and Heisenberg as separate entities, despite the yawning gulf between the chemistry teacher in episode 1 and the man who has torn apart the lives of everyone he’s ever touched in the finale. As he says to Skyler (finally giving her the honesty she has always needed), “I did it for me. I liked it.”
Dave Porter talks to Wired about scoring the show here.