Some of the most powerful moments in Breaking Bad are the things you barely notice. Like the music. Even casual fans recognize the show's opening theme song, which has become a cultural shorthand for evil, much like Darth Vader's "Imperial March" or the "duuuun-dun, duuuuun-dun" pre-carnage hype music from Jaws. But that only scratches the surface of Breaking Bad's phonetic menace, composed from the very beginning by Dave Porter. Even listening to his score without the performances or scripts that've made the series so consistently brilliant, Porter's music will still send a chill down your spine.
As Breaking Bad comes to a close this Sunday, Porter walked us through his favorite and most challenging compositions from the show's five seasons.
1. "Breaking Bad Theme"
"I created the show’s roughly 18-second theme while working on the pilot, without too much knowledge of where the show was going to go. What I did know was that (Breaking Bad creator) Vince Gilligan had said the backbone of the story was the slow devolution of Walter White, taking this milquetoast guy and turning him into a cold and hardened criminal. With that in mind, when I created the theme I wanted it to give a glimpse of the end result of that journey, so that we are always reminded of the ultimate destination.
"I tried many combinations of musical ideas, and the New Mexico landscape and discussions with Vince about Breaking Bad having aspects of a 'post-modern western' were influential. The version that ultimately prevailed had a swagger and cold aggression about it that hopefully, particularly in the early seasons, pointed towards an even darker story."
2. "Matches in the Pool" (pilot)
"This was one of the first cues that I wrote for the series. It was also the first chance I had to write music that would help invite us into Walt’s headspace, something that would become an important role for music in the show. When I first wrote it, it was somewhat more layered and complex, but I kept scaling it back to the very spare cue that ultimately worked best. Working on Breaking Bad has reinforced to me that film and TV music is often about trying to say as much as you can with very little."
3. "Jane's Demise" (season 2, episode 12)
"One of the great things about how Vince Gilligan and our writers have crafted the story behind Walter White is that as Walt pushes the envelope of acceptable behavior, we all can view his moral dilemmas through our own filter. In that way, we all relate a little differently to Walt’s transformation. There are Breaking Bad viewers that wrote Walt off in the first few episodes. Others will defend him no matter what he does. For me, the moral tipping point was crossed when he allowed Jane to die. When it came time for me to score that scene, I didn’t want to create music that might lead the audience to one particular moral judgement or another, but rather intensify the magnitude and complexity of the moment."
4. "The Cousins" (season 3, episode 1)
"I’ve used thematic palettes very sparingly on Breaking Bad, but when I watched the ‘cousins’ crawling through the dirt, I knew that they needed a sound that was uniquely theirs. My score was intended to increase the tension and the palpable fear they project every time they appear. I utilized a lot of world and ethnic instruments on Breaking Bad, and for these cues I leaned heavily on drums and percussion from Mexico. Conveniently, my friend who lived next door at the time is a percussionist named Julio Moreno, originally from Mexico City, who has an enormous collection of instruments that we sampled extensively for these cues. My favorite were reproductions of Aztec war whistles — piercing shrieks that were once used to terrify opponents in battle — which I wove into those cues."
5. "The Long Walk Alone (Heisenberg's theme)" (season 3, episode 13)
"This cue originally appears as Walt is working up the courage to walk across the desert to face Gus Fring near the end of season three. I believe it is also the first appearance of his black porkpie hat. Like many great moments in Breaking Bad, there is a kernel of classic western in this scene, and this is my modern musical interpretation to accompany it. As Walt dons the hat, I’ve cleared away the rumbling tension, and played a simple five-note motif on a Japanese koto. I chose the koto because it is easily tunable to Western scales, and it has a twang to it that isn’t too far removed from a guitar. I later distorted it and ran it through a spring reverb to give it some character and distance. That five-note motif only later became 'Heisenberg’s Theme' as subsequent episodes reintroduced the hat as a defining symbol of Walter’s transformation, and I found it effective to reinforce that idea by working that motif into my score each time. In the penultimate episode (last Sunday), the hat finally fails him. And the score sputters to a halt along with Walt at the gate."
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